Friday, June 24, 2011


I know many authors think that selling books second-hand is selling them (the authors) cheap, but it may also have a beneficial effect; introducing readers to new authors (who then go out and buy more by the same person).

Authors aside, we are readers. We (I speak for myself for those people who read this who like reading books, if you don't, please ignore this post. In fact if you don't, you probably aren't reading!) like to read books!

In clearing my house ready for a move, I had two bagfulls of books (having already taken several loads to the local charity shop) and thought I would sell them at work. Then a thought occurred to me - to sell them for charity.

I put a note round at my employers and not only did I advertise the sale, but I had more contributions of books! So at lunchtime today I spent an hour and a half in a meeting room surrounded by books: including the true story of a call girl and XML programming (in Chinese). So plenty of variety!

I am delighted to say that my kind colleagues helped me raise over £100 for Alzheimer's Research UK. Oh, and I picked up a few books for myself.

But the most important part of the exercise was the personal stories I heard, and of how Alzheimer's has touched so many people's lives. The stories were, of course, not happy ones. Suffering is part of the human condition. But wouldn't it be nice if we could, in time, actually remove this one from the list?

I know there are many good causes out there, and I have indeed shown my support for conservation well beyond my employment in that area. However, if you have five minutes and even just five pounds, your support could make a tremendous difference to the long term solution for curing dementia.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Running an Alumni Survey

You might wonder why this post is here - well, it seems the most accessible for the audience I would like to share it with. So if this seems a little 'off topic' from my usual posts, please forgive me! This is simply my personal, practical experience and in no way reflects my employer's perspective on surveys or the results of said survey.


In April and May 2011 we sent a survey to our alumni from the University. We selected equal amounts of recipients from different age groups and for those we have email contacts from, with no bias as to country. In the UK, we sent a printed survey out to those who we only have postal addresses for.

We firstly tested the robustness of the survey by sending it out to alumni who are staff. They came back with many helpful suggestions on how to improve the survey as well as providing some feedback as well (from a different perspective of course).

The purpose of the survey was to assess our communications methods and messages, events and a little bit on fundraising. We want to make sure we are 'doing the right thing' and to improve where we can.

The process

We used an integrated survey tool that is part of our web-system called NetCommunity. We use this because it links directly to our database, Raiser's Edge. This had some advantages, but many disadvantages too.

In collecting data by email, we did not want to ask the same questions on the survey that the alumni would have to fill in when registering on the site, so for the email survey we did not collect employment information. For the postal survey, we collected some of that information, but then putting it into the system required manual input.

We had a bit of criticism that the questionnaire didn't pick up lots of new data, but the purpose of the questionnaire was opinion based, not data collection. Make sure you don't ask too much of one survey.


Strengths: links direct into Raiser's Edge. Encouraged more individuals to register on line (from the email survey).

Weaknesses: postal survey meant lots of manual data input, and interrogation of the data is extremely basic. Though we could register who completed a survey, to find out what they actually answered we had to input manual attributes. To get anything really meaningful other than 'top line' (see picture) response, you need to export the data into a spreadsheet or some other tool and manipulate to find the real meat of your results (the way we did it, anyway). Very time consuming.

Opportunities: it would have been better to have all the data input in the same way, so mixing methods (email and post) could be improved. In addition, thinking about the level of data you want from a survey then look very carefully at the method you use. Those specialist survey companies charge a lot of money for good reason - they do all the work and can provide you with lots of fabulous data without you having to do all the work.

Threats: asking the wrong questions in the first place. If we haven't asked exactly the right questions, we won't actually learn anything. We may misinterpret data. Data can be skewed: for example we sent the email survey worldwide, but three quarters of responders were from overseas (so their perspective on events in London, for example, would not be fully representative).


The key is in knowing not just what you want to ask, but to what level you want to analyse your responses. Are there key differences in the ages of those you survey, of their location, and by subject perhaps? Set a very clear set of objectives beforehand and understand that different segments will respond differently. We selected equal amounts from each age-group, but unsurprisingly it was the older alumni who were more inclined to answer.

Use the right tool for the job, don't just go with what you have because it is easiest or what is cheapest.

And, finally, make sure you act on anything you have asked within the survey that requires a response; for example if they have offered an internship or a paper, follow up and thank them, engaging as relevant.

Recommended links:

Survey Solutions
How to run a survey
Some interesting info
Alumni surveys, an overview

Some example surveys:

Survey from Cornell
Colorado - Dental Medicine
Robert Gordon University

If you have additional suggestions, please add them to the comments box below.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Eating the campus

Is this a sign that a the end of term the staff have finally cracked and gone cannibal, dismembering and consuming those poor unfortunate students who have not yet escaped their academic refuge? No, tempting as it may be, today’s ‘eat the campus’ activity was actually a ‘walk and talk’ through the grounds. For now, the students were safe.

About one hour before we were due to start our lunchtime walk, the heavens decided that the dry spring was over and that all the missing rain from April should fall in one day in June. Consequently, it was with trepidation that we prepared to begin our ‘foraging’ trip and find out what plants within the grounds of beautiful Wivenhoe Park were edible. Clutching my book on trees we tramped off through the very damp grass, scaring away the young coots and agitated mother as we trod our path directly through their own foraging party.

We were lucky though, and the rain decided to take a lunchtime break too and only dribbled a bit on us when the wind shook the trees or it felt that we needed hurrying back to our offices.

We commenced our walk (about 12 people from different departments) led by Kate, who had her River CafĂ© foraging book to hand. Our first stop was the chestnut trees, followed by a cob nut (wild hazel) that I spotted by the lake. Though surrounded by ducks, we decided (though edible) they didn’t count as plants and were therefore immune from our consideration of their dietary potential.

We wandered up and around the lake, then through some woods and up to Wivenhoe House. We saw nettles (yes, edible), more sweet chestnuts and some beautiful cork oak. I don’t think it’s edible, but they were amazing trees. We managed also to track down the old ice house, now covered in trees and overgrown so that you’d never have known it was originally the house’s outdoor fridge.

We found lots of beech nuts, silver birch (who’s sap you can tap it seems) and plenty of blackberry bushes. There are definitely plans afoot to go blackberrying in due course. There's a by tree here somewhere too, but we didn't make it that far.

As the afternoon got a bit wetter and our walk took us further from the safe confines of our concrete shelters, some folks had to disappear back to their respective desks, whilst we remaining few stalwarts carried on and hunted out the elusive mulberry tree. It’s supposed to be by Kingfisher Lake, but alas we couldn’t spot it. Perhaps if it hadn’t been so wet and our lunchtime break nearly up, we may have explored further to see if we could find it. I haven’t seen a mulberry tree since I was young and used to come back smothered in juice stains from my great aunt’s house in Kent.

We found some elderflower, but plants such as jack by the hedge, wild garlic and mushrooms seemed to be hiding from us. And it was too early for berries, so perhaps an autumn walk will be in order.

It was a lovely way to spend a lunchtime – informative, entertaining and healthy!

Monday, June 06, 2011

Birthdays and Anniversaries: Advice

Today is my brother's birthday. Happy birthday Phil, wherever you are. I hope you are still with us.

He was kind of cross that we got married on his birthday; I guess we stole his thunder, but it was only for one day really.

Advice: If you are going to plan something on a special day to someone else, check it out with them first. They may be flattered, or flattened.

I do remember our wedding day in Barnet, the wind blowing, the party at Sally's flat, the evening do at the Raglan Hall hotel. Musician friends singing, lots of work friends attending (who if I look at in the photos now I wouldn't have a clue who they are).

Advice: don't invite work friends to your wedding (unless they are also good friends). Invite people you think will still be in your life in ten years time.

Well, it's 30 years since we got married. A lot has happened in that time; we have two wonderful kids, four albums (in the same band) and lots of happy memories. But the last five years haven't been quite so good, and all good things come to an end, as they say.

Advice: count the good things that were, and measure them st the bad things that are. The glass is probably half full, even if it used to be full and a lot got spilled.

Some other anniversaries you may not be aware of today;

1868: Robert Falcon Scott leader of ill-fated south polar expedition, was born

1903: Aram Khachaturian, the Russian composer, was born

1933: The first concrete was poured for the foundations of the Boulder Dam

1944: D-Day, the allied forces launch their major offensice and land on the beaches of Normandy

1966: James Meredith, the first black man to brave the colour bar at the University of Mississippi, was shot

1968: Robert Kennedy was shot

1975: The UK has it's first nationwide referendum over the continued membership of the European Economic Community

2007: The G8 summit in Germany finally recognises that climate change is a 'bit of an issue'

Feel free to add any more intersting dates in comments below.