Activating Alumni

He tāngata, he tāngata, he tāngata – It is the people, it is the people, it is the people

The power of the people who have trodden the same path your current pupils are treading often remains untapped as a tool for inspiring the next generation.

The long-established, well-connected old boys’ and old girls’ networks of the high decile, richly resourced schools are known to provide career springboards and countless opportunities for their flocks. It is the lower decile, less well-resourced schools that often do not have established networks of past pupils and staff to tap into for support and inspiration.

The alumni network disparity in Aotearoa New Zealand is as vast as the socio-economic disparity that exists in its society. When a school’s alumni network is mobilised, the value to the school is untold and stretches way beyond financial gain.

This rich potential of untapped alumni inspired former Napier Boys’ High School principal Ross Brown, MNZM, to act. After Brown retired from the Hawkes Bay school in 2015 after 18 years’ service, he helped establish Tāwai Takapiri Connect Futures NZ Trust.

Tāwai Takapiri translates as ‘the rope of connection that bonds our people’ – a poetic description of the concept of alumni. Brown, who also spent time at Huntly and Timaru schools says, “I realised that for the majority of low decile school principals, alumni organisation falls to the bottom of a very large pile of things to do. I attended a forum about this concept of developing alumni and it really did resonate with me and we got things going.”

From rural New Zealand, Brown was educated at Feilding Agricultural College and Palmerston North Boys’ High School where he remains connected as an active member of the school’s strong alumni community. As a teacher and principal, he has worked across both islands of Aotearoa, with a career focused primarily on boys’ education. As Chair of Tāwai Takapiri Connect Futures, he has worked with several schools in Hawkes Bay, Waikato and South Auckland regions to provide guidance and practical support in activating alumni networks.

“We have a tremendous resource of alumni with knowledge, experience and ability to provide support and guidance for young people in schools and the form that support takes can be as varied as the people themselves. We are not a fundraising organisation. This isn’t about raising money for the school, it’s about connecting past pupils with current ones to provide mentoring, guidance, opening up conversations and pathways. Kids want to know that they are part of something bigger.”

Ross Brown MNZM

Brown was awarded a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit Medal for Services to Education in 2016 and he’s since been keen to break the alumni mould. “We want to move the interaction between schools and alumni away from just being a donation or a slot as guest speaker at an assembly. That’s fine and can help inspire kids but where you really hit the road is when that person is rubbing shoulders with, say, a Year 10 kid and they talk about which street they grew up on and find out it was the same street, we strengthen these connections and increase the level of relatable interaction. That’s powerful stuff!

“We want to get schools to have a wider view of what they want to achieve. If they look at their alumni simply in terms of donations, they are probably on the wrong page.”

TTCF’s mission is: To support schools throughout New Zealand to develop thriving, enriching and sustainable alumni engagement programmes that enable experiences for current students to connect with inspiring, relatable role models.

Executive director Vicki Fowler says, “Tāwai Takapiri Connect Futures NZ arose out of us identifying an “opportunity gap” – not so much between high and low decile alumni communities – moreso, literally, the gap was of opportunities for rangitahi to connect with role models who ignited ambition and self-belief.

“Global research informs us that former students are amongst the most relatable role models for young people. As an organisation it is important to us that we walk our talk – our mahi is about people and connections and we feel privileged to support great people leading great schools to establish sustainable, positive legacies for their communities and their whanau.”

Mangere College was one of the first schools to engage with the Trust. Brown says, “The principal Tom Webb has been an early adopter. He understands and is very active in this space. He’s doing a great job at the school to reconnect with past pupils and we’ve helped guide this process and put systems in place.”

All Black and Auckland Blues player Ofa Tu’ungafasi back at Mangere College.

The college celebrates its 50th Jubilee in April. This has provided a timely opportunity to re-engage with the surrounding community, re-establish connections with past pupils and look towards the future with wider eyes. Principal Webb says, “It was perfect timing for us; to have the support of Connect Futures in the run up to our jubilee. We haven’t connected very well with our alumni in the past and the whole philosophy behind Connect Futures made sense, especially ahead of the 50th jubilee.

“The support has been brilliant: they helped us set up systems to allow us to reconnect with past students and advised us on what questions to ask and what information to record. We are using that as an opportunity to create better long-term relationships with our past students by getting them involved in the school. We want to give them a stronger sense of connection with their old school and use their role modelling to motivate our current students.”

Webb has been impressed by the level of engagement. “We have got around 500 past pupils registered on our database now and have been going out to our community on social media. The word has really got around! We’re finding they’re welcoming the opportunity to give back, through whatever means is relevant to them and their experience.”

As well as creating systems, Webb emphasises the importance for schools to be able to lead their alumni programme. “It’s important to have the resource – the people – to drive it. We have created a communications manager role at Mangere College and one of the responsibilities is to manage the registrations via the database and ensure communications are going out regularly around this.

“It’s a really good time for us to get better connected with what we call our ‘M.C. Family’. We have already begun getting our alumni involved in sports teams, for example. It’s exciting times for us here in Mangere, with the 50th celebrations and a lot of growth taking place in the local area, such as a new housing development being built right across from the school. Having the support of Connect Futures has been a really positive experience for us at this time of celebration and growth.”

The college’s jubilee celebrations are gathering pace as the 9-10th April anniversary events near.

Though Mangere College has employed a communications manager whose role includes management of the school’s alumni network and systems, other schools have assigned the role to admin staff or active volunteers.

For a programme to be a success, Fowler says several critical inputs are required: “Committed leadership, keen partners, people resource focused on the community development initiative, online registration facility and, operationally, regular communications and community engagement opportunities.

“To any education institution, alumni (former student) communities represent a significant, low-cost source of potential contributions of ‘time, talent and treasure’.”

Alumni engagement programmes are prevalent in private school and tertiary education sectors throughout the world but, in the majority of New Zealand state schools, this significant resource remains more-or-less untapped.

“As a result, when compared to their private school counterparts, students who attend the majority of New Zealand’s state schools are missing out on the enriching benefits enabled by regular exposure to inspiring, relatable role models,” says Fowler.

Global research* shows that only one in eight graduates from schools in low socio-economic regions goes on to further education and, in New Zealand, only one in 100 entrants to some of our university courses come from the most deprived homes**.

Fowler says, “Our decision to make an impact by levelling the playing field of youth opportunity in Aotearoa New Zealand, was a total no-brainer.”

The Tāwai Takapiri Connect Futures NZ Trust was officially established in July 2018 after an establishment working group identified an opportunity to support state schools in Aotearoa New Zealand to develop alumni engagement programmes as a means of creating equal opportunity for students to be exposed to inspiring role models and career opportunities.

The Connect Futures NZ alumni engagement programme commenced in August 2018, as the Trust engaged with several prospective partner schools. Nine partner schools and one Teen Parent Unit have since joined the programme as stage 1 partner schools, which the Trust will continue to partner with as they establish alumni engagement programmes in their schools.

Phase one of the programme commenced in Term 1 2019 with the partner schools proceeding through an onboarding process. In Term 2, most of the schools moved into stage two of the programme: establishing their community engagement systems and resources.

Tāwai Takapiri Connect Futures NZ Trust works alongside the leaders and alumni programme champions of partner schools as they progress, at their own pace, through the establishment, implementation and activation phases as their alumni engagement programme comes to life.

In their mentorship roles, Connect Futures Programme Managers contribute expert advice, guidance, support, and encouragement while ensuring that programme milestones are celebrated and impact, in terms of inspiring opportunities created for current students, is monitored.

Connect Futures NZ’s approach ensures that partner schools develop an alumni and community engagement programme that has the capacity to serve and enrich students past, present, and future.

Throughout its early years, Fowler says TTCF Trust is grateful to have partnered with ‘the humble, kind, and unsung heroes’ of The Fletcher Trust, Joyce Fisher Charitable Trust, Alterno Foundation, and organisational supporters supporters Inhive Global (formerly Future First Global), Second Nature Charitable Trust; Ako Mātātupu Teach First NZ and Chapman Tripp.

In late 2020, a hui was held in Hawkes Bay for schools involved in the programme to come together to share ideas and experiences. The Trust now has a base in a shared hub in Manukau and, looking ahead, wishes to expand its geographical reach and lasting impact.

Fowler adds, “We forge ahead, committed to our vision of an Aotearoa New Zealand where EVERY young person is exposed to opportunities that inspire their ambition and self-belief.”

More information can be found at or Mangere College’s 50th Jubilee.

Alumni engagement in action…

Former head boy connects with past principal and current students,

Former Tamatea High School Head Boy Arran Culver, now a paediatric psychologist based in Wellington, arranged a reunion for 1980 and 1981 alumni to visit their former school, connect with former Principal John Ryan and current students.

Current Principal Robin Fabish says, “At the end of the school tour, John gave an emotional ‘Principal’s address’, which bought a tear to the eye of his former students … we are interested in building connections with former students like the members of this group and working with them to help develop career pathways for current students.”

Auckland Blues visit Mangere College

Former student and Auckland Blues player Ofa Tu’ungafasi visited Mangere College as part of the Blues’ Best Foot Forward programme, which distributes rugby boots to young players.

Principal Tom Webb says, “It’s definitely inspiring for our students to see an ex-student and how well he has done in his career … a real role model for them.”

And for Ofa, the joy of giving back to the school he loves… “Mangere College has supported me, not just through my education but through my life and not only myself, but all my siblings. Mangere College has a special place in our hearts and in our family.”

Alumni survey findings

In a Future First UK survey of young people who have interacted with former students of their school:

  • 84 percent said that connecting with former students helped them realise that they can be successful.
  • 79 percent said that they felt more confident about their future success.
  • 81 percent said that engaging with former students helped them to realise the link between their schoolwork and future job options.
  • 91 percent of teachers believed that working with alumni boosted students’ confidence.

Ourschool: Victoria-based state school alumni programme

Similar to Tāwai Takapiri Connect Futures NZ, Ourschool is an Australian organisation established to support the establishment of alumni engagement programmes and communities in state schools in Victoria.

After recognising the opportunity that state schools were missing compared to their private school counterparts, Caroline Milburn founded Ourschool in 2017 and started working with schools throughout Victoria supporting them “to become beacons of aspiration and achievement in their neighbourhoods”.

* Future First UK research

** “The gap between the rich and the poor at University in New Zealand”, Kirsty Johnson, New Zealand Herald, Sept 15, 2018

Read our School News NZ Term 1 print issue online at:

Heather Barker Vermeer

Heather has worked as a journalist, writer and editor in England and Aotearoa New Zealand for over 20 years. She fell in love with words when she received a 'Speak & Spell' tech toy for Christmas in 1984.
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