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Articles > Building Your Community > Building an alumni community in a COVID world

Building an alumni community in a COVID world

Mary-Lou O'Brien, experienced consultant specialising in digital transformation, discusses how to choose the right platform to build your digital alumni community.

As an independent consultant specialising in digital transformation, Mary-Lou O'Brien shares her wisdom on what schools and educational institutions should focus on when choosing a platform to host their alumni community. 

Community building during COVID

Due to COVID-19 in 2020 we saw many schools, universities and organisations grapple with how to connect with their communities when all face to face events were cancelled. I witnessed a growth in interest in alumni engagement and online platforms as people sought different ways of fostering their community, keeping them engaged as they tried not to drop their finely honed fundraising capital campaigns altogether. 

One of the platforms I’m often asked to advise on for schools is alumni management, but yet some of these platforms can offer schools so much more. The first question I ask of a school is what outcomes they are looking for as this can range from fundraising or community building right through to student mentoring programmes. Once I know the driver behind what can be a costly investment I can assess the best program to meet their needs and exceed expectations.

Engaging your stakeholders - who to involve and when?

When you are considering any major platform you need to do your research, there are so many programs out there and in the early stages you will want to ensure you have input from all your stakeholders. Your Chief Digital Officer or IT Director will need to be included as they have a working knowledge of the regulatory requirements around cyber security, data security, data retention and privacy legislation. That will be the first hurdle, as there’s no point wasting your time, or that of the product representatives, if you know they don’t meet your countries regulatory requirements.

I would always start the process with an excel spreadsheet of your “NEEDS”, flowing into your “WANTS” down the first column. This document then provides the starting points for your vendor discussions. Given that most platforms allow you to begin the process by importing data from your existing SIS (Student Information System) which in most instances remains your single source of truth, you may well discover that before you can begin you need to invest time into cleansing your data. Whilst this can certainly slow down your implementation plan it’s a worthwhile investment to get it right before you begin. 

Once the technical and regulatory requirements are met you need to decide the features that will be in both your “Needs” and your “Wants”. Consideration of your audience, their age and access to a device will play a huge part in this process.  

Writing your wishlist

The majority of platforms offer the following so which of these are the most important to you?

  • A searchable directory of members
  • Groups e.g. year levels, sport groups or perhaps an alumni book club
  • Virtual networking
  • Messaging and/or live chat functionality
  • Built in mentoring facilitation
  • Fundraising management and tracking
  • Photo albums where admins and users can upload and share photos
  • Job boards
  • A members business directory
  • Event management: invitations, ticketing and payment integrations
  • Newsletter bulletins or weekly/monthly digests
  • Data analytics to track member engagement
  • Cloud based, so ensure they have a server located in your country
  • Integration with CRM’s, SIS’s and social media platforms.

Once you decide on a platform it’s time to work with your marketing experts on an engagement strategy, as the successful launch of any digital platform will ultimately depend on your alumni engagement strategy. As part of your strategy you will need to start with a mission and vision statement, as this will help set your strategic priorities and from there your plan should flow. 

The platforms now available to you are varied and can provide so much more than a LinkedIn or Facebook page ever could. It’s not something you’ve considered before I urge you to make contact with a few and discover for yourself all that they can offer as I can guarantee you’ll wonder how you ever managed without one. 

Many thanks to Mary-Lou O'Brien for sharing her insight in this article. You can find out more about her expertise here

About Mary-Lou O'Brien

Mary-Lou has had a very varied background that includes being one of Australia's internet pioneers when she started one of Australia's first online retail businesses in 1997. She then moved into the Higher Education sector before moving to K-12 in 2009. After 9 years as the Director of eLearning at Melbourne Girls Grammar, in 2017 she accepted the role of Chief Digital Officer to complete their digital transformation. She was a finalist for the CIO of the year award in 2018 and she and her team were widely recognised for their innovative approach, winning numerous innovation awards from 2015-2019. Mary-Lou is now an independent consultant specialising in digital transformation projects, with clients across Australia and in Canada.

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