Having worked in state schools for nearly a decade, it’s always surprised me that more isn’t done to reach out to alumni. School is an all-consuming and formative experience – a time that many people look back on with nostalgia and gratitude. Yet schools can operate in quite a self-contained way. And when pupils move on, years of shared experience quickly dissipates, with opportunities to build bridges often missed.
It doesn’t have to be that way. Both primary and secondary schools have an enormous amount to gain by drawing on the successes of former students. Alumni can support you in nurturing the aspirations and abilities of current pupils. They can inspire by talking about their personal experiences of life and work. They can act as vital connections to the wider world and create opportunities for work experience – taking the pressure off school careers provision.
They can donate to specific projects, or provide connections to companies who can donate or match-fund. And who knows? Maybe there’s a former student out there who can help with alumni engagement. After all, many ‘old girls’ and ‘old boys’ associations have run their own reunions for years.
According to the charity Future First, which helps state schools build alumni networks, 30% of former pupils surveyed would make a donation to their school if asked. Yet most had not been asked, suggesting state schools could be missing out on thousands of pounds every year.
Future First works with around 400 schools, and has registered more than 266,000 former pupils who want to support their schools as mentors, fundraisers, donors or governors. Why? Often because making a difference makes them feel good.
I speak from experience, having returned to my old school as a journalist to work on cross-curricular magazine and diversity projects (bringing in contacts from the BBC, as well as local authors, scientists and entrepreneurs). As a freelancer I was paid (through Creative Partnerships), but I enjoyed the experience so much that I became an English teacher!
Many schools do not have the wherewithal to fund a dedicated development officer. But even a few hours a week can make a difference. So FundEd and Future First have collaborated to produce this guide to getting started.
Decide how you will store alumni contact details securely once consent is given, ensuring you meet data protection regulations. This might be a password-protected spreadsheet or an online resource, such as Future First’s alumni portal. Consider what additional information would be useful: current location and job, year of leaving school, further qualifications and university, interests, specific skills or experience.
Spread the word
Let your alumni know you’re building a network and that you value their input and support. (The more alumni you can get involved, the more attractive the network will become.)
Regular communication is the key to building engagement between your school and alumni network. This applies to both primary and secondary schools. Termly updates, such as an alumni e-bulletin, work well. Nurturing relationships is an important part of building a donation culture.
Nostalgia is a powerful marketing tool, so make use of old photos and accounts that trigger memories and evoke emotion.
Make alumni feel they’re a valued part of the school community by publicising their support and the difference it has made. Never miss an opportunity to say thank you – the more personalised the better. The Institute of Development Professionals in Education (IDPE) notes that alumni value personal interaction from headteachers, even if this is as simple as a polite request or ‘thank you’.
Use social media to post visual content with an emotional impact, as well as introducing notable alumni and showing how alumni donations have made a difference.
Make communication interactive and personal, highlighting the benefits of joining the alumni community (such as professional networking, brand promotion or sending a thank you message to a teacher). Ask alumni to share their stories and updates on your alumni page – and to talk about how they’re working with you.
Invite alumni back to school plays and concerts and encourage informal get-togethers (there’s no need to wait for an anniversary reunion, although this can make a good focal point).
Reinvite potential joiners or event attendees if they’ve expressed an interest but haven’t taken the next step. Remember, they are the most likely people to join if asked again.
Be aware that your alumni community is made up of people who are good at making things happen – and they could bring far more to the school than you originally envisaged.
The William Ellis School in Camden, London, rolled out a £30,000 PTA fundraising appeal to its alumni last summer, after building up a network with Future First. The aim was to buy digital equipment for students learning at home. Donations had reached £15,000 by the end of the year. One anonymous donor gave £10,000, saying they’d ‘enjoyed a wonderful free education at William Ellis and wanted to enable others to have the same in these difficult times’.
Sydney Russell School in Dagenham, Essex, worked with Future First to develop a network of nearly 300 alumni, many of whom offer regular support by running workshops, speaking about their careers, and mentoring pupils.
‘We wanted to bring alumni back to help raise the aspirations of current students and increase our cultural capital of knowledge, awareness and skills,’ says the school’s head of future pathways, Dami Afuape. ‘We have 2,000 students, aged 11-18, many from backgrounds where no one has been to university. We also have higher than average numbers of students who are EAL, pupil premium and receiving free school meals. So a key goal for us was making higher education and career options seem achievable.
‘FutureFirst helped us connect to past pupils through LinkedIn – and the response has taken on a momentum of its own! In particular, younger alumni have been keen to provide insights into different career paths and boost our students’ confidence.’
One former pupil, who left Sydney Russell six years ago in Year 12 to take an apprenticeship route to university, is now working on climate change policy for the Cabinet Office. She has joined geography lessons to talk about her involvement in the 2021 UN climate change conference.
Another young alumna has given assembly talks about her work at international law firm Taylor Wessing, and intends to start an awareness-raising programme with young boys who are struggling at school. A group of alumni currently studying at the University of Cambridge ran a virtual law debate with pupils, while another alumni connection has led to offers of work experience at KPMG.
‘Our students have been really inspired by having live interactions with professionals,’ says Dami, ‘and we’re looking forward to developing these activities further. We’ve only recently started exploring the opportunities for fundraising, but already one alumnus has donated a large sum to help fund our new gym and another has provided pro bono legal advice for parents.’
When Lucy Lock became fundraiser manager at Westcliff High School for Girls two years ago, creating an alumni database was high on her ‘to-do’ list. The selective grammar school for girls in Westcliff on Sea, Essex, had a long-established ‘old girls’ association but was struggling to attract younger alumni.
‘I wanted to extend the existing network through a relaunch that would target as many generations as possible,’ says Lucy. ‘I’d seen research by the IDPE showing that some schools, particularly in the independent sector, were doing a lot to engage their alumni in philanthropic support. I was convinced that actively reaching out to former pupils could make a significant difference to our fundraising potential.’
After researching the options and asking other schools for recommendations, the school invested in a CRM and database, provided by ToucanTech, with an online alumni community that links to the main school website. The new tool enables Lucy to manage alumni records and communication effectively. It also functions as a platform for running campaigns and for collecting online donations, with the option to run segmented campaigns aimed at certain year or interest groups.
Additionally, the online community provides a hub for alumni to connect, and even to set up their own groups, clubs and events. ‘The database is in its infancy, but what’s great is that we can see at a glance who has signed up,’ says Lucy. ‘It’s important to target former pupils with communication they will engage with, rather than bombard them with irrelevant mailings. We recently carried out a soft launch to 200 ‘old girls’ as a test. Around 70% of them opened the email promoting the site as a networking resource for them, and the response to the new site has been fantastic.
‘We’ve also introduced the site to the parents of current pupils, as some are alumni themselves. We intend to build the network with our sixth formers as they leave so they can stay in touch with us – and each other.’
The database stores information on alumni careers and workplaces, providing a valuable resource bank of potential contacts for networking and mentoring opportunities. ‘The information we gather on the achievements of former pupils enriches our school offer to prospective pupils,’ says Lucy.
The Future First ConnectEd alumni programme costs £2,250 +VAT a year for the development of an online database, regular member updates and an outsourced alumni officer. Schools have their own account on the Future First alumni portal, with links to their website. Separate packages for primary schools start at £800 for an initial strategy meeting, staff training and a digital toolkit.