Financial Mail - - COVER STORY - David Fur­longer fur­longerd@fm.co.za Ran­dall Jonas

Many SA busi­ness schools don’t know how to use the old-boy/old-girl net­work. It’s never too late to learn

Har­vard Busi­ness School’s en­dow­ment fund, at over $3bn, is big­ger than the GDP of more than 30 coun­tries, in­clud­ing 10 in Africa. Add the schools of Stan­ford, Whar­ton, Kel­logg and Sloan, and the com­bined $7.7bn out­ranks the in­come of 45 coun­tries.

Wel­come to the world of alumni re­la­tions at US busi­ness schools, where for­mer stu­dents think noth­ing of do­nat­ing for­tunes to the ed­u­ca­tional in­sti­tu­tions where they stud­ied.

These are fig­ures SA busi­ness schools can only dream of. In part, it is be­cause SA does not share the US tra­di­tion of large do­na­tions to ter­tiary alma maters. But it’s also be­cause, on the whole, SA schools are lousy at keep­ing in touch with their grad­u­ates.

Re­search for this story shows that, over­all, SA schools have re­tained con­tact with 73% of MBA alumni who grad­u­ated in the past five years. At some schools, the fig­ure is over 90%, at two it’s 30%. For those who grad­u­ated between six and 10 years ago, the con­tact rate falls to 47%. When it comes to more than 10 years, it’s 29%. Six schools are at 10% or lower.

It’s not al­ways the schools’ fault alone. Uni­ver­si­ties to which some be­long in­sist on man­ag­ing all alumni ac­tiv­i­ties. Univer­sity of Stel­len­bosch Busi­ness School dean Piet Naudé says: “We work with the univer­sity in es­tab­lish­ing alumni re­la­tions, but main­tain our own ‘in­tel­li­gent’ data­base to com­mu­ni­cate to spe­cific au­di­ences rep­re­sented by our alumni.”

Rhodes Busi­ness School direc­tor Owen Skae speaks for many schools when he says: “We have ne­glected alumni, but there is a con­certed ef­fort to change that.”

For some, the first step has been to call in Graduway, a Uk-based in­ter­na­tional con­sul­tancy spe­cial­is­ing in alumni re­la­tions. Univer­sity of the Free State Busi­ness School dean He­lena van Zyl says her im­me­di­ate pri­or­ity is for the com­pany to cre­ate and main­tain an up­dated con­tact list to keep alumni in­formed of what’s hap­pen­ing at the school. A more de­tailed strat­egy will be de­vel­oped over time.

Graduway CEO Daniel Co­hen says: “Nearly all schools are do­ing a sub­op­ti­mal job in en­gag­ing their alumni. In most cases, the last point of con­tact was on grad­u­a­tion day.”

All over the world, gov­ern­ments are rein­ing in spend­ing on ter­tiary ed­u­ca­tion, and schools are re­ly­ing more on pri­vate sec­tor in­come. Skae says: “We need third-stream in­come to bal­ance the books.”

But will it come from alumni? SA busi­ness lead­ers such as Don­ald Gor­don and Mark Lam­berti have shown largesse in the past, but Naudé says: “We do not fore­see alumni re­la­tions as a huge fu­ture stream of in­come.”

Courting alumni has ben­e­fits be­yond rev­enue. A sat­is­fied grad­u­ate is a mar­ket­ing am­bas­sador for the school. They may also be a valu­able teach­ing re­source. Busi­ness schools are al­ways look­ing for suc­cess­ful en­trepreneurs and ex­ec­u­tives to teach classes.

Alumni want to be part of some­thing with mean­ing and pur­pose Jon Fos­ter-ped­ley

Ran­dall Jonas, direc­tor of the Nel­son Man­dela Univer­sity Busi­ness School and pres­i­dent of the SA Busi­ness

Schools As­so­ci­a­tion, says: “You need role mod­els who can pro­vide ev­i­dence that what you are teach­ing is pay­ing off in the lives of grad­u­ates.

“We want peo­ple to be­lieve their MBA is the begin­ning of some­thing big in their lives.”

Dar­ren Ravens, mar­ket­ing man­ager at the Univer­sity of Cape Town’s Grad­u­ate School of Busi­ness (GSB), says alumni can in­spire stu­dents with their busi­ness ex­pe­ri­ences. They are also “a source for telling the good sto­ries of the [school’s] trans­for­ma­tive im­pact in the world”.

The prob­lem in many cases, says Co­hen, is that busi­ness schools don’t prac­tise what they preach. They teach their stu­dents the im­por­tance of long-term strate­gic plan­ning, then fo­cus them­selves on short-term as­pects such as budgeting, stu­dent in­takes and in-house pol­i­tics.

“Alumni re­la­tion­ships should be life­long,” he says. “Don’t look at grad­u­ates as for­mer clients but as fu­ture ones. En­gage them. They are ar­guably your most im­por­tant as­set.”

Charisse Dro­bis, head of ca­reer man­age­ment

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