Our school has a long history. It was founded in 1698, amalgamating with a girls’ grammar before becoming a CofE comprehensive for girls in 1977. Since then, the process of rebuilding and repair has been ongoing as we strive to provide high-quality learning for our 1,099 students, two-thirds of whom are from ethnic minority backgrounds and one-third of whom speak English as a second language.
Our aim of increasing opportunities for students – through both better facilities and more meaningful links with the world of work – has led us to rethink alumni relations. The school’s Old Greys Association has existed since 1899, and organises reunions, as well as funding the annual school prizes. However, its membership is drawn primarily from older age groups and we wanted to extend our reach to alumni of all ages. Our idea was to develop an alumni community that would be actively engaged with the school, supporting our fundraising initiatives and sharing life and career experiences with current students.
The first step was to sign up with Future First –a charity that helps schools develop alumni networks – to build a new alumni database. I was brought on board last year, with the remit of getting alumni more involved with the school – and with each other – through networking and events. To date, 739 former pupils have registered on the Future First database and most are signed up to our regular mailing list. They include police officers, lawyers, doctors, scientists, professors, businesspeople, those involved with church administration, teachers, prospective parliamentary candidates, current parents, and an author of children’s fiction.
We have a LinkedIn page, which actively searches for alumni and now has 196 followers. The plan is to sponsor more posts to increase engagement. Many alumni initially signed up to hear about reunions, so we did see some tailing off during lockdown, when the prospect of such events looked unlikely. However, we have around 20 alumni who regularly engage with us and have been very generous about sharing their experiences through careers advice and workshops.
We want to develop a culture of giving, so saying ‘thank you’ and publicising the support alumni provide is important in acknowledging the value of their time and effort. After we received £10,000 from one generous donor in their will, I set up a Legacy Club, as a way to say ‘thank you’ in advance to any alumni who decide to leave funds to us. To date, three more donors have confirmed they have promised undisclosed amounts to the school in their wills.
We’ve also set up a new giving website, The Grey Coat Gift (itsworthdoingwell.co.uk/GCH/home), which will highlight ongoing fundraising appeals and coordinate regular giving and pledges. This includes a survey for alumni. Future First is asking alumni to send a short video of their experiences at GCH for inclusion in a ‘testimonials’ video. I’m currently working on an oral history project with our librarian that will include interviewing lots of our older alumni. Additionally, we’re creating opportunities for alumni to reconnect through regular communications, including newsletter updates on the activities of current GCH students. For instance, our recent mailing included information about A-level fashion and textiles students participating in an online workshop on Gender in Advertising with the Museum of Brands, and also featured the story of a Year 9 student who raised £368 for the NHS during the first lockdown, cycling every day for nearly a month and a half.
Our most recent school improvement project was the refurbishment and updating of our sixth-form suite, which is open to boys. However, our development and repairs programme continues, and since I began sending out regular updates to alumni, donations have started to come in. We have found that pitching projects as ‘ongoing’ encourages more donations from alumni in particular, as they can feel more involved.
One very generous anonymous donation allowed us to make a five-figure match-funding bid for repairs to our St Michael’s and St Andrew’s buildings. The St Andrew’s building evokes particularly strong memories for alumni as its front entrance on Greycoat Street is emblematic of the school, and its antique staircase is quite a feature!
We’re now planning online ticketed events and also looking at alumni joining us to provide an online careers festival. And, as the alumni programme gathers momentum, new opportunities are emerging. One alumna interested in leaving a legacy remembered a large organ that was on its last legs and asked if she could leave something to replace it in her will. In fact, it has already been replaced by a grand piano, but I was able to provide her with details on our current musical projects for her to consider supporting instead!