Voices at the table

The key to engaging alumni

In Short

When we incorporate alumni into our leadership councils and caucuses and invite them into our local interreligious dialogues or communities of conscience, they speak out loudly against antisemitism and in favor of Israel’s right to defend itself.

For the past 15 years, the Jewish philanthropic world has poured money into alumni engagement, trying to unlock the mystery of how a one- or two-week experience can translate into lifelong engagement. Sure, you can get someone to come to a happy hour, or like you on social media, but to bring someone into a long-term, meaningful and sometimes complex relationship with Israel and the Jewish people? To get them to proactively step up and speak out in support of Israel or against antisemitism? That’s more challenging.

When I became  the first director of alumni engagement for Project Interchange, an educational institute of American Jewish Committee (AJC), I inherited an alumni body of 6,000 thought leaders from 50 U.S. states and over 100 countries, spanning four decades.

All these alumni had one thing in common–the Project Interchange experience, a weeklong high-level introduction to Israel and its people, the challenges they face, Israel’s place in the world, its unique approaches to innovation and its extraordinary accomplishments. Participants gain in-depth insight through direct engagement with senior Israeli Jewish and Arab business and civic leaders, and academics, and visits to historic and strategic sites. They also meet with Palestinian officials.

An amazing experience, to be sure. For many, this first-ever visit to Israel was transformative. But how to extend the impact three, six, twelve months after?

It can be done. Even in the midst of our COVID year, when our typical schedule of 24 delegations a year was suspended, AJC Project Interchange recorded over a thousand meaningful PI alumni engagements. This short video honoring our 2021 PI Alumni of the Year shares a few stories about how our alumni stepped forward in the past year.

Alumni are represented in AJC flagship intergroup coalitions in the U.S., including with Latino, Muslim, African American and Asian American partners, as well as in pro-Israel efforts overseas like the Translatlantic Friends of Israel. They are on our panels and programs, our small meetings and major conferences, and they are eagerly taking up the charge, as partners and allies. In short, we are moving the needle on alumni engagement and building a global cadre of thought leaders and change agents aligned with our mission to build understanding of, and support for, the state of Israel.

But how did we get here? And how can your organization build a strong and active alumni base too? The answer can be found within your organization’s mission and strengths.

AJC, the leading global Jewish advocacy organization, based in New York, has 24 U.S. regional offices and posts in 13 countries around the world. This organizational structure is our strength–we have staff and/or friends almost everywhere there are Project Interchange alumni. AJC also has clear goals–combating antisemitism, promoting Israel, defending democratic values–that serve as the focal point for all of our activities and help us work effectively together to make change. 

The key to our successful alumni engagement has been to harness these two strengths. We give AJC staff on the ground the resources–from data to dollars– to make real, lasting connections based on shared values and to integrate alumni into their existing networks. They engage in authentic, person-by-person relationship building.

Even more importantly, colleagues are encouraged to center alumni engagement around the pursuit of our organizational goals. When we incorporate alumni into our leadership councils and caucuses and invite them into our local interreligious dialogues or communities of conscience, they speak out loudly against antisemitism and in favor of Israel’s right to defend itself. Sometimes such outspokenness comes with personal or professional risk. We, in turn, stand up for their rights in the public sphere. True allies. 

Once we made this shift, we didn’t just have one or two people working on alumni engagement. We had an entire organization.

So as you embark upon your own alumni engagement plan, ask these three questions:

  1. What is your organization’s mission, and how can your alumni help your organization advance it?
  2. What are your organization’s biggest strengths and how can they be leveraged to advance alumni engagement?
  3. What resources do you and your colleagues need to build meaningful relationships with alumni?

Your answers will give you a strong foundation for alumni engagement that supports and advances the goals of your organization.

Lili Kalish Gersch is the director of alumni engagement for AJC Project Interchange. She encourages you to reach out with your best practices in alumni engagement at gerschl@ajc.org.