Keeping alumni invested in their alma mater is hard work.
Gill St. Bernard's School, an independent school in Gladstone, New Jersey, had to work even harder to re-engage alumni after a merger and decades of change.
It fell to the school's development and alumni relations teams to make their older alumni feel welcome again. We talked to Chanelle Walker, director of alumni relations, and James Diverio, director of development, about their efforts to honor their alumni's history without losing sight of the future. They recently presented on their work at the CASE NAIS Conference in New York.
Could you tell us, in brief, the story of Gill St. Bernard’s School’s origins? What have been the biggest challenges the school has faced engaging alumni after the merger?
Gill St. Bernard’s School is the result of a merger between the Gill school, a girls' finishing school, and St. Bernard’s school, a religious all-boys farming school. Both schools started as boarding schools but eventually transitioned into day schools. The two schools merged in 1972.
The merger was not a smooth transition at all. The school now had two campuses about 10 minutes apart and struggled with figuring out their new identity. Following the merger the school seemed to take on changes in identity almost every decade.
One of the most drastic changes was the change in curriculum which was referred to as the Unit Plan. Upper school students focused on a single subject for 6 weeks at a time. The intention was to give students a completely immersive experience. By the 80s enrollment was dwindling with graduating classes of less than 20 students. The Unit Plan was phased out for a more traditional style of learning. The Unit remains in a more scaled down model which takes place towards the end of the school year.
During the 90s the school found itself in dire straits and could no longer afford to keep both campuses. With pushback from the town where the Gill School was located, the school had to sell what was the home of the girls’ school.
These key changes all contributed to the lack of developing a strong cohesive identity that all alumni could recognize after they left the school. Too often we have heard people refer to the school as no longer being their school because they do not recognize it.
How do you get alumni to identify with their ‘new’ alma mater after a major change in identity?
The school started with making alumni affairs a real focus. This began with the creation of a designated position specifically focused on alumni and beginning to evaluate how the school was communicating with its alumni.
The message had to be shifted so that alumni did not feel ignored and their history erased. We had to start focusing on how to articulate we are a school with a complicated history but the same core values. The school is thriving, holding a stronger position in the community than ever in its history.
We have specifically gone about this by doing more one on one visits with alumni, building a stronger volunteer base, creating regional events and rethinking reunions. We now hold two separate reunions, one focused on the 50th anniversary class, and for the alumni who were a part of the school prior to the merger.
What have you learned from overcoming challenges in your case that we can all apply to our work in advancement and alumni relations?
Make sure you are paying attention to the voices of your constituency. Many people fall into the trap of doing the same thing because of the mindset this is what our organization has always done or this is what other organizations do. Let the voices of those you serve be reflected in your decisions. Honor their history while embracing the future.