The benefits of alumni networks
Independent schools are significantly developing their alumni networks, combining their natural ability to connect, with strategic thinking to build strong communities of former pupils, Jo Golding writes
It should not be underestimated how important a strong alumni network is to an independent school. The Times reported in June that Sir James Dyson donated a staggering £19m to his former school Gresham’s, as a thank you for giving him and his brother a scholarship after the death of their father, who taught at the school.
Another example comes from Bolton School. Former pupil Rob Dobson from Robotical donated educational robots and retro computers, as well as giving technical advice, to the electronics club.
Alumni-school relationships are crucial, and it pays off to put in the time and effort. But how do you do it, and what level of communication is appropriate for different-sized schools?
Benefits of alumni networks
Bolton School educates around 1,000 students in each of its divisions (boys and girls). Head of development Laura Firth says the benefits of keeping in touch with former students are manifold.
“Our careers programmes are thriving thanks to the input of Old Boys and Old Girls working in a variety of fields, who willingly give their time to return to school and support and inspire current pupils.
“Our thriving alumni network is also a strong selling point to current and prospective parents, who understand how their children will benefit from the involvement of alumni whilst they are in school, and see the invaluable advantages that becoming a member of that network will provide for their children in their adult life.
“Finally, the school’s bursary fundraising success would simply not have been possible without the support and commitment of alumni, many of whom benefited from a direct grant or assisted place during their time at school, and wish to enable the next generation of Bolton School pupils to receive the same opportunities that they enjoyed.”
Bolton School’s development offices manage a programme of alumni events annually, including regional dinners, termly lunches at the school, an annual year group reunion and networking events. Firth says: “Old Boys and Old Girls each receive two newsletters annually, in spring and autumn, which feature news of current school life and a range of alumni news.
“There are thriving Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter channels specifically for alumni, as well as a bespoke online networking platform just for Old Boys and Old Girls. Finally, the development office is always willing to assist with queries and welcomes alumni back to school for a visit whenever they are in Bolton.”
When it comes to how often to connect, Firth says “as often as possible” but the school contacts alumni twice a year as a minimum through newsletters. However, monthly email updates and event invitations are also offered.
Bolton School has a distinguished boys and girls division list of alumni comprised of those who have achieved notable success. Firth says: “Many of those Old Boys and Old Girls have returned to school to act as keynote speakers at prestigious events in the school calendar, whilst others have visited to deliver masterclasses for pupils.”
What’s in a name?
● Icenians – refers to the Iceni East Anglian tribe which once occupied the area. Langley School
● Bold Girls – “When pupils leave Burgess Hill Girls our aim is that they have all the self-belief they need to achieve their dreams. They don’t become Old Girls. They become Bold Girls.” Burgess Hill Girls
● Old Wykehamists – in memory of the school’s founder William of Wykeham. Winchester College
● Old Pharosians – from Latin ‘pharos’, lighthouse, referring to the Roman lighthouses Dover was once famous for. Dover Grammar School for Boys
Prioritise your audiences
At the other end of the spectrum, King’s Bruton educates just 350 pupils. Theresa Preston, development director, advises small independent schools to prioritise their audiences. “In those first chapters of setting up, look at which of your alumni you want to focus on, because you can’t be proactive with them all.”
“My advice would be not to set off on a communications journey unless you have mapped it out, you are going to continue it and you have a goal in mind. The person on the receiving end is more likely to go on the journey with you if there’s been some thought put into it. You should also pace engagement and communications opportunities because people don’t like being bombarded. Listen to what they’re telling you and what they’re interested in. Don’t try to do everything at once, then really look after those audiences, consistently. It has to feel natural.”
King’s Bruton connects with alumni through newsletters and a regular publication, with an interactive website coming soon. There’s a calendar of key events that they receive invitations to throughout the year, but the school is also open to being led by alumni. “Sometimes they will write to us about something, they’ll pose an idea or want to have a meeting with us. We have a combination of a personal and more structured approach, which I think works well.”
Preston says it is the older alumni that are more likely to engage with the school proactively.
“Looking at the behaviours of our different alumni groups, generally speaking, the more mature alumni want to connect with us through our events much more. The younger cohort are just leaving the nest and are trying to set their lives up, so they receive less frequent opportunities to engage with us directly and more opportunities to make links with each other. That said, we’re there to support in a way that meets their needs.”
Preston adds: “I think where we’re possibly heading is to a much more purposeful development model in schools. Schools are just starting to set up their institutions to support that, so it’s a really exciting time to be in development.
“I think the independent school sector is starting to combine a bit more strategy with what they already do really well, which is to keep and maintain positive, natural relationships with their alumni.”
St Benedict’s School in Ealing educates 1,090 pupils, and headmaster Andrew Johnson told IE about how the school’s alumni help current students: “Alumni support and engagement has been an area of significant development for independent schools in recent years.
“At St Benedict’s we leverage parental and alumni contacts to support current students and alumni in obtaining work experience, for example. We also run regular careers events at which parents and alumni speak about their professional experience, and we offer mentoring to recent alumni in securing employment, internships and work experience.”
The school uses a private platform, St Benedict’s Connect, where alumni can stay connected with fellow Old Priorians. In its first year, over 650 alumni signed up to St Benedict’s Connect – the oldest left the school in 1988 and the youngest left in 2017.
Alumni can give back to the community through a mentoring programme where they can help other members seeking advice in their chosen field, as well as use it to gain expert advice themselves. Other features include a directory of classmates, groups to join, a jobs board to see employment opportunities and an events board to see the school’s alumni events calendar.
The school is keen for former pupils to connect, ask questions, find friends and post old pictures from their schooldays – helping to keep the community alive even years after leaving.
I think the independent school sector is starting to combine a bit more strategy with what they already do really well, which is keep and maintain positive, natural relationships with their alumni
Growing the family
Lomond School, based in Scotland with 400 pupils, says it’s not just alumni which the school keeps in touch with, but also their families and staff that have left the school.
Alister Minnis, deputy head, explains: “We use social media to stay connected and we call our alumni group the Lomond School Association – we think of it as a family and want to keep in touch with everyone who has associated with the school.”
However, he does highlight the amount of time the task takes up. “Maintaining a strong relationship with this community, in an effective way, is a time-consuming job which needs to be a priority. A key member of staff who knows the alumni well and is passionate about maintaining such connections is a vital part of this.”
How often do they connect? Minnis says: “As a small school that is relatively young – celebrating our 40th anniversary last year – we have found that committing to two or three annual events can be more effective than spreading limited resources over several one-off occasions. By doing this we have created a culture of traditions similar to the culture which our former pupils, families and staff experienced during their time at Lomond School.”
In terms of the types of events, Lomond has found sport to be a great unifier. Every August they hold a former pupils’ weekend where the alumni play against current pupils in hockey, football and netball. New this year is a touch rugby tournament, followed by a barbecue.
“For Lomond School, the biggest benefit of keeping in touch with alumni is having a readily available network of inspirational people that we can call on to speak to pupils about careers and life experiences – it works well, and the pupils really benefit from it.
“As our development strategy is in its infancy, we are currently focused on growing the Lomond School family old and new but are looking forward to incorporating formal fundraising as part of future plans.”
Firth from Bolton School concludes that the school sees it as “incumbent” to assist former pupils, particularly those who received financial support for their education and may not have support within their own personal networks. This, to me, highlights the care and interest independent schools have for their pupils, which goes beyond simply getting them through a few exams during their time at the school.
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