Exploring the Future of Alumni: Part 1

Exploring the Future of Alumni: Part 1

Organizations across the Jewish community and beyond invest significant dollars in programs – whether training educators, inspiring social justice activists, empowering young adults to create their own Jewish life, or advancing a myriad of other mission-driven goals – that prepare individuals to make an impact. After a certain level of instruction is completed, these individuals are labeled “alumni,” and organizations then work to keep alumni connected to their specific program and organization.

This past December, M²: The Institute for Experiential Jewish Education gathered 27 participants representing 16 organizations from the U.S. and Israel to explore this key organizational component: alumni engagement. The conversations among the diversity of executive directors, chief program officers, directors and alumni themselves led to learnings we believe are valuable and worth sharing more broadly. In this series of articles, we share key ideas that resonated with some of the participants, who discuss them in their own words.

Plant the Seeds for Alumni Engagement Even Before Participants Begin a Program
By Penina Grosberg & Erica Cohen

By communicating from the outset our “long view” that engagement extends beyond the limited time of an active fellowship experience, we can strengthen the possibility of more enduring affiliation. Rather than wait until a program ends before introducing recent graduates into an alumni community, we could introduce fellows to alumni sooner to cultivate relationships across cohorts and increase the likelihood that participants become active alumni. Programs could pair fellows with alumni buddies or invite alumni to mentor or teach current participants. At the outset, programs would communicate an explicit expectation that participants will give back after graduation. Alumni could remain connected to a program by offering support in many valuable ways, such as teaching, convening or serving as ambassadors to market and recruit others.

Prospective participants should encounter alumni as early as the application process. Including profiles of previous participants in application materials not only illustrates to prospective participants the profile of suitable candidates, but also offers an early glimpse of a broad alumni community. Alumni of the Ruskay Institute for Jewish Professional Leadership, for example, interview prospective candidates for the fellowship. As previous participants themselves, alumni are uniquely positioned to identify candidates and to answer candidates’ questions about their first-hand experiences of the program. Moreover, involvement of alumni in the application process and in other events signals to new fellows from the get-go an enduring connection to the program and a sincere interest in forging relationships within a broad network.

As a Ruskay Institute alumna, I [Erica] personally had a moment of “exhale” at the conclusion of a transformative fellowship experience, as I strove to synthesize my deep personal learnings and considerations of what would come next. I am certain if we plant seeds for alumni engagement early on, we can manage an effective transition from fellow to alumna so that even a “closing retreat” is not an ending but a bridge to ongoing alumni affiliation.

Think About Who Is Not in the Room
By Abby Saloma

What I appreciated most about our conversations at M²’s Future of Alumni convening is how much time we spent focused on what happens before program participants become alumni and, specifically, who is “not in the room.” In other words, each of our programs reaches a decision point when we are able to grant access to select leaders while having to deny others. The selection process feels simultaneously inspiring and gut-wrenching; there is an abundance of incredible talent in our community, yet in order to build an effective program, cohort size matters. The “sweet spot” for our Schusterman Fellowship program is 24. Composition matters too. Our program team is striving to build cohorts that represent the Jewish community in all its diversity, including gender, race, ethnicity, sexual identity, ability, geography, background and experience.

This puts us in the difficult position of having to exclude up to 50 applicants per selection, and nearly 150 applicants since the fellowship launched. Combined with the other attendees at the M² gathering, we are developing hundreds of leaders each year while unfortunately saying “no” to hundreds more.

As educators and leadership development providers, we have a responsibility to our Jewish community to help develop as many leaders as we can. While programs may not be able to increase their cohort size, they can still commit to supporting applicants they cannot accept. Since the first cohort of the Schusterman Fellowship, we have offered individualized feedback to any Schusterman Fellowship finalist who was not accepted into the program. About 75% of finalists take us up on the offer, and more than a half dozen have applied again and been accepted to a later cohort. Every time I give constructive feedback to finalists who were denied access to the program, I am struck by how appreciative they are. It reminds me that we operate in a sector where feedback is still too scarce. According to Leading Edge’s Third Annual Employee Experience Survey, only 58% of respondents had a favorable response to the statement, “I receive regular feedback on how I am performing.”

Additionally, we recommend applicants to other programs for which they might be well-suited. We have recommended candidates to Wexner, the CEO On-Boarding Program and others. While these practices will not eliminate the exclusion of highly qualified leaders from our programs, they provide applicants with valuable feedback that could serve them in their life and work and connect them to other programs that could advance their leadership – and that is a win for the entire Jewish community.

Penina Grosberg is the Program Manager of the Ruskay Institute for Jewish Professional Leadership, and Erica Cohen is the Director of the Center for Youth Philanthropy and Leadership at UJA Federation of New York. Abby Saloma is the Director of Leadership and Talent at Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation.

** Continue the conversation about alumni engagement tomorrow as the series Exploring the Future of Alumni continues with Aimee Weiss, “Raising Expectations” and Aaron Steinberg, “The Power of Alumni to Do Good.” **

M²: The Institute for Experiential Jewish Education provides educators and organizations with knowledge, tools and skills to advance the theory and practice of experiential Jewish education.