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Articles > Building Your Community > Coronavirus: How to Engage Alumni from a Distance

Coronavirus: How to Engage Alumni from a Distance

The coronavirus has raised the importance of networks and connections. We have never needed each other more than we do now, but to avoid spreading the deadly disease, we’re having to adapt how we interact. Communication has gone viral.
The crisis highlights the crucial role of alumni engagement teams in fostering a sense of community and supporting functions across an entire school, even from a distance. These teams may be critical to the survival of some schools, whose finances are strained from decreased enrolment and teachers being quarantined.
“Fundraising and alumni support will help our schools survive,” says Data Watts, director of research and development at International Schools Service, which manages international schools globally.
“Our alumni understand the ethos and culture of our schools better than most stakeholders,” she says. “Together, if we work collaboratively, we can use this as an opportunity to pull our communities together.”
And with the world slowing down, now is a good time to take stock and plan ahead, said Andrea Legnani, global head of alumni relations at the bank Citi, in a recent webinar. “Sit down and think about what really matters for the alumni initiative,” he said.
He thinks engagement teams should hustle and stress the importance of their work, and how it can help an organisation achieve its strategic initiatives. Alumni teams should seize the current opportunity to prove their worth.
“Data is king,” said Legnani. “Show your different stakeholders internally that you can have a benefit. So they understand the connection between engagement and the business.” This may mean spotlighting alumni who have gone on to achieve remarkable success and have given back to the school.
“Information about alumni is more important than alumni itself,” Legnani added. “Understand why people behave in a certain way and what engages them. Then you can focus on spending your limited budget as effectively as possible.” 
During the webinar, Michael J Destefano, global alumni leader at professional services firm EY, said that, despite the economic crisis, alumni teams may now need more resources. He recommended finding advocates and creating an external steering committee with strength in numbers and influence that may help senior leadership pay more attention to the alumni engagement function – and give it more support.
There may be a good return on investment: alumni engagement can support the core functions of an organisation. For example, you could tap into your network to build up the candidate funnel of teachers, whether it’s permanent staff with greater technology expertise to deliver classes remotely, or temporary workers to alleviate the financial strain your institution may face.
Legnani said: “Talk to your stakeholders internally and ask: what can we do for you? Do we need to hire new people, or temps, or younger people as online becomes the new way we work? Now more than ever, you might need to bring your alumni back.” This will be especially important for when the crisis abates and teaching, and administrative work needs to be ramped up.  
Alumni engagement work may also need to be intensified. Asked about his advice for setting up such a team, Destefano said it would need a leader who is entirely committed to the job. Starting out, they should build their army before their engagement programme. “Google and LinkedIn search alums to see what the population looks like,” he said. That’s the start of building a business case, for without an investment there can be no return.
Schools can reach out to alumni to help them creatively think about ways to connect with pupils and the whole community virtually, adds Watts. One way to incorporate alumni is to ask them to write letters of optimism and support to current students, especially those graduating into the crisis.  
This would help them make the transition out of school at a time of great uncertainty, with end-of-year celebrations put on hold, or online. “Networking and connections have never been more important than now,” says Watts.
But Destefano is, overall, optimistic, having worked through major crises in the past, such as the Great Recession and 9/11. “Crises help people understand they are not as independent as they thought and that networks and relationships matter,” he says. Which is good news for alumni engagement teams.  

Seb Murray is a freelance writer for ToucanTech and contributor to a range of publications including The Times, The Guardian, The Economist and The Financial Times. Seb covers education, business and tech and has interviewed numerous institutions and donors on the topic of fundraising.

ToucanTech is a community database software for schools and companies to manage their alumni, marketing, development and careers activities. Learn how you can use ToucanTech software to engage your community online by requesting a demo here. 

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