Keeping It Together: The Power of Alumni Networks

alumni treeWhen alumni from one program find their next Jewish education program, they have a network with which to share it – and potentially with which to experience it.

by Jon Marker

A compelling education experience offers participants more than the opportunity to learn. We often see how participants – whether on a ten day trip to Israel or within a two-year classroom setting – grow together and connect in unique ways through the shared experience.

But what about once the program or initiative ends?

If we are truly concerned with long-term positive outcomes, it makes sense to leverage that newfound, often deep connection among a cohort. To this end, the Jim Joseph Foundation has developed an alumni network component as part of some grants, while other grants are designed for the sole purposes of creating such networks.

A strong network of alumni does much more than result in financial contributions to the program. After all, alumni can help to “keep alive” the learning experience and provide opportunities for the individuals to continue to share knowledge and best practices.

The success of the Pardes Educators Alumni Support Project (PEASP), the alumni network of the Pardes Educators Program (PEP), shows the value of these efforts. PEASP offers newer teachers basic induction support during their first three years, while providing veteran teachers the opportunities they seek to step into roles as “teacher leaders” in their schools and across the field. The ongoing support contributes to an 84 percent retention rate among PEP graduates in Jewish education.

While the Pardes alumni network builds off of a long-term program, other networks target individuals from much shorter experiences. NEXT: A Division of Birthright Israel Foundation, for example, works to help participants turn the ten day trips into a lifelong Jewish journey. NEXT understands the power of connecting young Jewish adults to communities and to each other to experience meaningful Jewish living and learning opportunities. The trip has become just the starting point for an alumni network now 279,000 strong in the United States alone and represents incredible engagement potential.

The power of alumni networks is not just limited to the Jewish world. For 22 years, Teach For America has been preparing teachers across the United States. Its alumni network is 28,000 strong. What makes it truly remarkable is the retention rate it has achieved in the field of education. Only 18 percent of Teach For America corps members intend to stay in education long-term when they commit to teach for two years. But through the support of the alumni network, 63 percent today work in education – more than half as teachers. The alumni network has also helped develop its members into principals and school system leaders.

Even one-time gatherings can lead to incredibly strong networks out of which come truly creative Jewish experiences. Reboot brings together young Jewish cultural creatives for one initial, face-to-face summit. Ideas about Jewish identity and experiences are shared and explored. After that, Reboot serves as the network connecting the creatives throughout the year. Rebooters have created engaging initiatives, such as Sukkah City and 10Q, which offers a new way to experience the High Holidays. While the summit occurs only once a year, the network is always active and always creating.

These examples of alumni networks show how the collective Jewish community benefits from this investment, even if the members of an alumni network are the most direct beneficiaries. More Jewish engagement and learning opportunities create more vibrant Jewish communities. And from the Foundation’s perspective, we have seen how alumni of one program move on to another. From Birthright to Hillel. From Hillel to Repair the World. From Repair to Moishe House.

While this sequence is unique for every individual and program series, being a part of an alumni network increases the chances that these people will stay engaged and continue to grow Jewishly. Equally as important, when alumni from one program find their next Jewish education program, they have a network with which to share it – and potentially with which to experience it.

Jewish learning and engagement continues even after a program concludes. By supporting and providing infrastructure for alumni networks, we are making an investment that offers a return. Better teachers. More engaged Jews. Creative Jewish ideas. When opportunities are presented, the Foundation will continue to build strong and long-lasting networks.

Jon Marker is a program officer at the Jim Joseph Foundation.

cross-posted on the Jim Joseph Foundation Blog