The pandemic has, in many ways, felt like living through a real-life disaster movie. The cost to lives and livelihoods across the world has been felt acutely and we will be living with the economic and social impact of the coronavirus for years to come. However, as we embark on the “road to freedom” it is also worth reflecting on some of the positives that have arisen in school development, mainly as a result of enforced innovation.
“Embracing opportunity” is the theme for the IDPE 2021 Annual Conference taking place in June this year. Many of the sessions will draw on perhaps the biggest challenge from the last 12 months, but also the biggest opportunity for the years ahead: the move to online provision for development and alumni programmes. It feels like 10 years of change has taken place in 10 months, and with some surprisingly positive results.
Firstly, many schools have actually seen an increase in alumni engagement. Traditionally alumni events tended to take place at either the institution or in major cities, like London, making it hard for many alumni to attend. Virtual events are open to everyone, wherever they are in the world, making them much more accessible, in part because there is no need to travel.
The Perse School in Cambridge ran eight “Pint of Perse” online seminars last year and found that one-third of attendees lived more than 50 miles away. At Marlborough College more than 1,500 people have attended our virtual events programme over the last 12 months — a record year.
“Many development offices have been using Zoom to sustain and develop relationships with their donors, particularly those based overseas.”
Secondly, development offices have been forced to become more creative in their event programming, meaning that new types of events have emerged. Sherborne School has run a series of virtual reunions by boarding house, year and region, as well as Business Breakfasts, whilst The Perse set up an online “university challenge” style quiz between alumni, staff and pupils.
Last spring we introduced a new regular speaker series for the whole Marlborough community, Marlburian Mondays, featuring prominent alumni speakers talking on a range of topics from mountaineering to politics. These talks have been extremely well received with more than 100 people participating on average and I know other schools have experienced similar interest in their online events. Due to their popularity, we will be continuing these talks even when “normality” returns and I am sure many schools will be running a hybrid model of in-person and online events in the future.
Thirdly, relationships with donors can be maintained successfully in a virtual world. Many development offices have been using Zoom to sustain and develop relationships with their donors, particularly those based overseas, and I am sure that as a result, international travel will reduce in the future, which is no doubt a good thing for the environment as well as school budgets.
“Harrow School hosted online dinners with major donors, with a mini hamper of food and wine sent round to their homes in advance.”
At Marlborough we are in the planning stages of a major bursary campaign so we set up a series of focus groups featuring major donors, parents, alumni, pupils and staff. It turns out Zoom actually works incredibly well for running focus groups (and they are lot easier to organise) and the feedback we have received has been invaluable for shaping our strategy. Taking an even more innovative approach Harrow School ran a series of online dinners with major donors, hosted virtually by the headmaster with a mini hamper of food and wine being sent round to their homes in advance.
Fourthly, fundraising does not stop and can even flourish virtually. Many schools have actually seen an increase in donations over the last 12 months, in part fuelled by the increase in financial hardship cases, and have run successful online campaigns and appeals, including the increasingly popular Giving Days. In March this year Portsmouth Grammar School raised £250,000 from 650 donors in just 36 hours. No doubt digital fundraising will continue to grow as an important fundraising channel in the future.
“Inequalities highlighted by the pandemic have provided a unique opportunity for independent schools to reflect on their role in society.”
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the social, cultural and economic inequalities highlighted by the pandemic have provided a unique opportunity for independent schools to reflect on their role in society and how they can become more accessible and work more closely in partnership with the state sector.
There is no doubt that the need for financial support will have increased and private schools will need to ensure they are well positioned to help as many young people as possible. Bursary fundraising, and the number of bursary places available, have increased dramatically in the last few years and looks set to rise still further in the years ahead.
I am looking forward to discussing these, and undoubtedly many more ideas on embracing virtual opportunities, at the IDPE 2021 Annual Conference in June which, of course, is taking place online.
For more information about the IDPE 2021 Annual Conference click here: