A WASTED RESOURCE
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