Alumni Engagement: It’s not just for Universities Anymore, Part III-A

Over the last two weeks we have been building the case for our K-12 schools to not shy away from engaging alumni [Part I & Part II]. We defined what alumni are and identified the common barriers we here on why a school cannot or will not initiate or continue efforts.

So this article will outline a six step process to break past the barriers and create a plan of action to engage alumni. And, as is often the case, my plans for these articles has changed: what was originally a 4-part series is now 5, as Part III is just to large to keep in one post…

  • Create a Plan

Like any trip, if you do not have a map to a destination, you will never get anywhere. Is there a major milestone that you want to celebrate and engage alumni, such as the 100th anniversary of the school? Is a long-term teacher retiring? Is the school bringing back the annual musical? Would the school want to create a mentorship program with local alumni business leaders?

Or, does the school have an endowment match challenge of $40,000 to meet (sound familiar to anyone?) Is leadership looking to raise $50,000 for a new scholarship fund? Is new playground equipment on the wish list?

Or, your goal can simply be to get alumni back on campus and on on a mailing list for a future effort. We suggest you establish an initial reason to engage alumni and work from there (your goal can change later as you move through the process).

  • Get a Database

As I have highlighted before, “It’s important to invest in your database. It’s your institution’s memory.” You need a place to store data and a place to retrieve that data in a timely and accurate manner. So often, schools have that long-term receptionist or teacher that “knows everyone and everything” but when that staffer is gone, so are those gold nuggets stored in their brain.

As far as software, while a school could manage an alumni effort using Excel or Google Sheets that are free, you get what you pay for. There are several affordable and more expensive options out there depending on what you want, from Donor Snap to Donor Connect (part of RenWeb), from Bloomerang to Raiser’s Edge, just to name a few. All have costs that differ based on what you want and need from the software. Most of our local schools with databases use one of these four options listed above.

While the subject of choosing a database is an entirely separate presentation (and a future post), below are some of the data points a good database should track:

    • Name (original and married)
    • Current addresses
    • Graduation year
    • Current employment
    • Areas of interest when at the school
    • Relationships (parents, children, spouses, etc.)
    • Current level of engagement
    • Donation information & Moves Management
    • Record all contacts and visits

There are also some key considerations as to where the data is stored (servers or the cloud), who should enter the data, etc. Again, that is another future post.

  • Assemble a Committee

A school will want to create a committee of 5-7 people that “knows everyone” and can start amassing the information you need. The committee members can be alumni, grandparents, retired teachers, etc. Understand, the initial effort may take a year or more with monthly, bi-weekly, or even weekly meetings early on as the committee moves to Step IV.

Taking breaks is fine, but everyone involved needs to understand this will need to be a long-term effort and people will come and go from the overall committee. This is why it will still be important to have someone who “owns” the process and is ultimately responsible for its successful completion. Ideally, your school fundraising staffer should oversee the committee, but until you hire someone, appointing an alumni committee chair will help keep the group connected and focused.

Central Lutheran in New Haven formed a fantastic committee that took charge of the effort and built an alumni database who attend their annual gala and even donates to the SGO from out-of-state. Just remember to make it fun; provide lunch for the committee, as it will be a social gathering for the group as much as a data gathering group.

  • Start with Records Somewhere

Your school must have records somewhere. Whether it be old grade cards with names, old yearbooks, even old confirmation pictures with names. One of our local schools did just that: Woodburn Lutheran unboxed their first year grade cards and started writing down names. If you are lucky, perhaps there is a list the previous principal left behind from the 50th anniversary celebration. Maybe ask those retired/long-term teachers and staff to search their files. Or perhaps your associated church(es) have old membership files or birth/death records that can be shared.

Next, the committee either starts with the first year graduates, or chooses a decade and starts with each name: who knows this person? Anyone know their mom? What is their married name now? The committee will soon find that Dr. Google will become their friend as they start looking for current addresses. When that decade or first year has been gone through, go to the next decade, and so on. Of course, there will be lots of holes and “lost” alumni. That’s OK: the committee has to start somewhere. The gradual finding names, contacting relatives, etc. can happen as the year progresses. It is better to start and have a few names than never start and have no names to work with!

Your committee can then start using more modern data collecting services, such as posting 10 “lost alumni” on Facebook, create a website portal for alumni to log in and provide their updated information. Concordia Lutheran elementary/middle school even listed lost alumni by decade on a big sign in their church narthex for church attendees to get in on the fun.

Central Lutheran has held annual alumni receptions to help gather data. Please remember, even if an alumnus is lost, you will want to keep their name in the database just in case.

And this ends Part III-A. Next week we continue with how to connect and engage now that you have a plan, a committee, and a database.

P.S. This was a long post… let me know if you think it was too long.

Picture Source: Time-Life Archives on Google, “Walnut Hills High Calculus Class”