Tackling What Comes Next: How an Effective Alumni Strategy Can Change the Game

Alumni Playbook logoThis piece is an introduction to the Alumni Playbook, a new online compendium of strategies, best practices and case studies for those looking to cultivate alumni networks and provide them opportunities for meaningful, ongoing engagement. Visit www.schusterman.org/playbook for more.

By Sandy Cardin

“Alumni are our strategy.”

So said Matt Kramer, Co-CEO of Teach for America, when asked to explain how TFA plans to achieve its ambitious agenda to improve public education throughout the United States. As important a contribution as the more than 40,000 alumni of TFA made in their respective classrooms, the organization realizes their potential to advance the cause of education reform is even greater after their initial terms of service expire.

While many choose to continue to work as teachers, others move on to administrative posts, school boards, local governments, state and national legislatures, public policy organizations and other positions of significant influence. From there, they continue to fight, as TFA strengthens its overall effort by adding thousands of corps members to its alumni network every year.

TFA is hardly alone in its appreciation of the importance of alumni engagement. Many institutions of higher education have long been motivating and mining their alumni quite successfully – and they do not do so passively, waiting for their graduates to come to them. Rather, they actively pursue and communicate with their alumni networks using the most effective approaches and the latest in technology, including job searching and career coaching platforms, social media campaigns, casual social gatherings, virtual class reunions, alumni-generated content and more.

And it works. A study by MIT articulated what the best institutional advancement professionals have been preaching for years: engaged alumni are nearly twice as likely as their unengaged counterparts to support university programs and initiatives, financially and otherwise.

We in the Jewish community would be wise to take note of what the leadership of TFA and many institutions of higher education have demonstrated: alumni represent a tremendous resource, and we should be devoting time, effort and resources to keeping them engaged, just as we do to attract them in the first place. The alumni of all of the educational and experiential programming we work so hard to deliver are the lifeblood of the Jewish community, and it is imperative that we recognize and treat them as such.

After all, look around at the people who lead us and, invariably, you will see a day school graduate, a past participant in a youth group, a former camper or a Hillel activist during college. Others are people who had different but equally transformative experiences; they went on a Birthright trip, they were part of a Jewish leadership development program, they did volunteer work with a Jewish service provider or they pursued social justice with one of our many issue-oriented Jewish organizations.

Where would we be today if we had not kept in touch with alumni and encouraged them to remain active in our community? We would be at a tremendous disadvantage because these are the people who feel the most excited, empowered and passionate about shaping a vibrant Jewish future.

And today, we need more of these people than ever. We are living in a time of immense challenges for our people, for Israel and for our broader community of nations. There is no better time than now to look to a new generation that has the potential to turn the tide of fear and exclusion to one of peace, diversity, strength and equality.

Our alumni are a huge part of that generation, and they need our support to keep our community growing and thriving. They need ongoing and interesting opportunities to stay connected. They need to feel inspired and motivated. They need to be valued as leaders capable of ensuring a brighter future for us all.

If that is the goal, the challenge is creating an effective, sustainable alumni strategy. Like many of our peers and colleagues, our Foundation has spent years working to support outstanding programs and experiences that prepare participants to be leaders in the Jewish world and beyond. Yet, we found that while we had become adept in developing meaningful “entry” experiences, we were perplexed by planning for the day after. Once participants complete their programs, what happens next? We often found ourselves asking our partners why their follow-up with past participants did not seem as strong as their core programming.

It was not until we began building initiatives like ROI Community, REALITY and others that we fully understood the difference in strategy and expertise that successfully accomplishing these distinct goals requires.

We also saw just how few resources exist to help navigate this crucial challenge. And so, in 2013, we offered a five-part webinar series on alumni engagement in partnership with the Jim Joseph Foundation. We were astounded when hundreds of professionals signed up throughout the course of the series and knew we had tapped into an important need that demanded further exploration.

We began delving into existing research, identifying key trends, speaking about this topic with experts and practitioners in the field, developing deep-dive case studies on a number of organizations with successful alumni communities and drawing lessons from our own work and that of our partners.

We are excited to share our learnings in the form of the Alumni Playbook, a practical, hands-on toolkit to foster discussion and action around alumni engagement, whether an organization is just starting to think about developing alumni programming or looking to revitalize its well-established alumni community.

The Playbook includes: best practices to help organizations build effective alumni strategies; an “idea menu” that provides suggestions for high-impact programming; case studies of seven organizations’ vibrant alumni communities; a toolkit of additional resources and reading material; and a discussion guide to help organizations engage their stakeholders in this important conversation.

One lesson we hope the Playbook makes abundantly clear is that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to alumni engagement. A successful game plan should reflect the core experience and should naturally differ from community to community. There is no secret formula hidden in the pages of the Playbook. Instead, we hope to offer a foundation upon which to build effective strategies suited for a diverse array of alumni networks – strategies that foster impactful programs that meet the goals of organizations and the interests of their alumni.

After all, the Jewish landscape is changing, and our approach must change with it. Our alumni communities are filled with passionate young people who champion our shared values – and the activation of these networks represents an incredible opportunity to shift our attention from past to present, advance our missions and shape our future in profound and positive ways.

Sandy Cardin is the President of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, a global organization committed to igniting the passion and unleashing the power in young people to create positive change in their communities.