This Virtual Roundtable was held on the 13/May/2020. A number of university engagement professionals gathered to discuss the challenges, opportunities and responses to the pandemic situation. Below we present the highlights and takeaways.

Creating Connection events are for members of the Community Builders network. If your work involves building community, managing networks or strengthening affinity, it is free for you to join.
Sign up for your Community Builder’s membership.

Setting the scene

Introduction to the topic: Responding to a world in crisis – leveraging your community in hard times.

Group survey shared with participants asking what people are struggling with most:

Three points about how people are reacting to COVID-19:

  • Uncertain times paired up with unavoidable change
        • How to change and how long will it take us to adapt to the new environment?
  • We are all going through collective loss
        • Sense of mourning (darkness/sadness intertwined)
          • Jobs
          • Family
          • Activities
        • Communication needs to be sensitive to this
  • Where before we used to go out to join new groups and events, we can’t, and ties to the university are now more relevant than before. We need to embrace common ground and acknowledge the university has become more important to users

Three Changes of Paradigms 

  • Prioritizing speed over accuracy 
      • No need to create the perfect mailing campaign
      • Use smart segmentation to personalize comms
      • No need for the perfect wording
      • If you can’t respond quickly you fast become irrelevant
  • Approach carefully: now all treading in unknown waters
      • We don’t know how people will react to initial approaches
      • Do not give yourself too ambitious goals, but go in with an aim to innovate and test. Start from zero to test the waters.
  • Audit and analyse what the team is doing currently
    • Unis are offering platforms as a lifeline for those who are struggling, especially staff/colleagues
    • Alumni teams and Career teams are some of the best people to help build communitiesIdeas
      • Share with ideas and approaches with other teams
      • Create a protocol
      • Introduce the platform and ask what users need from this platform. Make it work for them. 

Current themes: 

  • Create spaces for mental health
      • Faculties are putting great effort into academic online life
      • There is no community for users to discuss struggles
  • Uncertainty for recent graduates
      • How to provide something tangible for them?
  • Everyone wants to help: How to provide opportunities for people to help each other?

SPOTLIGHT: UWE Initiatives related to COVID19

Noor Nixon, Alumni Engagement Manager, University of West of England talks about their initiatives.

UWE presented their Coronavirus Emergency Fund, Key Worker Campaign and shared how they are supporting their finalists.

UWE have 30,000 students and 3,000 staff. They have been acting quickly and developed 4 campaigns:

    • Main initiative: Keyworker campaign
      • Share pride, inspire others and celebrate talent
      • Uni has Nightingale hospital on campus and has training students (nurses, midwives and other healthcare professionals) stepping in there to help
      • Share stories from students and graduates
        • alumni, students & staff share short, sharp 1-minute videos to share their name, role and the pride they feel in being connected to the uni.
        • asked what they enjoy most about their roles and top tips for self-isolating
        • Create a very positive movement
        • Want to be organic, and generate more videos
        • They are encouraged to post on own platforms, in order to remain GDPR compliant using their # so they can be reposted/reshared by the university
        • Have been emailing directly
        • If you want to see the posts related to this campaign and others search for the #teamuwe hashtag on Twitter
      • Have had a few posts, and have had a lot of interest
        • People want to share their stories
        • Once shared, UWE follow up to get them to join the community, to mentor and share experience
        • This is a stepping stone to connect to other things as well

Question: What were the number of posts? How did that impact traffic to where you wanted it to go?

          • 5 posts so far
          • They posted in different places, sharing to different people, hard to track
          • Have emailed 100+ alumni asking for support in sharing with their contacts
  • Coronavirus emergency fund/hardship fund
      • Fundraising usually is run by the alumni team and usually used to support community projects and hardship funds.
        • They now merged all funds to create an emergency fund specifically for this
        • UWE contributed £60,000+ to 350 students
          • In two weeks all funds were gone
          • Put out a call to funding database as well as partners and local businesses through careers and research and innovation departments
          • There were 30+ donations in the last week prior to the roundtable
          • Santander made a donation of £25,000
        • Partners, careers, research
          • Getting them to support students
          • Offered equipment and software
          • They have been sensitive about the message (asking for money) and there has been no negative feedback as of yet
          • Still following up to send them to their mentoring platform (powered by Aluminate)

Question: How did you determine the scale of the need?

The student money service looked at students wanting hardship grants and assessed it was likely they would need additional support. So they emailed those most in need to ask if they wanted support (for equipment, also those with special needs etc) and got 200 requests in 2 weeks.

  • Managing/promoting Alumni Connect
    • Linked  with the careers service to promote
    • Looking to offer final year students opportunity to join webinars
      • Careers coach will cover job-related sections
      • Noor will cover how to use the Alumni connect Platform
        • Students don’t’ use it as effectively as they could
        • Show and tell and live chat to show process of finding a mentor
        • Students then tend to be more proactive
    • Go through careers offer, to use platform and careers together as a combined careers offer.
      • Difficult to get the message out in regards to benefits
        • Contacts
        • Mentors in niche areas
        • Webinars will allow sharing that can’t be put in comms

Question: How many webinars/chats will you host?

Just developing plans, but initially looking at 6 webinars and 6 live chats for those that did not want to join webinars.

Were very careful about messaging and asking for money on social media in case of trolls. This is why UWE focussed on those students in obvious need

Anyone with their own initiatives?

One university decided to press pause on regular giving, instead, doing more active stewardship, connecting and mentoring. Major donor activity is easier to do as they know the background of prospects. 

Another university decided 10 days after lockdown to launch fundraising for research into COVID-19, leading to one significant donation of £100,000 resulting in surpassing £200,000 target.

Launching Monday fundraiser for students, hardship fund to be opened to all students, including the class of 2020.

Alignment: what is in the public mind as a cause to get behind?

How to align alumni relations to the current need?

  • A school of management: Executive education programmes had to be cancelled, but have been promoting professor webinars (free). One of the faculty (medical school doing research on antibodies for COVID), helped to raise money as each email about webinar had donation link. 
  • University did a campaign for Ebola and raised £500,000. Found that new donors for emergency funds were 3 times more likely to give a second gift, and increase their gifts than other donors, especially with a very specific call for help. May well give again if they are well stewarded.


Is now not the right time to ask for fundraising?

Major gift work or regular giving?: Community giving to emphasise community need. 

Are the donors people who were already previously engaged with UWE?

Regular donors, some are giving more, but there are also new donors, including staff. New people feeling connected

What was the assessment of the scale of the need that went out with the campaign ask?

Student money service (separate dept) looked at students who had applied for grants in the current academic year, likely will need additional support. Sent email out specifically, resulting in an influx of 200 requests in 2 weeks. 

UWE want students who need it the most to receive it. 

Another department working on additional needs (other than equipment).

How many webinars are you planning on hosting? How often?

6 webinars, along with separate live chats

How to be sensitive with fundraising

Hesitant to put on social media due to trolls, but have not had any negative feedback. People seem to be quite giving and understanding

Open Roundtable Discussion

Graduations: You have only one opportunity to capture that audience to get them to join the platform, connect to the alumni team. How are they going to create that community with final year students?

A university holding virtual graduation for medics and have agreed with the senior leadership team and will run 2020 graduations will happen in absentia July. Planning a video that will launch on the morning they graduate that they can view and a personalised message from the dean of their school. They will also be graduating in person in July 2021.

UWE: will graduates will receive short video messages. Considered getting certificates via email, but will be receiving in the post which includes an invite to join the alumni community.

Consultant: suggests hosting a tangible welcome roundtable with Alumni, to welcome new graduates to get on to the platform, with tips, and maybe pre-match them in chat (August & Sept). Finalists make a big pool of resources for volunteering.

An idea: Get graduates who have been through this before (2008 and 2009) engage with them and ask them how to handle the recession and job market

One university is looking to run a mentoring programme (quick and fast) to aim at WP grads from the class of 2020, with mentors who graduated during the financial crisis of 2008/2009.

UWE: prior to this job, managed the Equity programme that offers face to face mentoring for minority/ethnic etc students with long-serving alumni professionals. Had an effect of achievement for 2nd  and 3rd-year students. Matching is resource-heavy, but once matched, straight forward. Working to get alumni to connect to manually match in the database, launch next month by looking at current mentors with students graduating this year.

Regarding levels of engagement on the online platforms, have we seen an increase in engagement?

  • 1500 more logins than last year with a simple campaign
  • Campaigns around COVID have increased logins and new users joining as well

Reverse mentoring idea: mentees submitting help and mentors choosing from a list of mentees.

This “NEEDS management” – encourage needs to be shared and to make them more visible. Attendees thoughts…

  • Spend time on stewarding the need rather than the mentors
  • Start surveying alumni, those who need something?
  • Make it easy. Usually, we have a pool of alumni, but it’s the opposite right now, need a pool of people who are in need. Make it easy for them to express what they need. Use your private, supportive community.
  • A good reminder about mental health, post an opportunity on a platform to share what support is available around mental health as sometimes people aren’t looking for it. Very conscious about current students, career and opportunities. 


A reminder that Aluminati themselves have created two initiatives to tailor the platform to specific needs of clients at this time:

Admissions Retentions Platform: 

Roundtables are exclusively for members. Feel free to register for the events below and then sign up to Community Builders Network in order to receive information for future events.

Join the Community Builders Network

  • Become part of a professional and supportive network of peers.
  • Receive invites to exclusive Creating Connection events including round tables, webinars, regional dinners and drinks.
  • Receive copies of The Alumination – a newsletter full of community sector insights.
  • Be invited to the Community Builders Conference.

Marketing permission: I would like to join the Community Builders Network so that I can receive information and news about community engagement best practice, tools and services. I would like to also receive information about opportunities to connect with other professionals at Creating Connection events and conferences.

What to expect: If you wish to withdraw your consent and stop hearing from us, simply click the unsubscribe link at the bottom of every email we send or contact us at We value and respect your personal data and privacy. To view our privacy policy, please visit our website. By submitting this form, you agree that we may process your information in accordance with these terms.