Aid agency ex-staff are a huge wasted asset – how cd we set up an alumni scheme and what wd it do?

Life after Oxfam?
Life after Oxfam?

I regularly hear from friends who have been cold called by their old university, seeking to extract money from them for the alma mater (apparently hungry current students are particularly convincing). That got me thinking – how come aid organizations don’t do more with their alumni?

Because Exfam staff (as we call them) are a wasted asset: many go on to influential jobs elsewhere in the development sector, or in formal politics both in developing countries and in the UK, where I know of at least two Exfam MPs, a few lords and a couple of ambassadors.

Here are five potential roles for an alumni network:

  • Eyes and ears
  • Fund-raising
  • Advocacy
  • Research support
  • Programme support

Eyes and Ears:

Fit for the Future argues that aid agencies need to be better embedded in political, social and economic contexts to pick up and respond to trends. Alumni schemes could provide just such a network, eg alerting NGOs to threats to civil society space, perhaps answering a monthly question(s) that they want to consult on.
alumni 4Fund-raising:

Have to be careful how we do this, as previous research shows alumni are often reluctant to cough up large amounts of quids for general fund raising (do they know too much?) What kinds of funding might appeal – sponsor an activist? An Enterprise Development Programme style combo of mentoring and cash?


This strikes me as the highest potential area. For example:

  • Issue a call for Exfamers working on particular sectors (extractives, finance, UN system) to set up support groups along the lines of Amnesty Business Leaders Group (see blog post here)
  • Exfamers now in governments or multilaterals could advise on advocacy strategies

Research Support:

A lot of Exfamers end up in academia. We could use them and their students to deepen our research capacity, or influence future generations of decision makers (blog here)

Programme Support:

How best to harness all that expertise and experience? Pro bono evaluators? Technical assistance along the lines of Pierre Landell Mills ‘Partnership Transparency Fund’, which gets retired civil servants out to support governance and anti-corruption work around the world? Fund revisits to old projects to assess long term impact?

How to Nurture the Network: Worth looking at University alumni schemes for ideas – they invest significantly in them, even though their purposes are more limited (just fund raising, really) than ours could be. What would attract people to stay and participate?

Over to all Exfam/ex-anything readers – what would attract you to sign up to an alumni network, and what roles would make sense?

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13 Responses to “Aid agency ex-staff are a huge wasted asset – how cd we set up an alumni scheme and what wd it do?”
  1. Cesca Alice

    I think it also depends on ‘why’ people left. With the current, myriad change processes happening globally, and then within multiple affiliates/international and national programs/campaigns/trading etc etc, many exfammers have change fatigue, leaving due to a sense of disillusionment with the strategic or operational direction of the organisation, the politics, or just plain old bad management – any of these scenarios can turn into anger and resentment, and can cause burn out which is then negatively associated with the organisation. An alumni function could mitigate some of that if done well – harnessing potentially lost institutional knowledge/memory through some advisory function where when strategies or program designs are being tested or piloted, or in knowledge hubs activities, this alumnus are included as a stakeholder for consultation/participation. This then paves the way for some of the ideas suggested in your blog – I particularly liked the one about linking to research/teaching – making sure lessons (good, bad, ugly) are shared with and interrogated by the next gen of practitioners so we don’t repeat the same mistakes over and over…

  2. Thanks Duncan, indeed appealing. For me the support (research, advocacy and program) role would be attractive. Get us involved in interesting and innovative processes, lead by current staff teams as extra resources who can add value (even from a far)

  3. Ellie

    Mentoring. Everyone is committed to capacity building, both own staff and partner organisations/civil society groups. In my experience the best capacity building happens when you can model someone you know and be mentored by them, and yet there is relatively little of that. I think there is in particular a role for mentoring regional and country staff in how to work with the head office. You will probably find that a number of exfamers do this unofficially anyway!

  4. No need to limit your model to universities. Plenty of businesses and consulting firms (e.g. the McKinsey-types) and some other large nonprofits go to great lengths to organize and keep tabs on their alumni. Totally anecdotally, I think it tends to be the organizations that hire lots of young, recent college graduates who then go on to do other things. The driving incentives are more about business development than fundraising (for the organization) and about networking and identity (for the alumni).

  5. Rémi Kaupp

    Fully agree with these ideas. My best lecturer when in Uni was an Exfamer (Ben Fawcett), bringing a sense of reality and pragmatism that you seldom see in lectures (along with great field opportunities for theses through NGO contacts!!)

    On Programme Support, some NGOs use previous colleagues to answer technical questions on a voluntary basis, and some are helping with our inter-NGO Q&A service on Yes, a great resource!

  6. Laura

    Benefits of a network could also be circulating jobs to recruit people back later.

    Also reducing burn-out if current staff (thinking particularly of humanitarian field staff who are very prone to burn out) have people to link with who have also left and can advise. A bit counter-intuitive to help your staff leave, but most of them are going anyway so it becomes about them leaving on good terms and potentially coming back, rather than burning out, getting sick and running away.

    Pool of potential consultants who know the organisation – this already happens informally but is a good way to formalise it so it relies less on who still knows someone in the organisation.

    Help alumni stay in touch with changes at the organisation so they’re better placed to come back if they want to later on.

    Help link alumni with each other to create a mafia.

  7. Carol

    My first question is: what would the exfamer get out of it? The organisation of which I’m an ex has only just started organising social gatherings for ex-staff, and I really appreciate and value that – but then, I live close to HQ, so it suits me. Facilitating our ongoing contact is important and can create goodwill (often even those who leave angry with the institution are still deeply committed to the values, embodied by the people).

    Doesn’t a lot of this stuff already happen informally? In my ex- organisation, we constantly drew on ex-staff for intelligence and of course consultancies. I always stayed in touch with the people who were too radical for a broad-based INGO – which proved really valuable for expanding and diversifying our networks. I wonder if formalising this would result in a feeling by the ex-staff that they were being instrumentalised (as we like to say). Or is that just the perspective of a reasonably small organisation?

  8. Dear Duncan, current Oxfam staff and Oxfam Alumni,

    Please do join the OXFAM / EX-FAM Alumni group on LinkedIn which has 2,004 members. The group is open to current and former Oxfam staff. More engagement by current Oxfam staff would be most welcome.

    To join, go to LinkedIn and search in groups for OXFAM / EX-FAM. You must have a mention of Oxfam on your profile to be accepted as a member of the group.

    See you there.

  9. Hi Everyone, I am a Never-fam having worked closely with a number of people in your organization but never “taken the light green”. An external perspective from having worked for another NGO is that Oxfam tends to have a strong network of alumni in many positions in the sector. you are doing well already.:) My personal reflection from talking to staff in a number of organizations is that why you leave is a key factor as outlined by others above. If they leave on bad terms that is one thing, but also some leave because for them personally they feel that they can accomplish their personal goals/ fight their cause better elsewhere. It is interesting to reflect if people should be more committed to the cause than any one organization. I think that on a practical level another key issue is if you still know people in the organization you have left. Relationships to people still in the organization and co workers are in many cases a really strong ingredient in the glue that binds alumni together

  10. Hello Duncan, your article is spot on. In my mind, the advocacy and networking possibilities are especially crucial. Most organisations, large or small, do not capatilise on the loyalty and networks of ex-employees. I used to work in a large gov organisation in Australia (similar dynamics I imagine to Oxfam) where such opportunities were lost when staff moved on from the organisation. I am now working in Paris for an online platform that gives companies the ability to maintain a bond and communicate direct with its alumni. Its not a linear solution like LinkedIn in that it allows a company/brand to organise events, fund-raise, recruit, advocate, network etc with both its current and ex-staffers. I read your article and thought it might interest you and your readers as an all-in-one solution. Alumni groups within Harvard and INSEAD Business school have recently adopted this solution. Discussions with Yale University and Siemens are well advanced. The platform is called Hivebrite ( Happy to discuss further.

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