Building Successful Alumni Networks: The Shift to Grassroots

Alumni Playbook logoBy No’a Gorlin

This is the first 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 ROI Community, visit their Playbook case study and join No’a Gorlin and the ROI team for an intimate live chat about alumni engagement on September 10 from 9:00 – 10:00 am ET.

When I think about ways to build a vibrant, thriving alumni community, one famous aphorism immediately comes to mind: “Community is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.”

While most of the work required to activate a diverse alumni network consists of careful planning, investigating past successes and failures and heeding best practices, it should come as no surprise that the most effective alumni engagement strategies are often those stumbled upon in pursuit of other, related goals.

Nearly two years ago, I wrote a piece called “Successful Alumni Networks: From the Round Table to the Reunion.” It was grounded in the experience of ROI Community – an alumni network 10 years in the making – and highlighted five crucial steps in building and sustaining a successful alumni community, including:

  1. The Prep-Work (goal-setting and good marketing);
  2. The Recon (updating your alumni database);
  3. The Gathering of the Knights to the Round Table (organizing a collaborative planning meeting);
  4. The Launch Party (kicking off with a killer event); and
  5. The Follow-Through (turning initial hype into long-term engagement).

The article focused on the launch and early stages of an alumni network, and what I’ve learned in the two years since is that to sustain it in the long run, its members must be the ones who drive it forward. After all, a network is only as strong as the ties that hold it together. If alumni want to spend time together, they will participate in events and, given the opportunity, take the initiative to organize their own peer programming.

This guiding principle was reinforced by a number of positive “stumbles” in the past two years, and it explains how our team, based largely in Jerusalem, continues to curate an active network of people around the world. And with two years’ worth of fruitful stumbling under our belt, I feel compelled to add two key steps to the five outlined above:

6. The Shift to Grassroots. As our Community has grown, we have come to recognize that there is a limit to how much top-down work we can do to keep our members engaged. It is more than a numbers game: we cannot – and should not – forever be responsible for our members’ networking and professional development activities. Instead, we want our members to exercise ownership over their own community and to become the catalysts of its year-round activities. We realized that to ensure the permanence and the strength of our network, action needed to come from within.

And so, last year, we launched our Grassroots@ROI Initiatives program in response to the many incredible ideas of ROI members that we lacked the capacity to take on ourselves. Through the Grassroots framework, ROI members are empowered to organize and run programs of their own design that activate their peers and their local Jewish communities.

In launching this new initiative, we encountered one of those stumbles: while our goal was to resolve a capacity issue, the result was even better, as ROIers are now the driving force behind the majority of our Community’s year-round activities, from Shabbat dinners to Passover facilitation trainings, from delegations to conferences and beyond. Their remarkable energy, creativity and passion make our events more relevant, exciting and accessible. Even more, our members are able to hone their leadership skills and explore new avenues of personal enrichment and community engagement.

In short, the Grassroots@ROI model has taught us that the longevity and vibrancy of an alumni network hinges on the power of its alumni to determine their own needs and develop programs that address them. The organization’s role is to help them take ownership of the community and shape it to fit their interests in a way that complements the organization’s mission. If successful, the alumni and the board will thank you.

7. The Ties that Bind. During this year’s ROI Summit, we encouraged participants to engage in one-on-one “meetings of the mind” – i.e., Brain Dates – on topics of shared interest. We assumed the primary benefit of such an intimate platform for exchanging knowledge would be to allow our members to think critically about an idea or issue. As it turned out, that was not the case. While participants clearly valued the activity, only 40 percent of those who responded to the ROI Summit Evaluation said that their Brain Dates helped them significantly advance their thinking on the topic at hand, but an impressive 73 percent felt that Brain Dates primarily helped them establish new relationships.

In other words: though the Summit provided multiple avenues for sharing knowledge (through Brain Dates, peer-led skill sessions and more), these intentional meetings had actually provided our participants with daily opportunities for relationship-building. With the initial seeds of connection sown at the five-day gathering, our members have since taken it upon themselves to cultivate the relationships forged in Jerusalem, holding Shabbat dinners for Bay Area and New York ROIers and hosting virtual hangouts to discuss community building.

Maintaining these links is vital to the network’s continued health, and one crucial lesson that emerged from our Summit experience is that opportunities to forge meaningful connections should take center stage from the very beginning.

Building a successful alumni network requires scrupulous planning, hard work, occasional revision and close attention to your members’ needs. But if you take the time to develop thoughtful programming that empowers your alumni to set the agenda, you may be lucky enough to stumble upon something truly special that not only meets your goals, but surpasses them in ways you never expected.

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.

No’a Gorlin is the Associate Executive Director of ROI Community, an international network of activists and changemakers who are advancing bold ideas to strengthen Jewish communities and redefine Jewish engagement for a new generation of global citizens. ROI is an initiative of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation.