The Sweet Spot: Alumni Career Development Meets Digital Engagement
by Miranda Bogen
Last month, Russ Finkelstein wrote about keeping alumni engaged and involved by offering career services. Before we can tap into alumni communities for fundraising and volunteer requests, he argued, we have to provide them something of value, something that they want.
At Masa Israel we wholeheartedly agree, and have been experimenting in the professional development space for the past year. This year, we piloted individualized professional guidance for a select group of current participants through our “Masa Works” program, in partnership with the Jewish Family Services of Columbus. We also developed a long-term fellowship program to build pipelines for Israel program alumni to enter careers at Hillel, and are looking to replicate the model.
At the same time, we know our tens of thousands of alumni are dispersed around the world, and can rarely take advantage of in-person, in-depth career development opportunities. Just like Lisa Colton wrote back in January about building an online alumni ecosystem, we have recognized the need to create a more robust virtual network where we can move beyond the “likes” and start more conversations.
Several weeks ago, we made our first attempt to meaningfully connect those two strategies. On April 2nd, Masa Israel Journey hosted an online career expo for current participants and alumni of immersive experiences in Israel. The idea stemmed from our continuing efforts to enable Israel program participants and alumni to leverage their cross-cultural, immersive experiences in Israel for success in their desired field – both professionally and as leaders in their home communities. By running a virtual event, we hoped to reach a wider audience of participants and alumni than we’d previously been able to.
This sort of event has grown in popularity for university alumni associations, but as far as we know, ours was the first event of its kind in the Jewish community. We were fortunate to connect with a robust platform, Brazen Careerist, which has facilitated numerous events like these for university alumni networks and professional associations.
“Organizations of all types are turning to virtual events to connect their audiences with employers or with each other on a global scale,” Ryan Healy, Brazen Careerist’s co-founder & COO, told me recently. “Five or 10 years ago, virtual events were considered hokey or weird, but today it’s a totally different story. The combination of people being connected 24/7 and technology maturing to a point that has made virtual events both easy to use and affordable has led to a huge increase in job seekers and employers, alike. It’s a very exciting time for anyone who wants to engage a global audience.”
Our experiment paid off – over 200 Masa Israel program alumni and participants logged on over the course of the three-hour fair and were able to chat one-on-one with any of 24 different employers. Even better, the individuals who attended represented a broad cross-section of professional sectors, types of Israel programs, and length of time since their Israel experience (from mere months to over 20 years ago). Not only were we able to provide a valuable service to our alumni community, we managed to “reawaken” many individuals who had not engaged with us in recent years by providing a service they valued.
It certainly helped that the companies and organizations who agreed to participate were top-notch: Hillel International, Repair the World, Jewish Federations of North America, BBYO, AIPAC, RAVSAK, J Street, Nefesh B’Nefesh, AVODAH: The Jewish Service Corps, Union for Reform Judaism, Teach for America, JDC Entwine, Tevel B’Tzedek, Acquis Consulting Group, EY (formerly Ernst & Young), Wells Fargo Securities and several others committed to spending those three hours chatting with members of our community who were looking for ways to channel their Israel experience into their profession.
Based on an analysis of traffic in the employer booths, Jewish communal organizations, particularly Israel-focused ones, were more sought-after. This makes sense, given that over 47% of our alumni consistently express the desire to pursue work in the Jewish community, and our fair was framed in the context of translating the Israel experience to a meaningful career.
“It’s important to stay involved with Masa, and Israel things as a whole, now that I’m home,” shared Barrett Deitz of Austin, Texas, who recently returned from his Masa Israel program and participated in the Career Expo. “At first, I didn’t want to work in the Jewish community. After coming home from my Masa Israel program, I absolutely do. I won’t feel fulfilled until my employer cares about the same things I do, i.e. Israel and the Jewish community.”
The event also served a dual purpose of helping Jewish organizations identify younger talent whom they might not notice through the traditional recruitment process, a point discussed last year by Masa Israel’s immediate past North American director.
After we first conceptualized the fair, we underwent an intense process of not only recruiting major Jewish organizations to participate as employers, but mobilizing them around the idea of experimenting in new forums. Hillel, the Schusterman Philanthropic Network, and BBYO were key partners in injecting momentum into the employer recruitment process. Those initial discussions have blossomed into an ongoing dialogue about our shared goals for providing innovative and valuable professional development opportunities to our respective networks.
Diane Klein, Senior Director of Human Resources at BBYO, told me, “The job fair was terrific! We interacted with many talented and energetic individuals and have numerous possible candidates who we will schedule follow-up meetings with. The technology was great and very easy to use. This is certainly a forum we can build upon.”
This reaction was echoed by many employers with whom I have followed up so far, and speaks to the imperative to use this pilot event in the service of the wider Jewish community. Similar opportunities in the future can be modeled for even larger groups of young adults like Hillel students, BBYO and other youth group alumni, and Birthright returnees, in addition to our own growing alumni network. I envision the Jewish community offering not only job fairs, but Israel program fairs, online networking events, global volunteer fairs, and even community engagement fairs.
Simultaneously, we plan on doubling down on digital, interactive events for the Masa Israel community as a way to engage a larger portion of our alumni – especially those that can’t or prefer not to engage with our local, in-person programming. Our next experiment in May will be a networking event on the same platform as the career fair, during which participants and alumni will be able to connect with each other according to interests and geography in order to build a stronger community and chat with other alumni who can help them navigate their career, or advise on leadership trajectory in the Jewish world or elsewhere.
The energetic conversations about alumni engagement these past few months inspired us to try something new for the Masa Israel community, but the real spark came at the nexus of multiple ideas – for us it was professional development and online community-building. For others, the golden combination will likely look different, and involve very different tools.
As Jewish organizations grapple with the challenge of adapting to new paradigms relating to technology and community-building, I hope we will all continue sharing both our successes and challenges as we internally experiment with new ideas for our constituents. We may just find that some of the most innovative ideas are not actually new, but are rather smart combinations of program elements that have already proven successful in their own right.
Miranda Bogen is the Director of Communications for Masa Israel Journey. This fall she will be pursuing an M.A. in international affairs with a focus on technology and innovation in the public sector.