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Articles > Building Your Community > International alumni strategy: small team, high impact

International alumni strategy: small team, high impact

This week nearly 500 school fundraisers gathered for an annual UK conference organised by the IDPE (Institute of Development Professionals in Education). On the theme of ‘Make an Impact’, the event buzzed with energy and ideas, with a keynote address from a female adventure who’s climbed Mount Everest.

One organisation making an impact is the Institute of Development Studies (IDS), a world-leading post-grad research institute. Established 50 years ago, IDS graduates have gone on to do transformative work in NGOs, governments and companies to promote equal and sustainable societies.

At the IDPE conference we listened to IDS Alumni Relations Officer, and ToucanTech customer, Michelle Cruickshank, explain how she manages the global Alumni programme and network for IDS with the support of the ToucanTech database and website and their IDS alumni ambassador programme. 

In order to support a very internationally dispersed group of 3,500 alumni, Michelle has created a network of 30 ambassadors, 50 mentors and an advisory committee made up of alumni and some IDS staff members. This enables her to effectively develop and invest in the network with limited financial and staffing resources. 

Starting off

Between 2013 and 2015, alumni relations at IDS was primarily fundraising focus – its emphasis was on asking for funding and little was offered in return. Michelle realised the need to create more balance between what they were asking for and what they were offering. When she took on her role, they had few offers and all the asks were in relation to fundraising. So, in 2015, Michelle helped develop a new approach. They now describe their alumni as partners, with a focus on engaging communication, which has resulted in a a successful rebalance of offers and asks.

When Michelle first started at IDS, alongside the new partnerships’ manager, they dedicated a few years to building their offers. They began by establishing an online home that alumni could see was just for them – 
alumni website.

The priority was to provide a comfortable offer base from which to make asks of the alumni network - focusing on mutual benefit, carefully explaining the benefits of having an effective network and showing IDS investment.

The model of engagement the IDS Alumni Team inherited in 2015, which had been created in 2013 when Alumni Relations was brought in-house, was a traditionally linear one with - inputs-activities-outputs-outcomes-impacts, where: 

  • input = ids alumni ambassadors
  • activity = social event
  • output = support for ids scholarship fund
  • outcomes = increased diversity of student body
  • impact = increased diversity of views on key development issues at IDS

Since 2015, they have operated, what Michelle calls a “pay-it-forward” approach, for example in a coffee shop scenario where people undertake an act of kindness for a complete stranger, by paying for the coffee of the person behind them in the queue. You then eventually get unsolicited offers.

They launched their online network in April 2016, around 8 months after they started the new process. They now have over 1,000 members - around a third of their alumni database

Managing small but dispersed networks

Although they have a relatively small number of alumni to look after – roughly 3,500 which grows only by around 300 per annum and a relatively limited scope of interest, they are massively dispersed across the globe – over 100 countries. Additionally, the international development world is tiny, with lots of competing networks, with specific development focus, and that’s on top of the other competing affinity networks like their undergrad degree, or subsequent PhD and work etc so it is essential to have an effective strategy and platform to develop the alumni relations network. 

Michelle explained that how she works at IDS isn’t anything particularly new or innovative, but it’s about choosing the right options of your community.

With the support of the communications team, teaching team, management group and researchers at IDS she is able to ensure there’s cross promotion, shared information and investment in alumni relations. 

Volunteer Network 

At IDS they have created a comprehensive volunteer network, with ambassadors, who are individual alumni who in turn receive information about alumni in their area and asked to hold at least a yearly get together. As well as a minimum yearly check in with each ambassador, Michelle also sends a quarterly newsletter sharing information between the ambassadors

In addition to this, the advisory committee, comprised of 6 alumni, 2 researchers, plus the DTL, and Michelle, meet all together three times a year.

The third set of IDS alumni relations volunteers are their Featured Mentors – their alumni have always been keen to give back via mentoring, it was one of the key identified offers from the 2013 strategy review. Michelle has recently started building up their pool of featured mentors (50 volunteers and growing) and hopes this will become an invaluable resource for the alumni community.

The final set of volunteers are their Club Managers - IDS has a network of  regional clubs which are designed to help reinforce country networks. Michelle states “They are not only good ways to get alumni to engage, they get a weekly newsletter with tagged news and events etc, plus any changes to the members of the country network.” 

How is it done? 

Content: The easy to use ToucanTech website allows them to simply add news and blogs which can also be shared on their social media channels. Michelle has enlisted students to write content, which has seen some of the best submissions. 

Events: IDS divide their events into Institutional and side events. Side events includes casual drinks and events when researchers are travelling to other countries and then there are alumni funded larger events. The former two being a cost -effective way to bring the alumni members together and network. 

Positivity: Stay positive, not all ideas work, don’t worry about that, some won’t even make it off the paper, sometimes you need to let it go! But as Alumni professionals working in small teams or often solo you need to make sure you separate work and home; use resources and your time wisely; and connect with other development professionals.

The impact of successfully managing Alumni

Collect your stories and think about where you can host them. Do you have an annual review, is the space on your organisation’s main website, consider posters for the building, featuring some impact stories? 

Lead a network of critically thinking people – ToucanTech technology helps IDS to show that they are reaching around 2,500 of our 3,500 alumni via email. Mass emails have an open rate of around 36%, while targeted emails are consistently over 50%. 

New research, KIP (knowledge impact and policy) and teaching partnerships – their alumni has opened doors into spaces that they haven’t previously had access to and they have also helped with scholarship fundraising.

New students – IDS now has 5 scholarships available and has seen an increase in contact between students and alumni before they start at IDS. Reported contact during the application process between 2015-16 was 30% and 2017-18 63%, while 94% of those reporting an alumni talk said it was a positive experience. 

If you have any questions about how ToucanTech can help you develop your network please email or book a free demo via our website at

About the IDS
IDS is a charity whose main reason for operating is research, it has approximately 250 staff, of which around 60 are research academics and practitioners. They are also the teachers and supervisors of our masters and PHD programmes. 

IDS has been established for about 50 years, and teaching for virtually the entirety of that time, with the UoS of providing certification, they have a very close relationship with the UoS as we are also based on the university campus there. This has advantages and disadvantages!

Currently they have around 300 students a year, a combination of masters and PhDs.

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