In the age of social media and digital technology, schools and districts have a broader reach than ever before. But that doesn’t mean that our target audiences will pay attention.
It’s one thing to be seen—it’s another entirely for those views to result in meaningful connections, engagement and partnerships. If you don’t have anything to offer your audience beyond a polished web presence, you likely will not generate much engagement.
When it comes to making a lasting impact, a brand narrative is key. Telling your story allows you to develop unified messaging that improves your communication and alumni engagement efforts.
Developing your narrative
When you begin considering your school district’s narrative, it’s important to think about what your audience really wants. Students, alumni, teachers, local officials, parents and community members are looking to develop meaningful connections. They tend to be trusting of brands that are genuine and relatable. In short, people want to know your story.
Below are three steps to take to create your school or district's brand narrative:
- Define your brand identity: Before you can use your stories to generate engagement, you need to develop a narrative. Your brand narrative is the culmination of your district’s history, its current work and its future goals. It’s helpful to write out the context to your district’s narrative, including when it was founded, what its goals were from the outset and what its trajectory has been up until this point. Also include where your district is headed.
- Gather stories: Once you have a framework to build on, you can begin creating stories that support your district’s narrative. Reach out to staff members, parents, students and alumni for personal stories about the work your school or district has done—and is doing—for the benefit of the students, families and the community. These stories can be incredibly powerful and should be incorporated into social media content, blog posts, guest articles, videos and printed materials.
- Share your message: It’s important to share content online and in print on a regular basis. Take the time to develop a comprehensive editorial calendar that includes blog posts, social media, brochures, e-newsletters and email updates. All these different platforms should be optimized to serve your overarching brand narrative and identity. Ensure that everyone in your organization who is responsible for publishing content understands the narrative and how to leverage it.
While developing a brand narrative for your school district takes some effort, it can go a long way toward amplifying your community and alumni engagement. Invest the time into honing your district’s identity. When you take a strategic approach to your narrative, you give your audience the opportunity to support an organization with a powerful message.
As most school districts across the country begin a new school year, one of the first big events is homecoming.
While homecoming is always a great time of the year and a memorable event for current students, what it's really about are your alumni. In fact, homecoming and the events surrounding it can give you an excellent opportunity to reach out to your former students and gather information that can be useful in future engagement efforts.
Making contact with alumni
There are many ways you can connect with your alumni during homecoming football games, parades, bonfires and other festivities, depending on how your school or district celebrates. Below are a few ideas:
Set up booths: At various homecoming events, set up a table or booth specifically for alumni. Have a registration form they can fill out to receive e-newsletters and other updates from you.
You may also consider creating mobile-friendly forms and sending event ticket confirmations by text message.
Raffles and contests: This is a great way to offer value to your audience. To win, alumni must provide their name and contact information, such as an email address and phone number. You can then use this information to communicate with your alumni on a regular basis after the contest is over.
Generate excitement: In the days leading up to your event, you should focus your content on encouraging alumni to participate. A great way to drive audience engagement is by creating a hashtag for your event and encouraging guests to post with that hashtag. Make sure that you are faithfully monitoring your social media accounts during events so that you can like, comment and repost alumni content.
The more engaged you are with the content your alumni and other attendees are posting, the more impactful your message will be to them.
Using alumni information
After homecoming has passed, use the information you gathered to move forward on a campaign that targets specific segments of your alumni audience. You can create targeted communications based on graduating class or higher education level to generate as much interest in your district's narrative as possible.
The days following homecoming is also an optimal time to find out what your alumni thought about your events. Send out a short email survey to let them know that you value their feedback. Then, you can use this information to ensure next year’s festivities are even better.
With a strategic, alumni-focused approach to homecoming season, you can make the most of the opportunity in front of you.
Technology is allowing us to communicate and connect with others in ways we wouldn't have dreamed possible just a few years ago. In the business world, consumers have grown accustomed to connecting with businesses online in an instant, and it can be challenging to stay competitive if you are not utilizing all of these online challenges.
The same is true in the education world. It's important for K-12 schools and districts to constantly explore the wide range of communications tools available to them as they look to reach their key stakeholders.
Decades ago, school communication was defined mainly by in-person meetings, written correspondence, phone calls and the occasional news story. Now, there's a seemingly endless list of platforms that people use to communicate everything from event details to last-minute school closure announcements. You don’t have to communicate from every platform that’s available, but you should use a few channels to ensure the broadest and most effective reach possible.
These include the following:
- Mobile apps: This provides a great source of information for parents and other community members. After they download the app, they can easily access important information, including emergency announcements, event calendars, school news and contact forms and information. There are numerous platforms that allow schools to create apps at a relatively low cost.
- Email: Emails are a great way for districts to communicate in a format that feels personal, while still having the potential for wide distribution. Using email communication allows you to bridge the gap between technologically connected users and those who are not involved with any social media platforms. You can draft emails to communicate just about anything and include helpful links that direct readers to your website or other relevant content.
- Social media: You can write posts that feature short announcements or describe your district's efforts to ensure a quality education for all students. You don’t have to start posting from every platform at once. Start small with a Facebook or Twitter account, and then develop your presence on social media as you get more comfortable using it.
- Website: It’s essential that you have a website that’s up to date and easy to navigate. Think about what your stakeholders search for when visiting your website, and make those items easily accessible. You might also want to add a blog to your website to draw more visitors to your page and promote engagement from the community.
As a district leader, your primary responsibility is to ensure that the students you serve receive a quality education in a safe environment. But there’s so much more to running a school district than simply implementing strong academic programming. To support the mission of your school, generate fundraising dollars and maintain a positive reputation in your community, you must constantly communicate with your stakeholders. The tools listed above can help.
In an era of intensifying competition, especially in states that have programs like open enrollment that allow families to enroll children in a district of their choice, schools and districts must market themselves and communicate with their stakeholders effectively.
These stakeholders may include a wide range of people, including families, teachers, staff, students and community members. Your school or district's alumni should also be added to this list.
A good public relations strategy allows you to really focus some energy and resources on developing and maintaining your reputation and relationships among your key stakeholders.
The importance of a strategy
An effective school public relations plan includes a clear set of overarching goals, a strategy to meet each of those goals and the tools and tactics your district will use to meet its goals. In addition to various other strategies, the plan should include outreach to alumni, who can be some of your district's most ardent supporters.
Below are some of the most important benefits to establishing a strong PR and communications plan for your school or district:
- Clearer brand identity: You can define your organization with a unified, coherent brand identity. Take some time to meet with your team and establish where you are and where you’re going as a district. All of the communication that you have with the public—whether through one-on-one emails or widely distributed newsletters and mailings—should reinforce this brand identity. Establishing your identity early on helps you maintain consistency and quality in your messaging.
- More effective reach: Without a strategy, your online communications might be falling on deaf ears. If people are not engaged with you as a brand, you may not be making the most of the limited resources at your disposal. A PR strategy allows you to develop your reach as a brand and ensures that you can be more intentional and effective with your communication.
- Better funding: In many states, schools must turn to local property taxpayers to support them due to dwindling funding at the state level. Cultivating relationships with your community and improving public opinion of your district can give you the backing you need to secure critical funding.
- Transparency: When an emergency or unexpected situation arises, the way your district reacts and communicates with the public is critical. Having a PR strategy in place allows you to respond to these situations quickly and give the public clear, transparent communication.
As your district works to achieve its goals, the right PR strategy will help you maintain positive relationships with your community members and alumni. Maintaining these relationships and your district’s reputation will be crucial to your success in an ever-changing educational world.
As a school district leader, you are in charge providing an essential service that promotes the betterment of your entire community.
Obviously, education is not a commercial operation, but you still must employ some of the same principles and strategies that businesses do to draw attention to your work, increase engagement and solicit the support of your community. To do so, you must tell a story through your marketing and communication efforts.
Understanding brand narrative
A brand narrative tells the story of your organization. This is not drawn-out account of your history or a 10-point description of your district's mission and vision. Rather, it is a clear, concise and easy-to-digest summary of your principles and goals.
Someone who knows nothing about your school district should come away from reading your brand narrative with an understanding, however basic, of what you do presently, what your values are and what you intend to do in the future.
Creating your brand narrative
Although your finished brand narrative will be clear and concise, you should begin the process with a consideration of your detailed history and mission. It is helpful to write this out with help from staff members, parents and/or local business leaders. Document your history, including the changes that have occurred since the foundation of your district and any major milestones along the way. Write down the past, present and future so that you have plenty of information to reference when you establish a narrative that will be presented to your target audience.
Based on the information you wrote down, you can create a brand statement that sums up your purpose and mission. You can include this statement in your district communications, along with on your website, your social media platforms and your Alumni Nation.
To give you some direction, write your brand statement as the answer to a simple question. What is your district doing to make the community better? How is the district promoting a quality education for all students? Make sure your statement is easy for your stakeholders to understand and remember.
Using the information you wrote down initially, along with the brand statement you created, you can create your brand narrative. Typically, a brand narrative should be one written page, including information about your history and your path forward.
One page doesn’t give you room for irrelevant details or of-topic information, so make sure to keep it on message. While your writing should be polished and professional, it’s important to keep the language personal and conversational.
Remember, you are communicating why your stakeholders should care about the mission of your district, so look to appeal to their humanity. Don’t be afraid to use powerful language to effectively convey an emotional message. Before you put anything out online or in print, make sure to give your colleagues the opportunity to review the content and make suggestions.
Although it can be time consuming, taking the time to create an effective brand narrative can do wonders for community and alumni engagement for your school district.
When you are a foundation, school, or district leader, there seems to be a limitless number of issues you must manage on a daily basis. This can make it difficult to focus on communication and developing the right narrative and messages to tell your organization's story. At the same time, you must find the right tools and tactics to grab the attention of your audience.
The good news is that you can master the art of school communication by understanding some basic messaging principles—including the "Rule of 3."
Basics of the 'Rule of 3'
The Rule of 3 is a well-known principle of communications telling us that people most easily grasp and process content and ideas when they come in threes. As an example, let's consider a presentation that most of us have received at one point or another—fire safety training.
When students are taught about fire safety, they are not given a long, bulleted list of various safety protocol to follow. Instead, they are taught that, in the event their clothes catch fire, they should "stop, drop and roll." These three simple words comprise a powerful message that most children remember for the rest of their lives.
You can apply the effectiveness of this basic principle to your school or district's messaging efforts.
Practical applications for school districts
Let’s take the fire safety example from above and break it down into basic parts. To start, you have the key message: how to respond to an emergency. Next, you have the three primary messages: stop, drop and roll. Finally, you have supporting evidence to reinforce the core ideas. In other words, if you take these three steps, you will put out the fire and (hopefully) avoid serious injury.
Imagine you want to raise awareness for a school fundraising campaign. Your key message is that your district is raising money. Your three core messages could be the main reasons why the district is raising the funds, the ways that people can contribute and/or what the funds will be used for.
For example, you might say that the fundraising will help renovate the school library, purchase textbooks or pay for new uniforms for the hockey team As your supporting evidence or proof, you can use either an emotional argument or a rational one. Perhaps you will include a breakdown of your fundraising goals and the projected allocation of funds. Or, you may appeal to emotion by including testimonials from students who would benefit from a successful fundraising effort.
You might feel like you have a lot more to say than can be included in three simple concepts, but a long-winded message is difficult absorb and likely will not garner the sort of attention and engagement you're seeking.
When it comes to communication, simplicity is key. Consider the power of the Rule of 3—and use it to your advantage to achieve your foundation, school, or district's communication and community engagement goals.
For decades, colleges and universities across the United States have done a great job reaching out to their alumni. Most people who have graduated from a postsecondary institution likely receive regular communications from their former schools, usually in the form of email newsletters, appeals letters, direct mail and social media.
The experiences and lessons that individuals gain in college carries over to the rest of their lives. Most colleges and universities value the connection alumni have to their higher education experience and have found ways to capitalize on it.
Engaged alumni play an essential role in the future success of fundraising functions at universities—and proud alumni act as walking, talking billboards, spreading the word about the quality of the schools they attended. While leveraging alumni resources is nothing new in the higher education world, alumni engagement for K-12 schools and districts is now coming into its own.
In fact, school districts nationwide are implementing many of the same tactics and strategies that have long been used by universities to connect with their alumni.
Alumni engagement strategies
If your school or district is looking to ramp up its alumni engagement strategies, consider these tactics common among postsecondary institutions:
- Collect contact information: Before universities can create an effective strategy for alumni engagement, they must gather relevant data. In the same way that a company markets its products based on consumer profiles, a college can tailor its engagement with alumni based on several metrics. Monitoring popular content related to an educational institution is a good place to start. A K-12 school can gather data about employment and demographics of its alumni and examine online activity related to the institution to inform its engagement strategy.
- Preference segmentation: Once a school or district has gathered relevant information about its alumni, it can target specific population segments. For K-12 districts, this segmentation can be based on the year of graduation, secondary education level and career path. A group of alumni with careers in sales and marketing, for example, may be more responsive to engaging on networking sites like LinkedIn.
- Social media engagement: Social media gives educational institutions an incredible opportunity to reach alumni more effectively than ever before. It’s worth investing in social media campaigns on several different platforms. A popular strategy among universities is to put the spotlight on alumni with brief posts that highlight their accomplishments. These personal shout-outs are more likely to be shared by alumni and demonstrate to prospective students that a school values relationship with former students.
- Analysis and adjustment: Achieving an effective strategy to engage with alumni takes time and requires constant adjustment. It’s essential for schools to track the response to their campaigns and adjust their approach as needed.
Just like a college or university, K-12 schools and districts can benefit greatly from an engaged alumni base. By actively pursuing connections with alumni, schools across the country can develop a reputation and online presence that aids in fundraising efforts and garners positive attention from prospective families.
We see it all the time in the world of K-12 alumni outreach. School leaders and communication professionals will discover a new tool, such as a mobile app or social media network, and immediately decide to try it out and incorporate it into their marketing and outreach efforts.
We should always be on the lookout for new tools and methods that can help us communicate more effectively with our stakeholders. However, it's also important to avoid chasing the latest shiny object, especially if it doesn't quite fit with our current alumni outreach strategy.
Goals come first
That's why we recommend starting your alumni communication plan by establishing clear goals. Think to yourself: a year from now, how will we know that our alumni outreach efforts were successful? What you come up with will form a series of three to five goals you aim to accomplish through your efforts.
With goals, it's important to be crisp and specific. A goal that's too vague might be "To form more engaging relationships with our alumni." A better, more targeted goal would be "To increase the amount of alumni donations to our schools by 20 percent." The second goal has clear metrics that you can use when it comes time to evaluate your strategy later on.
Once you've established some goals, think about the stakeholders you would like to reach. When it comes to alumni outreach, this is obvious: your former students. However, you may also want to include potential donors, local business leaders and community members.
Then, determine which messages you want your stakeholders to know and understand about your school district. If you could communicate directly with each one of your identified stakeholders, what exactly would want to tell each one of them? These are messages.
Only then is it appropriate to think about the tools you will use to reach your stakeholders with your messages. This may come in the form of social media, e-newsletters, blog posts, direct mail, alumni events and various other tactics. When you know your target audience and the messages you wish to convey, it becomes much easier to find the right tools to use to make it all happen.
The School Year is Almost Over. Make Sure Your Seniors Sign Up for Your Nation Before You Lose Them for Good.
Depending on where you live, the school year may be coming to a close in the next one or two weeks, or you may have a good month left before classes let out for the summer. Regardless, now is a critical time for your school or district's alumni outreach efforts, as it may be your last chance to get the names, email addresses and other information of your soon-to-be graduates.
This can be easy to forget as you're wrapping up the school year. This tends to be one of the busiest times of the year for district leaders, principals, teachers and support staff. However, by taking a few simple actions, you can add to your alumni list and ensure you maintain a strong connection with your new graduates starting right now.
At a minimum, we recommend getting seniors to provide their names, cell phone numbers and personal (not school) email addresses. Mailing addresses are nice, but not critical. If you already have an Alumni Nation established, you could include your school's nation branding on the sign-up sheet.
This is actually more effective than it was just a few years ago. Most high school students today have cell phones with numbers they're likely to maintain for the long term — if not the rest of their lives. The same goes for email addresses.
Below are some ways we are seeing schools collect this information in the days and weeks leading up to graduation:
- Set up a booth in the cafeteria with a sign-up sheet available during lunch hours
- Ask homeroom supervisors to encourage seniors to add their names to sign-up sheets
- Send an email (using their school accounts) to all seniors asking them to sign up for updates online
- Send a letter home to parents encouraging them to have their students sign up
- Ask them to sign up when receiving their cap and gowns
- Set up a booth at the graduation ceremony itself, encouraging new grads to sign up before they leave the building
While you should do everything you can to encourage seniors to provide you with their contact information, it's important to also respect their right to privacy. Signing up should not be mandatory.
One of the best ways to connect with alumni is by setting up an Alumni Nation of your own. Through this community, you can provide your alumni with news, updates, special events, directory, a job board and other resources that keep them engaged in the future of your schools.
As a way to foster stronger relationships with their former students, many schools and districts are ramping up their alumni engagement strategies. If your school district or foundation is involved in these efforts, it's important to regularly assess your tactics to ensure your ongoing success.
Below are 11 key questions to ask yourself when evaluating your alumni communication and engagement strategy:
1. Is your alumni and community engagement linked to your strategic plan?
Alumni outreach should be a key aspect of your district's communications or strategic planning process. While most schools and districts do a good job of identifying other stakeholders, including parents, staff and local community members, many forget about the value of reaching out to alumni.
2. Is there someone in the district assigned to connecting with your alumni and community?
This may be an administrator, communications manager or other staff member. While this person is often also in charge of more general district communications, he or she should be responsible for ensuring the district continues to engage its former students in meaningful ways.
3. Do you truly know your alumni?
What do your alumni think about your school district, and what do they want and need when it comes to district-related communications? Consider creating a survey that alumni can take to tell you more about how you can best reach them and provide value.
4. Do you have a narrative and targeted messages developed for alumni?
In many cases, the messages you use for parents, students and staff may be different from what you should use when speaking to alumni. When you know your alumni (see item #3), you can develop a narrative and messages geared toward them.
5. How frequently do you contact your alumni?
It's common for a school district to only connect with its alumni in the midst of homecoming season. However, you should be communicating with your former students throughout the year, providing them with updates, asking for their input and inviting them to school events.
6. How are you contacting your alumni?
Which mechanisms do you use to reach out to your former students? Is it mostly through direct mail or email? Are there other ways you might be able to reach this stakeholder group? Again, a survey can give you valuable information about how alumni prefer to get their news.
7. What value do you provide to your audience?
When you do communicate with your alumni, do you provide them with valuable news, information or resources? In general, we find alumni enjoy hearing about updates on their classmates and getting invitations to events, along with things like job boards and networking opportunities.
8. How do you measure the effectiveness of your alumni outreach efforts?
When setting out on your alumni engagement strategy, you should have clear goals in mind. Preferably, you'll have metrics to tell you if you're meeting those goals, as well. Take a look at your strategy once or twice a year to make sure you're on the right track.
9. Do you keep track of your alumni?
To communicate with your alumni, you need to have a way to reach them. It's important to have a central database with names and email addresses. It can also be helpful to have information like phone numbers and mailing addresses.
10. Why do you reach out to your alumni?
Do you only connect with your alumni during homecoming or when you need something? Your communications should be about more than asking for donations or trying to get people to attend homecoming events. Those things are important, but you should be providing value at many points throughout the year.
11. Are your efforts sustainable?
Do you have a dedicated staff member and process for alumni outreach? Do you have money allocated to these efforts on a yearly basis? It's important to ensure your alumni engagement strategy is sustainable.
Just like with any communications effort, your alumni engagement strategy may require constant adjustments, especially as the needs of your district and communications channels evolve. Be sure to ask yourself these questions as part of your assessment process.
Traditionally, colleges and universities have done a good job of engaging their alumni, with the end result often being former students who provide financial contributions to their alma maters. We have not typically seen this level of outreach in the K-12 world, although there are many indications that it's happening more and more often.
Schools and districts should not be hesitant about reaching out to their alumni and asking for their support, which can take many different forms. Below are a few ideas you can implement right way:
Ask them for their input
One of the best ways to keep alumni engaged is to involve them in some of the opportunities and challenges of your school district. For example, if some of your facilities need to be renovated or replaced, ask your alumni—in addition to other stakeholders—about what they consider to be the projects that should be approached with the greatest priority.
Whether it's through a survey, focus groups or a less formal mechanism, you can ask alumni for their feedback on a variety of issues. This may include asking about the district's current communications practices and how they might be improved, the thoughts and feelings they have about the school district and if they would recommend the district to parents considering a move into your community.
Encourage them to become mentors
Graduates are often more than willing to work with current students and help them on their way to graduation and beyond, but they are rarely asked to do so. Consider establishing a mentorship program in which middle and high school students can learn from someone who was once in their shoes.
Mentors can be incredibly valuable for young people, who face a lot of challenges as they reach their teen years. A mentor can be just what they need to set positive goals and keep them on track toward meeting them.
Invite them to school events
Again, many schools and districts can do a better job of making special invitations to their alumni to attend athletic events, concerts, performances and other events—beyond the typical homecoming celebrations.
This is especially true during the summer and around the holidays, when many alumni who have moved away come back to your community to visit with family and friends. While they're in town, why not invite them to a home basketball game or a holiday concert?
Turn to them for contributions
Alumni give to their colleges and universities all the time, but they often do not realize they can do the same for their high school, as well. After you've engaged your former students in other ways, encourage them to make a tax-deductible gift to your school, district or foundation. This is a particularly effective message toward the end of the year, when many people are looking to make charitable donations to reduce their tax burdens.
These are just a few ways to better connect with your alumni as a K-12 school district. As you continue to reach your key stakeholder groups, remember that your former students may be some of the biggest supporters you have. Take some time to engage them in meaningful ways.
When planning for a new project, whether it’s a wide-scale renovation, a new athletic facility or other improvement, most school districts must turn to the local community and hold a capital campaign to raise the necessary funds. Capital campaigns require a lot of innovation, teamwork and, most importantly, planning to execute and reach success.
However, there's a right way and a wrong way to go about a capital campaign, and it's critical to have a sound strategy in place from the start. Following a carefully planned timeline will allow your district's fundraising committee to effectively reach the right donors and get your campaign on the path to success.
Below is seven-step process we've found to work well when it comes to K-12 capital campaigns:
Step one: Identify campaign needs
The first step in your capital campaign requires the school district to examine its needs and identify the primary opportunities that will assist you in reaching your campaign goals over the next six to 12 months. To begin, create an exploratory committee comprised of school board members, staff and community members to develop a list of ideas. Then, you can narrow down those ideas and determine the ones that are worth pursuing.
Next, enlist the help of an outside fundraising consultant to formulate the scope of the campaign based on your committee's ideas.
Step two: Determine next steps
It will not always be the appropriate time to begin a capital campaign in your community. Thus, your school district must determine if, when and how it will move forward with a campaign once the outside fundraising consultant has deemed the campaign feasible in its strategic analysis.
Over one or two months, the district should make adjustments to the campaign to better align with community funding limitations based on community feedback—and outline a case for why the community should support the campaign.
Step three: Finalize campaign strategy
Before the campaign is ready for launch, your district should take an additional one to two months to finalize and ensure everyone involved understands the campaign strategy. This time should also be used to appoint a campaign cabinet of nine to 12 members and identify and rank prospective, high-impact donors.
Step four: Solicit leadership gifts
When the campaign officially begins, the first group of gifts to be solicited are the "leadership" (or largest) gifts. The district should schedule requests for leadership gifts, make appointments and personalize the necessary materials. In short, it's important to make direct contact with wealthy potential donors to get your campaign off to the best-possible start.
Typically, leadership gift solicitation can take two to three months.
Step five: Solicit major gifts
Once leadership gifts have been solicited and received, the district may prepare the materials and scheduling of major gifts. This process is very similar to the leadership gift process, but it's important to note that major gifts should always be collected after the leadership gift phase.
Step six: Solicit community gifts
The final step for your capital campaign is to solicit gifts from the broader community. This process includes outlining your community outreach strategy with things like mailings or community events. When the solicitation plan is finalized, these smaller-sized gifts can be solicited and can serve to round out your fundraising efforts.
Step seven: Wrap-up and project implementation
After the successful completion of your school district’s capital campaign, your committee will want to wrap up any loose ends and prepare for the next step, which is to implement the project for which you fundraised.
By following a carefully set timeline, school districts are much more likely to achieve success in their capital campaigns, raising the money they need to move ahead with critical facilities projects.
More than 50 million students attend public school in the United States, but many schools and districts continually face funding shortfalls. Without the state or local funding they need, schools are hard-pressed to complete much-needed renovations, add 21st century technology to their classrooms and continue to offer extracurricular activities.
Many private and postsecondary schools have existing alumni donation programs to assist their funding efforts—and one generous donor is encouraging public schools to follow suit.
Steve Schwarzman, co-founder of Blackstone Group, recently donated $25 million to his alma mater, Abington High School in Pennsylvania. The donation is considered the largest ever given to a single public school. Schwarzman says he hopes his donation will encourage more public schools across the country to ramp up their alumni engagement and fundraising efforts.
Abington High School needed $100 million to renovate its outdated, 1950s-style school building. As part of his donation, Schwarzman mandated that the school build a new science and technology center and implement a computer literacy curriculum. He has made education a priority in his philanthropic efforts, having donated large sums to other educational institutions in the past.
Why public schools should fundraise from alumni networks
For years, private K-12 schools, colleges and universities across the nation have set up expansive alumni fundraising efforts. While most U.S. public schools could do the same, relatively few do so in any meaningful way. Schwarzman’s donation is thus unique in the world of public education.
Rather than create framework to ask for and receive donations from graduates, public schools often ask members of their local communities for assistance, typically through a capital campaign or referendum. However, community members already contribute to their local schools through property taxes. By reaching out to alumni, public schools can solicit larger donations from a larger base of potential contributors.
Today's public schools must be willing to ask their alumni to help them provide greater academic and extracurricular opportunities to their current students. This starts with engaging alumni, making sure they feel connected to the schools from which they graduated—even if it was decades ago. American public schools should follow in the footsteps of private schools and universities and make efforts to engage their alumni in a variety of ways.
One of the ways Alumni Nations helps schools, districts and foundations develop more meaningful connections with their alumni is by providing highly engaging content. As we have created this content for districts, we’ve found that most falls into one of several categories, which we refer to as “content buckets.” We use these buckets when developing topic ideas and creating content for each school or district we serve.
The following is a brief overview of these categories:
- Notable alumni news: Do you have alumni who are making a difference in the world? Perhaps they have achieved something big in their industry, or are working with a nonprofit to make an impact on their community. Whatever the case, you can share these success stories with your audience.
- School, district and foundation events: Keep your alumni up to date on events happening in your district, such as homecoming, concerts, sporting events, theater performances and alumni gatherings. Make sure your alumni know they are welcome and encouraged to attend these events.
- School, district and foundation news: Provide your alumni with updates regarding all the latest happenings in your school district communities. Examples of news stories might be renovation projects, referendum efforts, the hiring of new administrators, school board news, new academic initiatives and anything else your alumni might find noteworthy.
- Points of pride: These are the stories of great things happening inside your school district. If a sports team is heading to state, for example, include it in your content! Share all the details of major student achievements, anniversaries and outstanding educators. Your alumni want to hear what’s going well in your schools.
- Local heroes: In addition to news updates, offer profiles of area alumni and friends of the district who may be considered local “heroes.” This includes police officers, military personnel, firefighters, community leaders and business owners. These individuals may or may not be actual alumni of your district—but they’re still making a difference.
- Class reunions: Provide a single hub for all updates about class reunions and include information on who alumni can contact to learn more.
- Get involved: Give alumni information on all the different ways they can get involved, from donations to volunteer opportunities. Many schools seek alumni for mentoring, guest speaking and participating in events.
We’ve created these “content buckets” to keep your alumni interested in what’s happening in your school district and increase their overall level of engagement. If you would like to explore setting up an Alumni Nation for your school, district or foundation, we invite you to reach out to us.
In the world of K-12 education, alumni relations is the term schools, districts and foundations use when engaged in an effort to reach out to its graduates and turn them into lifelong supporters.
However, many businesses and corporations engage in this same sort of alumni relations, using tactics that can also be applied to educational institutions. Many companies today are developing campaigns that specifically focus on building engagement among their former employees. The main purpose of these programs is for employers to demonstrate to their staff that they value their people and recognize their importance—even after they’ve moved on to other opportunities.
Below are a few lessons school leaders and communication professionals can take away from analyzing these corporate alumni relations programs:
There must be value to your alumni relations
Schools can leverage their alumni’s nostalgia to a greater degree than most businesses can, but both must emphasize offering some sort of value to their target audiences.
A company, for example, might offer regular webinars with alumni who have gone on to achieve unique or interesting milestones in their careers. Or, perhaps they hold networking events and curate job leads.
Schools should also focus on meeting the current needs and desires of alumni, rather than tapping into nostalgia alone. A good alumni relations effort offers alumni opportunities to get plugged in so that it will enrich their lives. Nostalgia will build initial interest, but these opportunities for engagement are what will keep them coming back.
Don’t get too heavy handed
Most corporate alumni programs send out a quarterly or monthly newsletter that includes all event listings and interesting stories—and that’s about it with regard to communication. The goal is to provide alumni with the information they need, while not flooding them with messaging. There’s a fine line between providing value and becoming a nuisance.
Schools should follow this example. Engaged alumni will connect with your school or district on their own time, outside of their already-busy professional and personal lives. Therefore, communication should be limited, but also efficient and effective. Focus on quality over quantity.
Accept that strategies will not always work
Corporate alumni relations programs are a relatively new concept. There has been a lot of trial and error, with businesses constantly trying new things to see what sticks.
The same is true for school districts. Consider which of your strategies and tactics get the best results and take a close look at those not meeting your expectations. It does not make sense to waste resources on outreach efforts that are ineffective. A regular examination of these outreach efforts can be incredibly helpful in maintaining a robust alumni relations program.
An advisory board is a group of volunteers who come together in an official capacity to advise the board or executive staff of an organization. Many schools and districts use advisory boards both as a way to hear from the community about the direction of the organization and its schools, while also keeping alumni and other supporters engaged and involved.
Unlike a school board, an advisory board does not have any legal responsibility or authority to make decisions. They are, as the name implies, merely there to give advice regarding decisions. In many cases, those suggestions are incorporated into administrative or school board actions.
Sometimes, organizations give the advisory board a different name to more clearly articulate the difference between it and the school board. They are often known as an “advisory committee” or “community task force.”
Starting the development of an advisory board
Forming an advisory board takes more than reaching out to your ideal members. You must also clearly specify how the board will operate. You should have a written description of the board that includes information like its purpose, the frequency of meetings, guidelines for membership and general expectations.
Once you have completed these initial organizational tasks, you should ask the following questions:
Who will lead the board? Your district may choose to appoint a chair of the board to manage its operations. Many districts appoint a community leader or a well-known alumnus to lead the way.
How can we make this board effective? Consider what you can do as a district to get the most value out of your advisory board. Think about the purpose of the board and ensure it has a clearly articulated vision. Regularly honor and recognize the work board members perform. Assign district personnel to regularly attend the advisory board meetings and report back with updates.
How will meetings proceed? There should be clear expectations for how meetings of the board will proceed, along with the kinds of rules and professionalism expected to be exhibited at advisory board meetings.
Your school district likely has many alumni who care about the direction of your schools and wish to give back to them in some way. The formation of an alumni advisory board can be an excellent way to keep them plugged in while getting valuable advice and insights that can influence the direction of your school district.
School leaders often find it difficult to both find their alumni on social media and make sure they are engaging them with the right messages. While many schools, districts and foundations make effective use of Facebook and Twitter for their messaging, the professional network LinkedIn tends to be underutilized when it comes to connecting with former students.
Below are some tips to help you find your target audience and deliver your message on LinkedIn:
- Test your targeting practices: Perform standard A/B testing for almost all aspects of your LinkedIn marketing, including the audience to which you’re reaching out. LinkedIn makes it simple to create new marketing campaigns, and so you can test different means of connecting with your audience. You might, for example, try filtering by skills instead of job title, or play around with the geographic limit functionality.
- Use the ‘audience expansion’ feature: All campaigns you develop in the LinkedIn Campaign Manager include the “audience expansion” option. Through this feature, LinkedIn’s algorithms go after audience members similar to those you are targeting. This can help you reach out to a broader audience made up of people who may be alumni of your school or district.
- Use the ‘Click Demographics’ feature: Once you have built up enough data, you can use the Click Demographics tab in your Campaign Manager to find out how your content performs with people of various demographics. This will help you track the success of your campaigns and target specific demographics you should be searching for on the social network. High-performing demographics are likely to include many of your alumni.
- Get personal: Even if you’re targeting a fairly broad audience, you can still implement tools to target specific sub-demographics to encourage a response from those people. You can run multiple versions of the same ad, but with different “call-outs” for different niches.
In general, these processes will help you find greater success in reaching your alumni and other target audiences on LinkedIn. Don’t be afraid to experiment with your campaigns and try different approaches, so long as you routinely measure and analyze the results of those experiments. However, you should also avoid targeting an audience that is too specific or small.
When done well, LinkedIn can be a fantastic source of reaching new alumni you haven’t been able to connect with through other means. It also gives you access to individuals who have moved on to successful careers.
By the middle of December, many college students have wrapped up their final exams and are heading back home for winter break. This offers a great opportunity to keep your alums—and especially your recent graduates—engaged in the narrative of your school.
Below are three ideas that can help you connect with your alumni during this special time of the year:
Reach out on social media
Make sure your alumni know they are appreciated through special posts to your school or district's Facebook, Twitter and other social media profiles. Welcome your recent grads back to town as they visit for the holidays and invite them to any events happening over the next several weeks (see below).
Engaging your alumni through social media can help them feel a sense of connection with your school or district. It continues a relationship with the people who can be some of your most ardent supporters.
Have a presence at school events
Most schools have a variety of events happening in December and early January, including some that may take place during the winter break. While they're home from college, your alums might attend holiday band concerts, choir performances, basketball games or hockey games. These are great opportunities for recent grads to see friends they've missed over the past several months or couple years.
Consider setting up a booth specifically for alumni at these events, and get them to sign up for your school's Alumni Nation or email list. You could even organize a special "alumni night" at these events, recognizing those who have graduated from your school.
Communicate with reunion committees
It's common for these committees to hold reunions around the holidays, as they know more alumni will be in town to visit their families already. This is especially true for five-year reunions, for which many attendees may still be in college and likely to have a several-week break.
To that end, connect with these committees and ask if they can get attendees to sign up for your Alumni Nation during their reunions. You can also ask them to include references to your Nation in any email or social media correspondence they send out to alums.
Although regularly communicating with alumni is important throughout the year, the time around the holidays offers some unique opportunities for your school. We suggest working these ideas into your December alumni engagement strategy.
In many ways, your alumni can be the most passionate advocates of your school or district. However, as the years pass and people get on with their lives, they often lose a sense of connection with their alma mater. It’s little surprise that schools and districts have such a hard time maintaining up-to-date contact information for their alumni.
By establishing an Alumni Nation, you can create a digital community to find alumni, complete with a database and CRM tool that makes it easy to update and append your records. You can also incorporate social matching, tagging and filtering. Your alumni, in turn, can update their own profiles and information in your system, making matters significantly easier on your organization.
By understanding the demographics, communication methods and interests of your graduates, an Alumni Nation enables you to connect with alumni and stay connected with them for years to come. Our team also helps you develop a strategy to align your needs with theirs, with a communication plan and content marketing effort to keep them engaged. We also assist in establishing automated workflow methods so you can more easily track engagement while leveraging technology to improve your capacity.
The result is powerful member management, information tracking and event setup with RSVP and ticketing features. You’ll also foster much-improved communication thanks to an ability to send unlimited email messages.
Why is it important to maintain good alumni communication?
Effective alumni outreach is about more than just fishing for donations. Below are just a few reasons why your school should make it a priority to maintain contact with graduates:
Enhanced branding: Strategic public relations and alumni outreach help you support your school or district’s brand identity. Everything about the look and feel of your school is contained in its brand—the colors and logos, your mascot, the tone of communications and even the fonts you use. You should always have a distinct, clear brand and organizational personality.
Strong messaging: Your messaging is an important aspect of your brand. By maintaining regular communication, you can make emotional connections by using the same branding and tone they remember from their days as students. Trust, nostalgia and pride are big points of focus.
Long-lasting connections: You can get your alumni to participate in surveys and discussions on a variety of issues, news and events. This becomes particularly important if you are in the middle of a referendum or ballot measure, or if you’re raising money in a capital campaign.
Alumni make up an important stakeholder group
In an era of tight budgets and increased competition, schools and districts must market themselves like never before. As you develop the strategy for your organization, don’t forget to include alumni as you identify and think about reaching your target audience. Establishing an Alumni Nation could be the solution you need to make it happen.
One of the fondest memories of any alumni’s high school career is homecoming week. It’s typically filled with school spirit days, pep rallies and, of course, a charged-up homecoming football game. All the festivities lead up to the main event: the homecoming dance.
Although their pep rally days are behind them, alumni still enjoy the experiences they had during their own high school years. That’s why this year’s festivities are a great opportunity to reach out and connect with them.
Make a special invitation
A common misconception among alumni is that homecoming week is just for current students. However, it’s actually the ideal time for graduates to revisit their old school and take part in celebrations with old classmates.
The best way to welcome back your alumni and involve them in homecoming week is to extend an invitation. Send an email blast to active alumni inviting them to the homecoming game, set aside an alumni float in the parade or engage local alumni as speakers at pep rallies. Many will be delighted to take part.
If you do formally invite alumni to events, make sure they’re recognized. From a general shout-out at halftime during the football game to thanking them in the homecoming newsletter, a little recognition goes a long way.
Acknowledge the value of alumni
Alumni are more than just past graduates—they can also be great resources for your current students. These are individuals who received their formative education at your school or district, and most have gone on to become successful professionals. They may have a lot to share with your current students.
Consider setting up booths at homecoming events and inviting alumni to come and connect with students. Many juniors and senior looking into colleges will relish the opportunity to speak with a mentor who, not so long ago, was in their same situation.
Make the most of homecoming
Homecoming week is one of the very few times so many alumni can be gathered in the same place. It’s important to make the most of this opportunity. These are individuals who often volunteer time toward mentoring and tutoring, make financial contributions, support referenda and ballot measures and share the district's story in the community and through social media.
This homecoming, be sure to think about how you can incorporate alumni into your festivities and events. It can be a great opportunity to engage one of your key stakeholder groups.