Our February Creating Connection Roundtable event welcomed Hannah Fox, Head of Alumni Relations at Regent’s University, London.
A brand-new alumni team started at Regent’s in January 2020 with the vision of creating an engaging alumni programme from scratch. After two months of building their strategy, their direction had to change dramatically overnight when the pandemic hit the UK. In this session, Hannah reflected on how Regents responded to the challenges that COVID-19 brought, how they got the programme off the ground remotely, and how they turned challenges into positives which eventually led to a successful outcome.
At the time of writing, Hannah had worked in the sector for 9 years, starting at UCL before spending 5 years in various alumni engagement and fundraising roles at London Business School.
A Fresh Start
Regent’s University is a beautiful and reasonably small, private institution, with 6000 London based students and 450 staff members. Before the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, the university’s alumni relations programme had been running for just over a year. In 2019, Regent’s decided to put further investment into its alumni relations and make the programme more central to the other activities at the university.
Hannah Fox joined the team in early 2020 and in her November 2019 job interview she suggested that the programme would effectively be starting from scratch stating “in an ideal world, you would love to take a year off from all your other activities and be able to spend that year talking to people”.
So there they were, in January 2020 with a new team, a new direction and a new ‘strategy’. Whilst the strategy was new to Regent’s University, it was already tried and tested at other institutions and Hannah set about to implement this proven strategy at Regent’s.
Although the university’s student-alumni body was 85% international, the consensus was that a brand-new alumni relations programme should involve a great deal of physical interaction between the department and its alumni. This meant bringing people back to the main campus and recreating that nostalgic feeling, or working with the VC and recruitment team to go to international locations to be present for their alumni.
With this in mind, on 1st of March 2020, Hannah and her team had a class reunion planned; a series of recruitment events planned across the West Coast of the US with several alumni volunteers already signed up to assist; a large ‘global speakers’ series underway with over 100 people attending campus events and the university had just launched its Campus Access Card which allowed alumni to access the campus and its resources for work or research purposes.
“Things were good, and things were on track…and then the 16th March came along!” Hannah Fox.
The first UK nationwide lockdown came into immediate effect. For Hannah and her team, this meant no events, no travel and more importantly, no face to face meetings.
Overnight, their entire strategy from creating volunteer opportunities, planning events, creating networks and bringing people together had to take a whole new direction.
The one thing the team still had left in their arsenal was the ability to talk to people and that became the sole focus moving forward. With no knowledge on how long the lockdown was going to last, they established some new goals.
- To discover and share great alumni stories.
- Get internal ‘buy-in’ for the programme at the University amongst their other professional services colleagues.
- Work with the University’s academics to find hidden alumni who were already engaging with the institution but not necessarily the alumni department.
Hannah noted that from these conversations, they were able to find out so much more than originally anticipated.
It’s Good To Talk
The alumni relations team found they were able to engage with a great number of ‘cold alumni’ who had not been engaged with the university for five, ten or even fifteen years. Lots of these newly engaged alumni then went on to sign up for the departments volunteering programme, which allowed Hannah to move the programme online.
“These conversations with our alumni really helped us to shape the future of the programme”, said Hannah, “we were having so many feedback conversations, asking alumni what they would like to see from the programme, and we really did find the most amazing alumni stories.”
The team’s conversations with the institution’s professional services staff saw a huge change in attitude around alumni. Pre-pandemic conversations would more often than not focus on staff, students and faculty and slowly but surely, conversations started to include alumni when discussing the greater Regent’s community.
The university’s senior leadership also began to see alumni as stakeholders when it came to areas such as course design, curriculum contribution or overall strategy. Regent’s was able to engage with these key sector leaders within their alumni community to shape the strategy for the university. Hannah noted that colleagues started really seeing the potential of their alumni. The university’s conversion officers were able to connect students with alumni easily online and because of these positive interactions, Regent’s ambassador programme grew.
Hannah’s team were also able to engage with already engaged alumni alongside the faculty, creating some fantastic opportunities for them, which really strengthened existing opportunities throughout the university.
Hannah and her team may have been thrown in at the deep end but the changes they experienced also led to newfound opportunities. They were able to have quick ‘coffee chats’ with alumni all over the world. Alumni videos were easier to produce due to a lack of expectation for high production values during the lockdown. They also saw an increase in alumni online volunteering globally, simply because it was so much more accessible.
With a team of just two, the Regent’s University Alumni Relations department were able to have over 200 individual virtual coffees with their alumni, recruiting 139 new alumni volunteers and accruing over 700 volunteering hours across 2020.
“We have been able to engage with more of the Regent’s community in a more meaningful way. We’ve had time to ask questions and find out answers without the pressure of developing on a pre-formed strategy too.” Hannah said, “It’s shown us that authenticity (aka rough and ready) can actually be a good thing and it has encouraged us to simplify our strategy moving forward”.
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