Birthright Israel Excel: The Transition from Alumni to Community

Ultimately, building successful engagement requires knowledge of members’ needs and opportunities for various levels of community engagement.

Excel participants at Tel Aviv Stock Exchange; photo courtesy Birthright Israel
Excel participants at Tel Aviv Stock Exchange; photo courtesy Birthright Israel

By Natalie Farahan

[This is the fourth installment in a series that highlights the community case studies featured in the Alumni Playbook, an online resource from the Schusterman Family Foundation designed to help community initiators build robust alumni networks. To learn more about Birthright Israel Excel, visit their Playbook case study and join the Excel team for an exclusive webinar about how they empower their alumni to become leaders on Thursday, December 17 at 12 PM EST.]

Imagine a young and growing network of individuals who work together to lead the business and community connections between North America and Israel. What you have envisioned is exactly what we are building at Birthright Israel Excel.

Participants accepted to the Excel program have many values in common: they are students and young professionals who exhibit the highest level of academic standards, a passion for tikkun olam and a drive to build business and political ties between North American and Israeli societies. Once they completed their 10-week immersive educational and professional experience in Israel, they are not referred to as “alumni,” a term that implies that they have completed a program. Rather, Excel Fellows are here to supplement the growth of a community – they enter our program with the knowledge that this is a life-long “membership” to a community that supports a continued partnership between Israel and Jewish communities worldwide.

This is what we have learned here in the five short years of Birthright Israel Excel’s existence – and it is our driving force.

This shift in ideology – and subsequently, terminology – has led us to learn three important factors that can be transferred to any “alumni” community. It is the need for three vital components:

  1. Organized Leadership
  2. Advisors/Mentors
  3. Measuring Success

Organized Leadership

Our community strategy developed organically. As we grew, Excel members recognized the need for organized leadership, which spawned the birth of the Excel Community Board. Naturally, each board member took a role that fit his or her interest while simultaneously fulfilling a communal need. This resulted in an annual board retreat and creation of bylaws to recruit new board and committee members.

More importantly, we felt a need for a unified communication platform. To address it, we invested in the creation of a mobile application/online profile for Excel members to post about their travels, job opportunities within their respective firms, life updates, etc. Platform users include Excel Fellows, staff, advisors and mentors.

The focal point event of the Excel community is the annual conference. The 2015 Excel Conference united our community as the largest yet. With almost 130 Excel Fellows in attendance, we were able to create a platform for the flow of innovative business ideas and countless meaningful interactions. Focusing on our model of Excel Fellows as community builders, we included them in our planning and execution of the conference. Fellows are encouraged them to take ownership of the program. Therefore, members moderated many of the presentations throughout the weekend. The content – speakers and workshops – were all selected with the opinion and needs of Excel Fellows in mind.

Takeaway: Participants need to own and manage the programs, while organization provides tools and framework.

Advisors and Mentors

In order to continue fostering the growth of the next generation of Jewish leaders, we believe it is necessary to provide Excel Fellows with mentors in their fields of interest who will help inspire and advise them in their personal and professional endeavors. The goal is to provide access to successful business and community leaders that would otherwise not be attainable. The meetings usually take place in informal small group settings to keep an intimate and personalized vibe.

Takeaway: Connect alumni with younger mentors and advisors who can relate to participants and focus on industry specific wants and needs.

Measuring Success

Because we are constantly working on a diverse array of initiatives, it is essential to define success metrics and track our growth. We not only measure our quantitative achievements – number of members involved in leadership positions, number of Fellows involved in business and community initiatives related to Israel, attendees at each program, number of members registered on the online platform, etc. – but we also measure our qualitative accomplishments. We do this by charting their individual growth and by focusing on meaningful interactions between and among Excel community members. These interactions can take the form of new friendships to members helping each other find jobs to carrying out a community or personal goal.

Takeaway: Each success measure will be different based on program goals, so defining your metrics based on your outcomes is key.

When Excel members begin to carry out their personal initiatives within the Excel community, we know that we have succeeded in providing the necessary support in building a community of individuals who work together to lead the business and community connections between North America and Israel. Over the next year and beyond, we are looking to experiment with providing different tracks of focus in the Excel program. Ultimately, building successful engagement requires knowledge of members’ needs and opportunities for various levels of community engagement. It demands extensive trial and error before you develop a solid structure and spectrum of programming that allows members to engage based on their level of interest.

Interested in learning more about alumni engagement? Check out the Alumni Playbook, a hands-on toolkit designed to help community initiators learn from successful alumni programs and provide them with conceptual guidance, practical advice and tactical support as they plan, shape and implement alumni strategies.

Natalie Farahan is the Associate Director of Community Engagement at Birthright Israel Excel.