How to Improve Alumni Relations

Graduation Celebration In Silhouette

There’s something very special about the independent school community. Beyond the closer instructional relationships and more individualized attention, students benefit from getting to know teachers not just as teachers, but as deep, caring human beings. In fact, some of the most memorable memories I and others have of school are of spending time with teachers on field trips, on the playing field, and discussing life’s many wonders and challenges beyond classroom walls.

In today’s trying economic times, now more than ever, to attract alumni involvement (and potential donations), schools should do all that they can to retain great teachers, who have made a significant, lasting impact on students and graduates. Along these lines, in my view, the most successful alumni relations offices make a concerted effort to get to know students while they are just that, and don’t hesitate to reach out for the first time well before graduation.

How can independent schools do a better job of attracting alumni involvement, on any level? I base my impressions not on any one school, but on collective discussions I’ve had over the years with students, teachers, and administrators.

  1. Graduates are more likely to get involved if their former teachers still work at the school.  Some of the most precious memories students form aren’t with administrators or the alumni relations officers (though at times, this can certainly be true).  More often, though, graduates want to make sure their former teachers are being taken care of, and that they are happy with the current state of affairs. It’s more difficult to care for people who haven’t made a direct impact on one’s life, and schools with high teacher turnover face an especially difficult challenge in cultivating a strong alumni base.
  2. Alumni relations officers should get to know students when they are just that. Otherwise, alumni feel that overtures are being made not only by people whom they don’t know, or know very little, but also by people who care only about  the bottom dollar. Perception is reality, and the more successful alumni relations officers also coach, teach at least one class, and advise students. More than that, they make an authentic effort to attend games and other after-school activities, and they show genuine concern about making their daily presence known.
  3. Graduates want to see tradition kept alive. Change is inevitable, and most alumni love seeing additions and improvements to the physical plant. But while moving forward, schools must  place special concern on preserving tradition. That could mean keeping the school’s logo rather than updating it for a more hip look, or incorporating a long-standing structure into a new building design. Of course, to preserve tradition, schools must first work to cultivate and retain it in the present.
  4. Graduates are more likely to get involved if they see growth, however defined. It’s always nicer to be involved in something with a clear vision and obvious forward momentum. The last thing returning alumni want to see is that everything looks exactly the same, from old, rickety desks, to an unpolished gym floor, or the same library books collecting dust. Graduates want to see that current students have it better than they did. In fact, alumni visitors should yearn to transform into teens again, so that they can experience all of the amazing things their school now has to offer.
  5. Graduates want to see that current students are making a sustained and positive difference with their education. More still, they want to see how the things students learn in the classroom translate to making this world a better place. As far as I can tell, most alumni are much less impressed with how many AP classes their school offers, and much more concerned that the knowledge students receive is helping them to become bright, caring individuals and change-makers.

What are your thoughts? How can independent schools do an even better job of attracting alumni involvement and support?

As a coach, history and journalism teacher at Brimmer and May, a wonderful independent school in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, I have the absolute best job in the world. I am thrilled to get up every morning to engage with interesting young people, and I'm equally fortunate to have such amazing colleagues and mentors. As the founder of Spin Education, I encourage you to check-in frequently and submit posts and lessons—all in an effort to better our practice as teachers.

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