Preparing Email Communications Plans for School Donors and Volunteers

Marts & Lundy consultants Ann Badger and Alan Watkinson offer the following suggestions.

In these times of uncertainty and anxiety, it is important for our donors and volunteers – indeed, for all members of our community – to hear from us about what our institution is doing, how we are planning for life beyond COVID-19. But it is not all about us. We need to be in touch with our community to hear from them about how they are coping, what they are hoping for, and how we can work together to do what we do best – look out for each other and build a stronger community. We would like everyone to feel a part of us, and feel connected to what we are doing, even if, for the time being, their own circumstances may prevent them from actively supporting us. By using a variety of media forms (emails, EDMs, videos and snail mail, for example), we can try and cut through the mass of static information coming through the virtual channels, and continue to build a genuine engagement with our community members.

Here are two very good examples of video updates from the USA. The context may be different, but the emotional power and genuineness of the messaging is very strong and shows how it is possible to connect with alumni, parents, donors and staff in a meaningful and engaging way.

Valdosta State University

Pepperdine University


Although audiences will need to be segmented, we would suggest that you should be contacting key groups such as all donors from the past five years, all bequestors, all major donors since 2000 (regardless of whether they have given in the last five years), and key prospects (major gifts, bequests, etc). Depending on how your office is set up, it may be up to us to be in contact with our Alumni & Alumni Club Presidents, and our School Parent and Community Relations Committee members.


Ideally, we should be able to reach out on a fortnightly basis at the moment to keep our community up to date; however, this may not always be feasible, and Development Office communications need to align with the pattern and regularity of the School’s communications. We suggest that the best day to send communications is Tuesday, but again this may not always be possible. It’s best to avoid Friday afternoons where possible. Within those constraints, we suggest:

  • Week beginning 20 April, provide details of Term 2 closure (TBD), including a special message from the Principal offering support and commitment to students and broader community. Reference Easter and express hopes that everyone was able to be in touch with family members by various means (FaceTime, phone, etc), and that they are keeping safe etc. Depending on the school culture and your own circumstances, perhaps include a photo of an Easter service (without congregation) or some readings from the school chaplain or other school-related material. St Pauls’ Cathedral pre-recorded a service with no congregation so that people could access it on Easter Sunday).
  • Prepare for ANZAC Day (25 April, but many are observing on Monday 27 April) – including video message from a notable alumnus or alumna talking about how the School is dealing with the crisis and looking beyond it. Use photos from previous ANZAC Day services as a background. Make the message uplifting – ANZACS served and died in wars, and we commemorate their sacrifices. Most survived and understood – as do their descendants – the importance of resilience and hope for a future beyond the immediate crisis. Perhaps find a message from an someone outside your immediate community to reinforce the power of community in building resilience.
  • Week beginning 4 May – update along with announcement of your school’s support measures for current students and their families and the broader school community (depending on your plans, it may be appropriate to talk about the need to try and raise funds to help school families in financial distress who are unable to pay school fees). Ask for tips from families and students about the best ways they are finding to cope with the challenges of all being at home and coping with work, family, relaxation and chores. One school is encouraging alumni to send messages of support to students and staff. Try and make your communications two-way and engaging.
  • Week beginning 18 May 2 – general message with updates and suggestions (still to be decided) on issues around working from home; how to help students studying from home during the crisis; mental health approaches; other community tips (and a soft, gentle reminder of the need to support the ‘families in distress’ fund). In the previous weeks, seek photos from students working at home to tell their own story – try to make this light-hearted and offer small prizes for the most unusual work space or location; or for innovative ways to study; or ways for keeping others at bay when a student is trying to work etc.
  • Week beginning 1 June – EOFY update on the school (and with a good news story with video or photos) plus a gentle reminder of ‘families in distress’ fund. Consider including a short positive story about one or more parents or alum who are involved in a frontline way: nursing, research, community service, doctor, food deliveries, etc. Take the opportunity to recognise and honour the many in your community who are playing such a key role at this time.
  • Week beginning 15 June – check in and video message from students and teachers re EOFY with a gentle reminder of the ‘families in distress’ fund.
  • Week beginning 6 July – Depending on how the crisis has been unfolding and how the school closure situation will be, provide a thank you to those who supported the ‘families in distress fund’ (with an indication of how many families have been supported); give some resilience messages from the broader community; include one or two stories ‘from the frontline’ (one from School and one from a family). Don’t forget photos. Possibly offer a prize for the best 1 minute video illustrating a day in the life of a student working from home during the lockdown.
  • During the next week, reassess the need for fortnightly communications, depending on when students may be returning and what restrictions may be in place. But plan, at this stage, to have fortnightly communications available throughout July and August.


Delivery and Design
Because these communications are coming from the Development/Advancement Office (and may well include both Alumni and Community Relations outreach) you will need an EDM specifically designed with images showing the broader School community, with a clearly distinguishable image of alumni or community settings. Although it is good to have a clear banner to identify yourself, make sure the other images change in every communication to try and highlight the theme of your communication. We need to distinguish our communications from broader School-focused (and possibly Alumni-focused) communications. Banner heading should be something like XX COVID-19 Community Update. You will have your own delivery platform, but check with your IT support that this is both manageable and also trackable (this could provide a good opportunity to update your database through bounce-backs, and you will also obtain data about the number of opens and click throughs to help you plan for future communications).


Email #1 Post-Easter Update
Overall objectives

  • With so many COVID-19 communications, we will need to be original and creative with the heading, introduction and content.
  • The overall message is that the School recognises this is an unprecedented time and genuinely cares about our community’s welfare.
  • Secondary message is that the School is committed to keeping everyone connected and informed as valued members of the School community. Reference Easter and the post-Easter period and the fact that ANZAC Day is on Saturday 25 April (with many observances on Monday 27 April) and another message of hope and resilience will be coming to commemorate the Day.
  • Provide a short start of Term Two update recognising that most would have received advice from the School, fellow community members and other networks.
  • Include a few sample student/teacher videos to make it more interactive and visually dynamic to demonstrate the creativity and online work being undertaken.
  • Include a few links to research-based resources (see below for some examples).
  • Aim to have items of general interest to your community and encourage people to get involved with feedback, ideas, suggestions, etc and not just be seen as giving advice (of which there is a lot!).
  • Advise that the School is planning further measures to support the community and invite the recipients to ask questions about the School’s and/or your Office’s actions to date, to provide information on how they are doing, and to give tips to people who may be struggling.


Content Samples

Don’t be afraid to look at what other schools or institutions are doing and borrow, adapt or copy from their examples. Why struggle to invent – or re-invent – things if some of your colleagues have already been kind enough to share. The following links are all open access on-line, and all contain excellent ideas, approaches and links. There will be many other examples that you can adapt for your particular school and circumstances.

From Carey Grammar School

From Melbourne Grammar School

From Brighton Grammar School

From Scotch College, a video message from The Principal


Non-email Recipients:
You will want a careful plan for outreach to your non-email connected community members: consider printing and “snail” mail for some. We would also suggest you have a plan around ringing key and vulnerable people within your community on a regular basis.