Alumni Relations Engagement Strategies
Catherine O'Neill Grace
Jane Eskew Blong, a member of the Sidwell Friends School (DC) class of 1968 and the mother of two Sidwell graduates, lives in Florida. But she was back on campus for her 50th reunion in May 2018.
“The physical plant has changed, but the school still has the same feeling to me,” Blong says. “I was still able to see the campus as it had been when I began pre-K there in 1954. Being there for our 50th reunion was one of the best experiences I have ever had.”
In advance of that May weekend, Sidwell fifth-graders sent handwritten letters to each member of the 50th reunion class. Blong met her correspondent in person during the event. “She had written about what she was doing in fifth grade,” says Blong, who is a retired learning specialist. “She asked what fifth grade was like for me. She explained that she came to Sidwell as a third-grader and never felt left out among her classmates as the new kid in class. As she showed me around campus, I could feel that she had a sense of pride about her school. The time with ‘my’ fifth-grader was a highlight of the weekend.”
For independent schools around the country, maintaining such positive, personal connections with alumni is mission critical. As Bryan Garman, head of school at Sidwell Friends, a PK-12 day school with an alumni population of some 7,000, puts it, “Alumni are key stakeholders because their lives speak to the value of a Sidwell Friends education, and because they animate the school’s values in the world. They are, in a very real sense, the keepers of the mission, and their support of the school is inspiring because they want to advance what is best about the institution.”
Like board members, alumni offer their schools time, talent, and treasure. They help support admission, connect students and fellow alumni with internships and job opportunities, volunteer as fundraisers, and donate to annual and capital campaigns. Empowering alumni to be ambassadors for the school out in the world is a job everyone in the institution does—the head, faculty, coaches, admission officers, fundraisers, and current students, such as those Sidwell fifth-graders. But it’s in the alumni office that the work is centered.
From encouraging alumni attendance at events to increasing numbers of volunteers and enhancing fundraising, alumni engagement requires multipronged outreach that embraces high-tech while maintaining high-touch efforts that have been used for decades. And alumni engagement staff must do their work in an environment where every nonprofit, community organization, college, and university their alumni care about is out there looking for market share, too.
Administrators who work with alumni report that there’s a paradigm shift going on in engagement and outreach. Although reunion and homecoming remain vital components of any successful program, these large-scale events are no longer the signal events of the year. In an age of constant contact—and constant distraction—schools are finding new and creative ways to reach out to their alumni and stay connected.
No Big Thing
“One of the things we’re finding is that there’s no longer one key, signature event that we’re building around,” says Elizabeth Conley, Sidwell’s director of development, alumni engagement, and leadership. “Reunion always has a special place, but we’re making homecoming more robust by building in more reasons to come back to campus, such as gatherings for alumni athletes, and a brunch for volunteers where they’re serenaded by the SFS jazz band. And we’re focusing more on personalizing the alumni experience rather than putting all our energies on one event that brings out 500 people.”
Anna Wyeth, Sidwell Friends’ assistant director of alumni engagement programs, says, “Traditional alumni engagement is really shifting because of technology,” adding that even older alumni rely on smartphones and social media to get information these days. “The bread and butter of a paper directory, class notes in the magazine—those are not the things that will sustain us for the future. We’re looking at a paradigm shift in what an alumni engagement program provides alums. They want to engage with the school in a more personal way.”
This more personalized programming includes gathering like-minded alumni in areas where they are clustered, such as identifying alumni who work in the theater arts world and getting them together in New York, hosting an event for alumni in the tech industry in San Francisco, or gathering New England-area alums for a Quaker Meeting for Worship in Cambridge, followed by brunch at a restaurant in Harvard Square. The alumni engagement team is also working to ensure that the school reaches out personally to people at milestone moments, sending individual cards to celebrate everything from new babies to job promotions. And the head of school regularly corresponds with alumni with letters reporting in detail about life at the school.
Personalization also takes the form of an app. Sidwell Friends, along with some 130 other independent schools around the country, uses the EverTrue app, which allows alumni to opt in to a directory and networking site on their smartphones. (One feature allows alumni to access a map showing the location of other alums nearby.) The EverTrue database also connects to LinkedIn to facilitate networking around professions.
Kathleen Hanson, a senior consultant at Marts & Lundy, a fundraising consulting firm, was the vice president for advancement and external affairs at the Baylor School (TN), a day/boarding school for grades 6-12, for a decade. Before that, she served as director of institutional advancement at The Fessenden School (MA), a boys’ PK-9 day/boarding school. During her time in independent schools, Hanson saw the world of independent school communications transformed by technology.
“From my perspective, technology has changed many things,” she says. “In some schools, alumni viewed reunions as an opportunity to see their classmates and friends and catch up on their lives. Social media has provided them with a way to stay in touch and, in some schools, there has been a downturn in on-campus attendance. Also, the speed with which information is shared, questions are asked, and responses are expected is immediate, and it is very difficult to keep up.
“On the positive side—and I believe there is much more positive than negative—we have so many interesting and exciting ways to share information and to meet our alumni where they are, and that builds affinity. We have seen alumni in many schools wanting more from their alma mater than events but rather substantial information on the school’s health and vision for the future. We now have excellent ways to share that information.”
That’s what Beth Peterson has done at The Winsor School (MA), which serves girls in grades 5-12. When she came to work at her alma mater, she thought she was just taking a short break from the corporate world. Both an alumna and the parent of an alumna, she is now in her 23rd year as director of alumnae relations.
“We have evolved,” she says of her work with Winsor’s 3,100 alumnae. “Technology obviously has played a huge part in that. But we’ve been careful not to disconnect the older alums.”
Winsor was an early adopter of smartphone-based communications. “We were one of the first schools to adopt the EverTrue app,” Peterson says, noting that the school started working with the company when they were first road-testing the system.
Peterson recognizes that not everyone will use a smartphone to find friends or read school news, so Winsor also maintains a vibrant alumnae section on its website, with alumnae news, school news, spotlight alumnae bios, and links to the community directory and the online version of the alumnae magazine. The school also publishes a quarterly alumnae e-newsletter with an open rate of 40 percent, high by industry standards. (March 2018 figures from email service provider Mailchimp reported an average open rate of 21.8 percent for education marketing emails.)
The school’s biannual print alumnae magazine, the Winsor Bulletin, is available online in Issuu, an online electronic publishing platform. It employs alumnae as writers and explores the ways that students and alumnae are working to make a difference in the world, instead of just highlighting stars. Peterson and longtime editor Joe Broughton have worked to change that emphasis. “When I first came here, all we did was highlight the stars,” Peterson says, “and it kind of turned alums off. It’s more inclusive now than it used to be.”
In addition to the smartphone app, website, and e-newsletter, Winsor maintains a strong social media presence on Facebook, Instagram, and Vimeo, and the communications team has thought carefully about how to adapt beloved traditions to a more digital world. The school used to host a popular annual alumnae book club on campus, moderated by a retired teacher. “The majority of the time, if you could get 20 or 25 people together to spend a couple hours talking about a book that they’ve read with an adored teacher, that was great.” But in fall 2018, the school launched something new: an online book club for all alumnae and current and retired faculty. “We’re going to start with two books this year. I think that will engage a whole new group of people,” Peterson says.
Winsor is working with PBC Guru, which manages virtual book clubs for companies, universities, and now, an independent school. The first book is The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. “The whole school read it this summer, and we thought that would be a good way to connect the alums to what’s going on at Winsor right now. If we can get 100 alums connecting with current and former faculty to talk about a wonderful book, that means they will connect to the school, too.”
At the Park School of Buffalo (NY), a PK-12 day school, there’s a tradition for the head of school to get up close and personal with every single reunion class during their Friday-night dinners, which are hosted all over the city. It’s a longstanding practice that alumni—especially the 50th reunion class, the head’s last stop on the odyssey—look forward to.
“Reunion remains our signature event for alumni,” says Carolyn Hoyt Stevens, director of development and a Park alumna. “We have class parties all over—whether at Canadian lakeshore beach houses to city and suburban backyards to restaurants and country clubs, Park alumni use the reunion weekend class party as an opportunity to really reconnect and gel as a group. For the head of school and me, these events provide opportunities to connect with alumni in ways we can't on campus when they’re among hundreds of others here, too.”
Hoyt Stevens says the smaller events also help the school better understand the dynamics of alumni classes. How connected is the group? Who are the class leaders? How interested are the alumni in what’s happening at school? She finds that a question about a particular school program might lead to bigger conversation—and, ultimately, support for that program.
At the school’s events, Hoyt Stevens makes a point of reaching out to the nonalumni spouses and partners in the crowd. “I learned how important it is to get to know spouses and partners,” she says. “A spouse or partner is probably someone who has heard for years—sometimes decades—about someone’s high school or secondary school experience. They’re the ones who might remember something and bring it up in a conversation. A spouse is often more likely to share news of achievements if your alumnus is modest, and that information can be extremely helpful. And of course, when the alumnus passes away, it’s important to have established a relationship with the spouse. Many widows and widowers choose to honor their spouse’s connection to our school with continued gifts.”
At La Jolla Country Day School (CA), a PK-12 day school, alumni are invited to be part of the team at the annual admission open house on campus. “Our alums are very, very passionate about the school,” says Tiffany Nhi Tran, director of marketing and communications. “Alums are really excited about the school, but sometimes they need a reason to reconnect. They need an intentional invitation, and it’s not always about reunion.”
The school started asking alumni to actively participate in the open house—a large, festive gathering held outdoors—to talk to prospective families about their experience at the school. But the engagement soon became even more high-touch than that. “We have our alumni walk our prospective families to our outdoor amphitheater, getting to know them en route,” Tran says. “After all, the alumni are our proof points.”
Back to the Future
Not long after she joined the communications team at La Jolla Country Day, Tran led a charge to reinstate the alumni magazine, which had been sunsetted by a previous head. The school hadn’t published a magazine in four years. The former magazine, Torrey 360 Viewbook, was published once a year in the summer, and was primarily focused on sharing on-campus news. “In this digital age, LJCDS made an intentional decision to invest in the printing of our magazine,” Tran says. “As a society, we’re all inundated with emails and online content. We wanted to create a beautifully designed and well-crafted printed piece that can engage members of our community. The touch, feel, and experience of picking up a magazine cannot be replicated digitally. As we are building and growing our alumni program, it was important to us to provide our graduates with a tangible piece that serves as a point of pride on their desk or coffee table.”
The new magazine was unveiled during celebrations of the school’s 90th year. “We named it 1926 to pay tribute to our longstanding history. As the school moves forward, we have recognized that it’s important to honor our past,” Tran says. “Our goal is to share the impact that our students and alumni are making to inspire greatness for a better world. The magazine begins by sharing campus stories and moves beyond the gates of the school into the world of our alumni.”
Independent school alumni magazines compete not only with consumer magazines but with the magazines alumni are getting from their colleges and universities, says Kelly McMurray, creative director of 2communique, an Albany, New York-based marketing and design firm that counts independent schools, as well as colleges and universities, as clients. Independent schools, she says, need to think about their publications as strategic alumni engagement tools, which means a better balance of telling stories about what’s going on at the school with the outcomes—the alums themselves.
When McMurray took over designing Nobles, the Noble and Greenough School (MA) alumni magazine, she “took the school-focused photos off the cover. The alumni are insanely successful and interesting, so we put them at the forefront of the publication.” The magazine is meant to engage readers right out of the mailbox. “People are getting less and less mail these days, so these magazines have more impact. A lot of thought has to go into the cover,” she says. “When someone gets Nobles and Wellesley magazine on the same day, I want them to read Nobles first.”
You Can Go Home Again
At the end of the day, alumni engagement is all about connection. Jacqueline Seabury Mitchell, a writer for Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital in Boston and a 1992 graduate of Winsor School, says, “It’s hard to pinpoint exactly how Winsor has stayed such a part of my life. In my 20s I was most connected to my friends from the school, but not to school itself. But Winsor is unusual. It celebrates people as they get older.”
And, she continues, “there’s this feeling that you can always go back, whether it’s professional: for a grad school recommendation, or very personal: when a parent dies. The personal—that’s what it really boils down to. Their job is not done when they hand you that diploma when you are 17½ years old.”
Alumni and parents are an important part of any school. They want to feel appreciated for their contributions, but more importantly, they want to know their donations have meaning. Marc Steren, director of entrepreneurship at Bullis School (MD), shares how a program connects students with mentors who are alumni, parents, or entrepreneurs in the community. The mentors, many who have become large donors, feel more committed to the school and show it through larger financial contributions, he writes. Read the full article in this online exclusive.
Catherine O'Neill Grace
Catherine O'Neill Grace is senior associate editor of Wellesley magazine at Wellesley College in Wellesley, Massachusetts. She was editor of Independent School magazine in the 1990s, before the internet changed school communications forever. She is the author and co-author of several nonfiction books, including Best Friends, Worst Enemies: Understanding the Social Lives of Children with Michael G. Thompson and Lawrence J. Cohen.