Tapping into Connectivity: Engaging alumni/ae after significant changes have been made to the school

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 By Suzanne Hilser-Wiles

Planning for the CASE NAIS conference this year has coincided with some more personal planning for me – my high school reunion! Each school that we work with at GG+A talks about those special classes, the ones where the students were closer, the bonds were stronger, their engagement was greater. I was lucky enough to be part of one of those special classes at my alma mater, The Masters School in Dobbs Ferry, NY (affectionately known as “Dobbs”).

This engagement continues to this day; my class is actively connected online, and our section of “class notes” tends to be among the longest, as people are eager to share and hear news of each other. One of the most amazing things to me is how many of my classmates seek each other out as they travel or move to new towns. I often hear stories of connections made by not just those who were close friends during our Dobbs days, but more often between people who weren’t necessarily close friends, but who are always happy to see other women from our class.

Which brings me to the challenge: we graduated from an all girls’ school, which had a significant day population, but which was largely a boarding school. Since then, the composition of the school has shifted more toward day students, but much more significantly, it has also gone co-ed. My class is filled with remarkably accomplished women, a significant number of whom are entrepreneurs, senior executives, and successful professionals – almost all of whom would tell you that attending a girls’ school was a life-changing event.

How do you tap into the feelings of gratitude for that experience, and the enormous connection between classmates, when the thing that many identify as most important to their education is no longer a part of the school?

I am sure that the Development staff at Dobbs, not to mention the many other schools which have faced this same challenge over the last 25 years, have spent a great deal of time thinking this through. Here are some things I would think about if I were the Development Director in this situation:

Getting people to campus is key

Often getting people to visit will get them excited about the positive changes that have occurred, but can also reconnect them to the places they love. Classes like mine often organize a class dinner on their own. Can you offer groups of alumni/ae a space to meet on campus? Can you offer some other incentive to make sure people attend the “official” reunion events – letting them know a favorite faculty member of their era will be onsite to tour the new facilities with them? Have you invited them to meet as a class with the Head of School or Board Chair for a few minutes? Can you engage one or two “ambassadors” within the class to communicate why the campus visit is important?

Be creative with gift opportunities

Reunion gifts are often unrestricted gifts to the annual fund, but is there a way to create a class gift opportunity, which speaks to the thing that is most important to these alumni/ae? In the case of my class, could our gifts be used to support a scholarship for a girl who has demonstrated extraordinary leadership? Thinking about reunion giving in new ways may help engage a broader group of donors.

Really engage class leaders

In those classes where connection is especially strong, don’t underestimate the influence of a classmate asking! Having one or two alumni/ae explain why giving is part of their reunion plan and reminding classmates that reunion gifts are an important way of expressing gratitude can be very effective in unlocking additional gifts.

I am sure that those of you working at independent schools which have faced similar challenges have your own good ideas for addressing them, and I would love to hear them! Please feel free to contact me or look for me and my colleagues, Carey Bloomfield and Jim McKey, at CASE NAIS in New York January 31-February 2, 2016. Be sure to email me ahead of time at shilser-wiles@grenzglier.com to let me know you will be there!

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About the author

Suzanne Hilser-Wiles


Suzanne Hilser-Wiles, President, partners with GG+A clients around the globe to help them elevate their fundraising by offering more than 25 years of experience in advancement, program building, and campaign planning and implementation. Throughout her career, she has helped design, rebuild, and reimagine programs by applying her experience with a…