Back in April, the Guardian reported that many independent schools were offering fee discounts of anything from 10% to 50% for the summer term to account for their provision moving online.
This has put extra pressure on schools to galvanise their alumni networks, not just for essential fundraising but to ensure staff, students and stakeholders remain engaged during this period of change.
For Truro School, it’s been a great way to ensure the wellbeing of its older alumni. Nicky Berridge, development and alumni relations manager, says about when lockdown started: “Firstly, we emailed all Old Truronians over the age of 70, ensuring they understood how valued they are to us and offering support in whatever way we could.”
This included phone calls, emails, putting them in touch with former friends or finding someone local who might be able to help with shopping or collecting prescriptions. The school also wrote to those without email addresses.
They then created a new e-newsletter – Keeping Connected – which was weekly for the first 10 weeks and is now fortnightly. This included things such as cultural lockdown links (theatre, film and wellbeing), ‘Where Are They Now?’ segments, notice of Zoom reunions, recipes, blogs and more.
For engagement and overall wellbeing it’s been great, says Berridge, but also: “It’s been received extremely well and has increased our communications. We decided to produce edition three as a printed version and send to those with only a postal address, asking for emails if they had them. This resulted in 60+ new email contacts.”
Truro School has always used its alumni network well. One initiative called Truro School Connected connects Old Truronians willing to offer careers advice, mentoring, CV checking and even work experience for current students and also fellow Old Truronians, such as recent graduates.
Says Berridge: “We also encourage the parents of Old Truronians to stay in touch and offer their wealth of experience and knowledge.” The network helps the school create a biennial careers convention for current pupils and the wider community (including schools from across the county).
Berridge says they are also working towards a vibrant Truro School Community LinkedIn network: “Something we hope to grow in the future in collaboration with our marvelous careers department.”
Facing up to FaceTime
As Covid-19 forced schools to move their teaching and learning online, many were able to make use of their networks to help. “The situation did actually present us with new and exciting opportunities to engage our students and alumni in a series of purposeful and enriching online events,” says Melanie Gordon-Hughes, senior development officer at ACS International Schools.
“Over two separate days in June we invited 14 alumni guest speakers to share their university experiences with our high school students from all four ACS International Schools campuses [ACS has three UK campuses in Hillingdon, Cobham and Egham, and one in Doha, Qatar]. Across both dates we had over 80 students attend and it was one of our very first virtual events to bring all of the campuses together.”
As one of the oldest alumni clubs in the country, The Old Bedfordians Club was founded in 1891. But its alumni network, Eagle Connect, is anything but old-school. “Eagle Connect was really a natural next step in terms of digitising the alumni network,” says Hugh Maltby, director of the Bedford School Association (see main picture). “We have our face-to-face contact, but this gives a digital platform to connect with everyone, regardless of where they live around the world.”
The platform was launched in December last year and now has nearly 1,300 members, of which 88% are OBs and the rest parents and teachers, past and present. Eagle Connect provides the school with a place to focus on business connections.
For example, says Maltby: “If an OB wanted to find someone in the insurance industry, they could. We have OBs who are willing to offer their help in areas ranging from reviewing CVs and answering specific business-related questions to providing advice and mentoring. Just the other day we connected with an OB who wanted a job in Bermuda, in which he has been successful.”
With the economic headwinds we’re facing, Maltby believes the platform is going to become even more important, especially for those who are about to graduate from university: “Our series of virtual career lectures for the upper-sixth form saw nearly 20 OBs and parents with careers in sectors including banking, marketing, the military, education and medicine, sharing lessons with boys and OBs dialling in from Australia, China, Hong Kong, USA and mainland Europe.”
It was so successful they plan to run something similar next year.
Sowing the seeds
The key to a good alumni network is engagement, says Maltby: “We are lucky in that we have an incredibly strong history as a club. If you have an engaged community, it will grow and grow because people want to talk to each other.”
Berridge agrees: “It is very time-consuming developing an engaged alumni community – corresponding takes a lot of time but is the real key. Knowing your alumni and constantly reviewing and updating methods of communication is essential. Different methods of communication are very important and different messages, all relevant for different age groups and different interest groups, such as sports, drama and the arts, should be explored.”
She adds: “It must be a constantly changing ‘feast’ to maintain interest because what has been done in the past is not always how things should stay. Times change, people change and interests change, therefore so must we.”
Money, money, money
Now, more than ever, it’s critical for schools to carefully manage their budgets and continue to secure funding from donations and alternative revenue streams. Schools in the independent and state sectors have had to re-think their approaches to fundraising.
“From the onset of the pandemic in mid-March, up until the end of May, 49 of the schools we work with to support fundraising have collectively raised £1.82m over a 10-week period,” says Kate Jillings, co-founder at Toucan Tech, a fundraising and community platform for schools to engage with alumni and supporters.
Eleven of the schools Toucan Tech works with – including West Buckland School and The John Lyon School, have launched Covid-specific funds to support their school communities in extremely challenging times.
“We’ve also seen and supported schools who have adapted their news and communications, with an increase in email newsletter volume and the launch of new online forums and directories powered by our platform,” says Jillings.
The platform has helped to ease some of the huge pressure on schools by providing deeper engagement with communities while at the same time allowing them to continue to raise vital funds. Our platform gives schools the power to manage all communications, admin and data in one place, it syncs with social media and you can combine CRM, analytics, email, payments, news, mentoring and more.”
It’s important to remember, says Daniel Watts, managing director of Aluminati, which provides engagement platforms to schools and universities: “Alumni networks are not social media platforms. They are not just designed to help people stay in touch or reunite friends. They are not a space to post pictures of your breakfast or share the latest viral videos. The purpose of alumni networks is to increase career opportunities and support social mobility.
“Many people are not born into well-connected families and creating professional networks can be challenging. However, alumni community platforms are a simple solution to a complex problem.”
Watts offers a great example of how an alumni network has helped during lockdown: “My favourite programme so far is the ‘Help a Finalist’ initiative run by a small college. During lockdown, many students were anxious about missing their final term and, feeling unprepared, were then required to complete online exams. Understandably, they were worried about their futures. The college then asked them to describe someone who could help them and they would try to match them with suitable alumni.
“The response was overwhelming, with more than 400 offers to help. All the finalists were matched up, often with multiple people to help and support them through their final exams.
“This demonstrates the value of community and the kindness of humanity during challenging times.”
While high-tech solutions might seem to de-personalise this, Watts says: “Aluminati provides software that allows that kind of magic to scale to an unlimited number of members. The sophisticated design allows organisations to target subgroups within the community, so users only see relevant information to enrich their experience.
“Consequently, organisations can be more targeted when promoting opportunities and the end-users have a more immersive and personalised experience.”