In the last 10 – 15 years Alumni Relations has become an increasingly key component of well-defined Advancement programmes. Gillian Mitchell speaks about who is eligible to be an alumnus, and calls for alumni relations that are fully integrated into the institutional Advancement programme.

Intense discussions usually follow the question: who is eligible to be an alumnus?  Dictionaries define alumni as people who have graduated from an institution. Membership of that community of graduates is perceived to bring with it a sense of accomplishment, pride of association, and a significant appreciation for the work of the institution. In turn this sense of belonging is fostered by the institution through alumni relations programmes that seek to build loyalty to the institution beyond the dates of graduation.

Alumni Relations started out with old boys – and it really was the old boys in the beginning as the student population was overwhelming male – getting together to reminisce about their times together and to help keep their colleges’ status and academic reputation current and sustainable. This was the start of the old boys clubs, events and fundraisers designed as much to provide fun and entertainment for the participants and an opportunity to relive their youthful experiences as they were to provide support for the college.

In its “middle years” Alumni Relations programmes focused on being points of contact and the brokers of information between the university and alumni and amongst the alumni community.

In the last 10 – 15 years Alumni Relations has become an increasingly key component of well-defined Advancement programmes.
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In South African where the tertiary education funding environment continues to shift into increasing dependence on third stream income i.e. funding not gained from government or fees, to fund core academic programmes, finding loyal donors beyond the philanthropic trusts and corporate organisations is critical and places the alumni community firmly in the spotlight. With this comes the opportunity for forward thinking institutions to revisit their definitions of who qualifies for alumni status and to re-examine the potential of the alumni community to contribute meaningfully to institutional health and innovation.

South Africa has over 20 universities and universities of technology. The definition of alumni is not homogenous amongst them. Although all of them agree that graduates of their institution are alumni, there are many caveats and shades of difference depending on the university.

Internationally, definitions of alumni have already pushed the edges of that traditional definition to include the people who have other touch points with the institution. These may include students who registered but did not complete a course, students who register for short courses or summer school programmes, long standing suppliers, staff, parents, retired and ex staff members, and so on.

University relations programmes that understand the value that these communities can bring to the institution and which cultivates and stewards them with committed programmes that capitalize on their potential will build strong, loyal and, most importantly, contributory advancement programmes.

In the conventional model Alumni Relations programmes served as the gatekeepers and connectors between the institution and its alumni and between the alumni themselves.  Both of those functions need to be reassessed in our current social and educational funding environment. Alumni do not need the institution to connect and for institutions that are working to continually grow their donor bases and potential contact pools, restricted gatekeeping makes little sense.

This is not, however, to suggest that re-thinking eligibility for alumnus status is either simple or straightforward. The redefining of who constitutes a university’s alumni community requires thoughtful open-minded engagement that may, not only broaden the parameters of who is included within that community, but must also clearly understand the value of that community and have a plan on how to take full advantage of that potential.


Alumni Relations programmes, almost by definition, understand the mechanics of relationship building and of bridging loyalty gaps. This is a precious skill and an institution can only benefit from applying it widely and thoughtfully so that their communities become appropriately inclusive and aptly diverse. Alumni Relations programmes that do not have as their end goal the conversion of alumni to loyal contributors – whether time, talent or money – are not fully developing the capacity at their disposal.

Friendraising as an end to itself is dead.  

As each university fights for their slice of funding from all of the various pies, it becomes increasingly important that alumni communities become as inclusive as possible in order to ensure that opportunities are being generated and mined as widely as possible. Institutions that recognize the necessity to increase, steward and mine their touch points with the world beyond the academic walls are likely to build alumni communities that are loyal, informed, engaged and actively supportive.

Author: Gillian Mitchell: Inyathelo Associate