8 Tips for Finding and Reconnecting with Camp Alumni

by Julia Riseman, Mentor, JCamp 180

To be brutally honest, most Jewish camps have done a miserable job of tracking and staying in touch with their camp alumni and friends for decades. All camps that are proud of their summer programs for creating "friends for life," but many have been neglectful life-long friends to most of their alumni.

The good news? Every camp can get their database of alumni and donors back in shape. Read on to find out how you can acheive this...and about a new JCamp 180 program called Data2Donors that can help.

But first you have to understand that the more than 100 camps affiliated with JCamp 180 collectively report (on average) that they have 24% of living alumni in their database. Jewish Day schools report having more than 85% of their alumni in their databases, and most Universities strive for better than 95%. Worse, among that 24%, only a fraction of these records have complete and correct names, addresses, phone numbers, email addresses, and other details.

In my experience providing consulting services to camps, I find that camps' donor and alumni databases are inconsistenly administered, often dusty with old addresses, and quite often a mess of duplicate records and incorrectly entered information. New staff members are ill-trained on how to utilize the database, either to enter information correctly or to extract useful information - such as timley pledge reminders.

Good data practices could help sustain your camp for years to come. Among the small number of people that camps have successfully stayed connected with over the years, many have been very generous and supportive. Collectively, JCamp 180 camps have reported that supporters have donated over $250 million dollars in just the past seven years. That is very impressive indeed - but it could be just the tip of the iceberg. How much more might you have raised from your alumni had you stayed in touch with all of them?

The answer to this problem isn't complicated. Keeping in touch with your alumni requires both institutional commitment and infastructure. Institutional commitment starts at the Board and Executive/Camp Director level, by prioriizing ongoing alumni outreach, fundraising, and good data management processes. That priority leads to investment in infrastructure: a donor/alumni database and dedicated staff hours (paid and volunteer) to improve and maintain the records. It's not glamourous or visible work, but it is very important.

Here are some simple, do-able, and realistic things your camp can start doing right now to improve your donor database:

  • Everyone IN. Stop thinking of your donor database as only people who have made a gift. Instead, start tracking the names and information for everyone who comes in contact with camp. That includes current and past campers, parents, grandparents who pay for tuition, loyal vendors...yup, everyone. Why? Because anyone can become a supporter of camp; even your vendor for the past 15 years may sponsor the golf outing if asked. Be sure to correctly identify the connection they have to your camp in your database
  • Write it down and cross-train. Write down the proper procedures to enter information correctly, and then train more than one person on the correct use of your database.
  • Dust off the old yearbooks. Find old paper copies and old lists of campers and families, and add them into your database. URJ Camp Harlam recently put out an email asking for old yearbooks they were missing and found great success with the process. Depending how many hardcopy names you have to enter electronically, it may be easier to enter the information into a spreadsheet and then import it all at once.
  • Make it Easy. Do you have a form on your website to collect updated information from your alumni> Create a simple, short information form and promote it via your blog, Facebook, eNewsletter, and other communications channels. Let the alumni know what they'll get by signing up - an invitation to the upcoming reunion? Monthly alumni eNewsletter? Chance to win a camp t-shirt?
  • Do Not Mail. Most systems have a Do Not Mail field and a Do Not Mail Reason field. You can add an option to the Reason field called "Old Address" and mark all that way so you can pull them seperately and ignore them when you do mailings (until they get cleaned up). Alternatively, you can add a Flag or Tag (or a new dropdown field) to mark these records as Old Addresses. Whatever you choose, make sure you do it consistently for all of these records.
  • Real Human. Getting real people to look at the lists to get updated contact information is, by far, your best bet for getting your database up to date with current information. Get a few alumni from different decades to look at specific parts of your lists. Ask each volunteer to bring 5 names to your list, and reward them for their efforts.
  • Get Old Photos Scanned. If you have a whole box full of old photos, it may be worth having them shipped overseas to be digitized. Scan Cafe is one option other camps have used successfully. If you only have a few dozen photos, it's probably better just to find a local photo shop to do the work for you. Posting old photos to Facebook, on your blog, in the alumni section of your website, and in your eNewsletter can help you get back in touch with lost alumni.
  • Research. There are options to send out old address information to get updated addresses from various services like AlumniFinder. But you should do the above work with volunteers seeking out good contact information first before spending money on services like AlumniFinder. If the addresses are very old, you'll have a small hit rate in AlumniFinder. It's a very useful tool, but think of it as your last option, not the first.

If you've read this far, I have more good news for you. JCamp 180 offers its affiliated camps a program called Data2Donors that will help you accomplish the above steps to improving your database in a supportive and systematic approach over ~8 months. And we pay for AlumniFinder and WealthEngine research tools for you. Click here if you would like more information about this program and details about how to apply.

Whether or not you are accepted into Data2Donors, your camp can take the steps listed above to reconnect with old friends and help ensure a bright future for your camp.