In recent years, caps on property tax increases and reduced government assistance have stifled the growth of school district budgets. This has left administrators struggling to find much-needed financial resources in order to deliver the quality educational services their communities have grown accustomed to. 

Many administrators have come to rely on money that is generously donated to their schools by way of parent associations or education foundations. In essence, schools are supplementing their budgets through fundraising. Typically, the money raised through these associations and foundations comes primarily from the local level, so the same people are constantly being asked to donate more for their schools. 

One way to address this challenge is to start an alumni association. While alumni associations have been around for private schools and colleges for a long time, they are a new concept for public schools. Employ these four steps to start an alumni association, and within two years your school can be ready to reach out to an alternative funding source.

Step 1: Generate Support

Inevitably, every school community has proud alumni who feel a genuine and emotional attachment to the school. (Just look at all the money colleges collect from donations!)

The first step in creating an alumni association involves having an administrator contact several local alumni who are known for having a passion for their school or district. This can be accomplished by contacting graduating class chairpersons who are organizing reunions, combing alumni Facebook pages already in existence, or speaking with people in the community. These initial alumni can be key to the success of the association, because they know other alumni who are equally passionate about the school, are frequently successful in their endeavors, and are connected to other alumni beyond your scope. 

Step 2: Produce a Mission Statement 

Once you find about 10 passionate alumni from different graduating years, the first task at hand is to create a mission statement. Sample mission statements can be acquired online from private schools or colleges to generate ideas. However, remember that the mission of your alumni association must be concise and specific to your school. 

Additionally, take the time to create up to five strategic priorities that outline the goals of the association and tie back to the mission statement. For example, these goals can be to strengthen communication and promote connections between alumni and your school, to facilitate an active and dynamic alumni network, and to encourage participation in alumni relations programs.

Next, create a name for your association. While this may sound easy enough (insert your school name before “alumni association”), having this name translate to an appropriate acronym or domain name for your website may be challenging. The trick is to find one that has not already been taken, is easily remembered, and makes sense to alumni.

Step 3: Establish Bylaws

Once the mission statement is set, write the bylaws, which will outline the rules that govern the association. Example bylaws for such organizations can be found online. 

The bylaws should generally contain about 15 articles that cover rules of running the association. These articles will include defining membership, dues, voting procedures, board officer positions and responsibilities, special committees, financial protocols, and insurance issues. The bylaws will take some time to form. Be sure to consult with a lawyer among your alumni to assist in this process (hopefully pro bono!).

Step 4: Becoming an Association 

Forming an association may take up to two years. Meetings should be held on a monthly basis so that work on the mission statement and bylaws can be accomplished between meetings. This pace also helps prevent burnout and gives the committee an opportunity to network and bring more excited alumni into the fold.

When the founding members have all agreed that the bylaws are complete, submit the bylaws to the IRS and apply for 501(c)(3) status, which will establish your association as a tax-exempt nonprofit organization. This part is crucial for future donors who wish to be able to write off their charitable contributions. Although the association members can continue to meet, it is not official until the government grants the 501(c)(3) status. This process may take up to six months.

In the meantime, the administrator leading this group should be speaking with alumni to determine who will be the association’s best president, vice president, treasurer, and secretary. The people determined to lead the association moving forward do not necessarily have to be the people who worked for the past two years creating the mission statement and bylaws.

Once you’re able to agree upon the board officers, trustees, and alumni with voting rights—and the 501(c)(3) status is obtained—the association will be able to officially operate. The first order of business should be nominating the board president (use Robert’s Rules of Order to conduct business meetings; using parliamentary procedure allows everyone a fair vote). After a successful vote, the other board members and trustees can be voted upon the same way. After voting, the administrator who has been organizing this endeavor will most likely have a nonvoting role on the board.

Alumni Association Database

With the new alumni association established, it is up to the board and trustees to begin to create an alumni database. Be sure to use social media to spread the word about your newly formed association. While you can use software or hire a company to collect or provide alumni names for a fee, until the association has been able to acquire some money to cover these expenses, the best approach is to create a website that will allow alumni to register their name and graduation year, and list sports or activities they were involved in.

Then, the easiest way to generate some income is to create alumni merchandise and offer it for sale. Larger endeavors like engraved bricks, dinners, golf outings, or capital campaigns may take a little more time to organize, but they will allow for larger donations.

Graduates have an emotional tie to their school and want to give back. Tap into that community as you remind them that your school has given them a strong foundation for their own success. 

Tom Gorman is principal of Ridgewood High School in Ridgewood, N.J.