Alma matters

Former students are a resource schools can’t afford to be without. Hannah Vickers finds out how to ensure they remain part of the school

Institutions in the US have long known the importance of making sure that ties remain strong with alumni, but it’s a relatively new concept in the UK. Daniel Cohen, CEO of alumni networking platform Graduway, says that the US has a greater history of philanthropy in education and so alumni relations have been taken more seriously in the US for decades, but that schools in the UK are finally realising that their alumni are a resource that they can’t afford to be without. 

“Alumni relations is no longer a ‘nice to have’ but of critical strategic importance through the whole lifecycle of students – prospective students, graduating students and alumni,” explained Daniel.

The benefits of keeping your school leavers close

“The benefits of staying in contact with alumni are huge and wide ranging,” agreed Sarah Ritchie, Alumni and Development Officer at Rydal Penrhos School

“Our pupils know that they aren’t just part of Rydal Penrhos School, they are part of the Rydal Penrhos family. From our youngest pupil (two and a half) to our oldest former pupil (101!), they all have Rydal Penrhos in common,” she added. 

This sense of community helps hold a school together. Former students are an invaluable resource in all areas of school life: they can help current students through mentoring programmes and by speaking at school events, recent school leavers with placements, business introductions and even job offers, and the school as a whole through donations and help with fundraising. 

“Having such a large pool of people of various ages and occupations who are willing to give up their time to encourage our pupils is a fantastic benefit both for our pupils, and for our alumni, who appreciate the opportunity to give back to the school that helped them to get to where they are today,” explained Sarah.

And, of course, there’s no better publicity than a happy ex-student.

“Our alumni are our best ambassadors, and having a large group of people who are actively engaged with the school and talking about us in a positive way is a huge benefit from a marketing perspective,” said Sarah. “It’s great to be able to talk about what our former pupils have gone on to achieve since leaving school, and to share this with current and potential pupils.”

Give your alumni a reason to stay part of the school

Crucially, though, it’s not about what your alumni can do for you, but what you can do for them. The benefits that alumni can offer their old school are clear, but ‘the chance to give something back’ isn’t enough of an incentive for many alumni. The most effective way to maintain contact with alumni is to give them a reason to. 

“Schools need to be able to answer the ‘what’s in it for me?’ question,” said Daniel. “Alumni relationships are similar to every other type of relationship – you need to ‘give and take’ for it to be successful, and in that order: give first and only then take!”

There are many things an institution can offer its alumni: a strong alumni network can provide its members with invaluable career opportunities: mentoring, business introductions and even job offers; and it provides lifelong peer support. 

Be tech-savvy, but face-to-face is how you’ll cultivate loyalty 

Sarah explained how email and social media are the most efficient and cost-effective ways to stay in touch, but that giving alumni regular opportunities to meet face-to-face is vital. As well as hosting events throughout the year, the school regularly invites its alumni to participate in school life by joining the community choir or the recently launched Rydal Penrhos Business Club.

Oli Adams, Director of Communications, Admissions and Development at Brentwood School, added that organisation is key to making sure that the right kind of help is directed where it’s most needed. The school uses its database to organise its more than 5,000 ‘Old Brentwoods’ geographically and by industry, so that it can easily match alumnus to student in need.

“More often than not, someone comes back with an offer of work experience or even a placement. In one case a couple of years ago, a former student called us to say he was spending a year in Australia and asked if we had any Old Brentwood contacts over there. Within a week an offer of a two-week rent-free stay at a penthouse flat overlooking Sydney harbour came back for him!” said Oli. 

Oakham School uses social media, online alumni platform ‘The Hub’ and a termly newsletter, as well as regular emails to keep former students up-to-date with the school, but also host “a regular calendar of reunions” throughout the year.

“We’ve found a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach doesn’t work and also, maybe surprisingly, there isn’t necessarily a preference for online or offline communications based on age,” said Eileen Fisher, ‘Old Oakhamian’ Alumni Manager. “We get as many emails from alumni in their 80s as phone calls from 20 year olds!” 

Oakham’s school motto translates to ‘Like runners, they hand on the torch of life’, and as such, alumni remain vital to the school.

“The passing on of knowledge from one generation to another would not be possible without the input of our alumni. In that way, they are the lifeblood of the school and we are endlessly grateful for their continued support,” concluded Eileen.

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