by Russ Finkelstein
When you think back on your education and career, have you ever taken the time to consider how many institutions have contributed to making you who you are today?
From a free trip to Israel through New Jersey NFTY to a summer spent as a counselor for the American Jewish Society for Service, and involvement in myriad secular programs, I count almost 30 institutions that have left an impact on me, including schools, religious organizations, professional associations and fellowship programs, among many others.
It’s odd, then, that while I cherish relationships I formed through these many organizations – friends, colleagues, advisors – my relationships with the organizations themselves, the ones that so significantly contributed to my growth as a person, quickly faded away.
These days I only hear from them near the end of the year when they send an annual gift request, one I often discard.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
Professionally, through employment and board service and membership, I have become intimately familiar with alumni programs and the ubiquitous challenge of serving and engaging a diverse group, often scattered across the country or the globe, with limited resources.
I have found that we, as individuals and institutions, tend not to take the time and effort to maintain our relationships until we need something.
Individuals see the anonymous fundraising drives and other similar efforts as indications from the institution that they are not particularly interested in the individual’s well-being.
What organizations with active memberships realize is that they need to engage alumni beyond the annual gift. At the core of every successful alumni program, Jewish or not, is an ability to capture and reflect back what their members want.
One of the best ways to engage alumni is by offering them resources and support in making decisions about their career.
While the exact numbers vary, every national survey about job satisfaction indicates that over 50% of Americans are unhappy with their current job. They also don’t know where to turn for help.
Once individuals leave the comfortable confines of college or graduate school – places with existing career support staff – they are left on their own to figure out next steps.
Those who take action all too often end up trolling job websites, buying a book or paying over $100 an hour for one-on-one career coaching.
From a strategic engagement perspective, there is no better way for an alumni program to add value to the lives of its members and build loyalty than by being responsive to where they are most needed, the career space.
Remember also that people often participate in programs in the first place precisely because of their professional goals.
The most frequent complaint I hear from former participants is that they feel lured in with a false promise that upon the conclusion of the program or through their ongoing participation, they will be set up for career success.
This is further exacerbated by a common disconnect between what admissions and recruitment professionals offer and what they can realistically deliver.
The bottom line is that alumni have given time, and in some cases, their money in seeking greater career clarity and career opportunity. Developing career programs will help to meet that significant need.
One of the more successful alumni programs that I have participated in is the Selah Leadership Program, housed at Bend the Arc.
Selah makes a point of reaching out to their alumni to see what they need in the form of ongoing skill development, career support and finding meaning in life outside of work.
They are able to deliver on these needs by enabling alumni themselves to develop and lead programs and serve as resources to one another via peer coaching and peer skill exchange.
As alumni, individuals usually have a greater ability to trust others who have been through similar, curated experiences. These shared experiences create an atmosphere of trust and authenticity, enabling them to ask for and receive the help they need.
Many programs are working to produce alumni who have the capacity to be their best selves and impact their community in a positive way.
Yet many make the mistake of only providing participants with attention, support and possibility until the program ends.
For sure-fire ways to avoid this pitfall and to learn how you can build effective career offerings for your alumni, please join our free webinar discussion, Meeting Alumni Career Needs on a Limited Budget.
This webinar is part of the #NetTalks Alumni Engagement Webinar Series, sponsored by the Schusterman Philanthropic Network and Jim Joseph Foundation, and will take place on March 12 at 2:00PM EST.
Please click here to register.
Russ Finkelstein is the Managing Director of Clearly Next, a start-up that helps people of all ages and incomes navigate their career. He will be joined by his colleague Elliott Brown in leading the next #NetTalks discussion. Russ has served as a consultant on many career related programs, including for Idealist.org, Emerging Practitioners in Philanthropy (EPIP), the New Organizing Institute (NOI) and the Talent Philanthropy Project. He has also served as a volunteer advisor to the Selah Leadership Program, City Hall Fellows and the Point Foundation.