Jewish Program Completed, Now What?


Forming a Community of Practice to Advance Alumni Networks

by Seth Cohen, Yaniv Rivlin, Dawne Bear Novicoff and Jon Marker

Over the past several years, the Jewish community has seen a proliferation of effective and innovative strategies for engaging young adults in tailored and meaningful Jewish experiences. Yet, a critically important and often-overlooked component of this work is ensuring that participants in these experiences have opportunities to remain engaged in Jewish life even after their initial program comes to an end.

Indeed, creating a network of alumni can help make a one or two-year program a much longer-term and more meaningful Jewish experience. Our foundations, each with major grants in Jewish education, identity building and leadership development, increasingly view alumni engagement as a key strategy to deepening organizational impact and creating sustainable experiences of Jewish living, giving and learning.

Effective alumni engagement looks beyond metrics, newsletters or even fundraising to offer alumni, wherever they may reside, the chance to continue learning, growing and connecting with those in their network. Building strong alumni networks also enables organizations to increase the reach and impact of their work.

Perhaps the best-known models for alumni engagement come from colleges and universities, which rely on active and ongoing alumni affiliation. In recent years, we have seen a growing number of successes in the Jewish world.

However, Jewish organizations continue to face challenges in creating and sustaining these networks. We believe that together we have the opportunity to learn about common obstacles and to think deeply and creatively to identify strategic responses.

To begin a substantive and meaningful conversation, our foundations are initiating a community of practice for professionals working with Jewish alumni. We will start by launching the #NetTalks: Alumni Engagement Webinar Series to explore the potential of these networks, bring in outside wisdom and expertise, and delve deeply into effective strategies for engagement.

The five-part series will include case studies and presentations from experts like Dan Ariely, the renowned behavioral economist and professor; Beth Kanter, the social media innovator who has helped many nonprofits build engaged networks; and James Fowler, a social scientist specializing in social networks. The webinars will address a variety of key questions, including:

1: Where to start?

Creating an effective alumni network takes knowledge – about the community, its stakeholders and who is best equipped to lead. In other words, alumni networks don’t organize themselves. Careful and thoughtful approaches are necessary to lay the foundation for effective alumni engagement.

2: How crucial is social media?

As with most initiatives, projects and campaigns, alumni networks can leverage social media in strategic ways. In fact, the very nature of a group of alumni – once together in a program, now potentially dispersed around the country (or world) – lends itself to effective use of social media. But a strategy is needed; one that brings added value and makes smart use of these resources.

3: What if alumni want nothing to do with an alumni network?

Young adults may begin a program, experience its offerings and, upon completion, move on to their next endeavor. Demonstrating the benefits of an alumni network and creating a motivation to engage are both keys to success. With young adults today often involved in multiple programs simultaneously, an alumni network is essentially competing for alumni’s valued time.

4: How does the alumni network relate to professional goals?

In the immediate wake of an effective program, soliciting buy-in for an alumni network may be easy. But over time, as careers take priority, an alumni network can be pushed aside. To counter this, organizational sponsors of these networks should think about creating mentorship, coaching and careers initiatives. With this strategy, the alumni network offers true value-added to alumni and increases the likelihood of sustained involvement.

We believe that #NetTalks will provide a forum to exchange ideas and best practices with world-renowned experts, professional advisors and peers, as well as help to develop the basis for a broader community understanding of effective alumni networks. With this knowledge sharing, participants will hopefully learn how to create best-in-class alumni experiences. We want participants to complete the webinar with a rich understanding of not just the “why” but also the “how.”

In Pirkei Avot, we are taught that once an individual completes an experience, he or she has an obligation to act and exist in the world differently than before (lo aleicha hamlacha ligmor – “you do not have to finish the task, but you cannot refrain from staying engaged in it”).

We must do our part to help make this possible. We have a responsibility to offer the resources, strategic support and opportunities so that organizations can provide alumni experiences that match the intensity of their programmatic experiences.

After all, effective networks of alumni benefit multiple segments of Jewish communities. Many organizations and initiatives help create elite alumni who, if properly engaged and supported, have the potential to connect with greater numbers of young adults in their respective social networks and lead them in creating lasting impact in their communities and in shaping vibrant Jewish communities worldwide.

The #NetTalks: Alumni Engagement Webinar Series is free and open to the public. Webinars will take place every month through April 2014.

The first webinar is scheduled for Wednesday, December 4, at noon EST, with Dan Ariely, Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics at Duke University. The topic is “Motivating Alumni Engagement.”

Click here to register!

Seth Cohen is the director of network initiatives at the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, which is part of the Schusterman Philanthropic Network. Yaniv Rivlin is a program officer at the Foundation. Dawne Bear Novicoff is a senior program officer at the Jim Joseph Foundation and Jon Marker is a program officer at the Foundation.