It’s five months since I began the latest phase of what’s turning out to be quite a varied career as an all-purpose comms guy. This time three years ago I was starting my final month with the European Association of Zoos & Aquaria, from an office at the back of Amsterdam Zoo; I then spent a little over two years back in the comfortable surroundings of the EBU in Grand-Saconnex, telling anyone that would listen about the work of the Technology & Innovation team there; and since 1 April I’ve been back at school, responsible for alumni relations at the International School of Geneva – or Ecolint.
Is there a common thread? Well in each case I arrived at an organisation or department where communications hadn’t previously been much more than an afterthought and was tasked with professionalising the approach, whether for events, publications, web, or any other communications channel. At EAZA and the EBU the role hadn’t existed prior to my arrival, and at Ecolint I’ve been hired to develop a largely reactive administrative role into one that’s more proactive and strategic.
From EAZA to the EBU to Ecolint…my office is on the top floor of “le Manoir” (above right).
The Ecolint Alumni Office is based on the school’s La Grande Boissière campus, about the same distance south of Geneva’s city centre as the EBU is to the north. There are two other campuses, one in the international district and one in the countryside out along the lake a bit, with a total of eight schools (pre-school, primary, middle and secondary). While the teaching staff tend to be tied to a specific campus and school, I work for “the Foundation”, which is the entity that binds it all together. It’s a not-for-profit organisation that has a deserved reputation for providing a really top class internationally-oriented education. (It is, admittedly, an expensive school to attend, at around CHF 30,000 per year, but for many students the fees are paid or subsidised by their parents’ employers, be they multinational companies or part of the UN system.)
The raw materials
Alumni programmes tend to be associated with universities. However, with a history stretching back to 1924 and a student body that currently stands at 4,400, Ecolint’s alumni are both numerous and, for the school, very important. Those who attend Ecolint tend to develop a strong bond with the place, even if they only spend a year or two before moving on. The school’s reputation is largely built on the fact that its alumni speak so highly of it. Indeed many that have remained in the region choose to send their own children there, despite the significant financial burden it can place on the family.
There are at least 30,000 Ecolint alumni around the world, and probably more. Our archives are far from complete so it’s hard to be sure how many have slipped through the net. We have around 6,000 registered as members of our web community. The website is built on a web-based software platform called YourMembership, which provides a range of tools designed to help membership-based organisations of all shapes and sizes. I spent much of the summer (after getting a big five-yearly reunion event out of the way in June) familiarising myself with the platform and making some changes to the website.
The site had become a little cluttered over the years and has, I think, benefited from a reorganisation. There are certain limitations that come with the platform and the templates we use, but I’m confident that any alum arriving at the site now should be able to find what they’re looking for without too much difficulty.
To be (social) or not to be
One challenge for people running alumni operations is how to strike a balance between your own platform and the various other social platforms that come and go. I’m slowly piecing together an approach that uses Facebook and LinkedIn to generate interest and host discussions, while also keeping most of the meat of the content on our own site.
I’m hoping that various initiatives planned for the months ahead (e.g. the 90-9-90 project) will help to drive a bit more traffic to the website and generally increase engagement levels. But it will be an uphill battle. People’s lives, and especially their digital lives, are so busy, with so many demands on their time and attention, that pulling them in to engage with activities related to their former school (even one they hold so dear) is always going to be a challenge.
It’s really just fundraising, right?
The general assumption that people have when I say I’m responsible for alumni relations is that I spend my time asking for donations. In fact fundraising is a very minor part of my job. We have fundraising staff in the Development Office (“development” being something of a euphemistic term for fundraising!) and the alumni are indeed a potential source of financial support. However, while I should and do support the fundraising efforts, I was not hired as a fundraiser. I see myself as a community manager, putting in place tools and content that help the alumni to share their stories with each other and the wider world. It’s an opportunity for me to develop a new set of skills to add to my comms toolbox.
So far I’m really enjoying this new professional adventure. My colleagues in the school’s Development Office are a nice bunch and I appreciate the fact that I have considerable autonomy with regard to the daily running of our alumni relations programme. I have the freedom to try new ideas; and there’s lots of potential for developing the role further.
One thing I’ve just tried for the first time is the use of infographics. While these graphical representations of data and ideas are not new by any means, they have become rather trendy in recent years as an alternative way of presenting information. I had to spend some time analysing our member database, drilling through the data in spreadsheets and pivot tables. It was a natural next step to generate some charts and graphs and put them all together in a format that could be used as content to further promote the community. Thus was born the “ECOLINT ALUMNOGRAPHIC 2014”. (See below)
I think it’s not bad as a first effort. Our in-house graphic designer helped me to tidy it up, but using the Foundation’s basic colour palette had already helped me to give it a coherent feel. The format was chosen partly to fit with the long narrow content areas we have on the alumni website, but also because many of the infographics that I’ve liked the most were in a similar vertical layout.
It’s not (and not meant to be) groundbreaking in terms of infographics, but it does present the data and information in an attractive and engaging format. There will, I hope, be a 2015 version of this where I can develop it further. We’ll also (hopefully) have more data to work with by then, as we’ve just started asking for more info about third level education choices, for example.
(Click the image for a bigger version – or download the PDF here.)