Where in the World Are Those JDS Alumni?

The 2011 graduating class of 2011 of Chicagoland Jewish High School, shown wearing their college attire; courtesy.

by PEJE Staff

Imagine you had to choose the group of people who are most likely to become Jewish day school donors. Who would you pick?

How about alumni? If you can find these grads and give them your spiel, bags bursting with money will soon be trucking their way into your development office, right?

Well, not exactly.

Locating alumni is an excellent first step. But then you must take the time to integrate them into your diverse donor base. The real goal, of course, is to engage them. And, as with any other sort of engagement, this requires work. Dedication. Creativity. It requires, in fact, a sort of courting period. Rebuilding alumni relationships is no easy task – and this is especially true for alumni who graduated 20 years ago or more.

Add to that the realities of fundraising in the 21st century. Connecting with alumni means more than mailing out e-newsletters and annual fund solicitation letters. In this fast-paced world, donors are looking to support causes that have real meaning in their life today – not just in their memories.

But don’t fret! There are many top-notch alumni relations programs in Jewish day schools. We talked to several that are engaging with their youngest alumni in innovative and creative ways. Read on, and learn how to bring these best practices to your school.

Philanthropy in the curriculum

Some schools are finding innovative ways to bring the culture of philanthropy to their students. As part of the B’nai Mitzvah year curriculum, Pressman Academy in Los Angeles spends an entire trimester (12 weeks) teaching its seventh graders about all aspects of philanthropy: how philanthropy works, the Jewish traditions of giving and how they are different from other traditions, exposure to local philanthropists, and a final project in which the class actually gets to put their learning into practice as they donate $2,000 worth of gifts to causes they determine themselves. Students are given the responsibility to research and vote on where to send their money. While the concept of tzedakah is taught throughout their time at the school, this curriculum, in the words of Head of School Rabbi Mitchel Malkus, “models for them what they’ll be facing as adults.” The young school hasn’t seen any direct giving from alumni as a result of the curriculum, yet, but looks at the program as “planting the seeds” for the future.

Data Matters

Jewish day schools clearly have a ways to schlepp before reaching the benchmarks being set by our counterparts in the independent school world.

According to last year’s Independent Schools Association of the Central States (ISACS) – Measuring Success Alumni Impact Surveys, only 13% of JDS alumni reported that giving back to their JDS is one of their top three charity priorities, compared to 31% of ISACS schools. And though 42% of ISACS school alumni agreed that their school educated them about the need to give back financially to the school, only 23% of JDS alumni did so.

Old School, Small Community

Stuart Gasner, director of development at Silver Academy in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, has implemented several programs to connect with alumni. Founded in 1944, Silver Academy stays in touch with students who are fifth- and sixth-generation grads.

The school created the first Young Alumni Council for alumni who are 30 and younger. After evaluating Silver Academy’s alumni giving they realized that only 18% of alumni in this age range contributing to the school. They saw an opportunity and wanted to make sure that the school was on their alumni’s “charitable radar” as they became settled and successful in life. Even though they knew the gifts from this group would be small in dollar amount, the school sought repetitive participation.

Two main goals were set for the Council: cultivating new leadership and increasing participation in giving. Creating relationships among alumni, the board, and school leadership was essential to the process. Silver Academy first focused on reaching alumni living in the Harrisburg community and then used their social connections to widen the group.

Gasner also worked with the Council to solicit other young alumni for their annual campaign. At first the alumni were uncomfortable soliciting. But after they had some early success, even getting $10 and $18 gifts, the team was energized.

An initiative that really sparked alumni giving was the creation of a Young Alumni Scholarship. An anonymous donor offered a match of $6,000 if the Young Alumni Council could raise $6,000. This $12,000 would be a full scholarship for a deserving child at school. All the small gifts added up – a great source of motivation for the young alumni. Gasner says: “It was an incredible feeling for the older alumni to see just what this young group could accomplish.”

Key to Silver Academy’s success has been the focus on building long-term, authentic relationships with alumni. “Giving is just part of that sustained relationship,” says Gasner. “We value [young alumni] as leaders and use their talents and connections creatively. We are so grateful to have their support.”

Chi-Town Knows How to Give

On the other side of the spectrum, Chicagoland Jewish High School, 11 years old, has a smaller and younger alumni base from which to draw. The school was committed to identifying the “right way” to approach young alumni and introduce them to the idea of giving to the school.

To that end, Director of Development Stephanie Smerling asked community leader David Sherman, past Board Chair at the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, to talk with Chicagoland seniors about community responsibility, leadership, and living out, after graduation, the values they learned at day school. Sherman suggested that supporting their school and community through charitable giving was a great way to do so.

Sherman asked why they should consider making a gift to CJHS. One student said that she had attended CJHS on tuition assistance and felt that it was her honor to give back to the school so another student could do the same. Smerling reports that the students took ownership of the idea. Allowing them to participate in the conversation gave the students buy-in; it was their idea now, not one the school shoved at them. CJHS asked students to commit to $18 a year for four years. “We knew we had to talk to them before they left school,” Smerling says.

As an added incentive, the school solicited a grandparent who made a first-time gift to the school that match the cumulative giving of the Class of 2011 – nearly $4,000.

The “Tradition of Giving” program had two particularly interesting features:

  • Building leadership program. Two seniors were selected as co-chairs of the program. Serving as ambassadors, the students helped the school inform senior class parents about the project and will work with the staff to remind the class of their gifts each year.
  • A creative pledge form. Instead of a traditional pledge form, the school took a class picture of each senior wearing a t-shirt of the college they are attending. Each student signed the photo, pledging that they will make individual gifts to CJHS for four years. This proved to be an energy boost for the entire community. Motivated by their children’s dedication and generosity, parents got on board to support the school.

Says Smerling: “Our oldest alumni are 25, 26 – but we realize that if we don’t start now, we will never have the lifetime relationship with our alumni to cultivate them as major donors in the future.”

A Multi-Faceted Approach

“Since new alumni are plugged into social networks it seems natural that schools want to employ this mode of communication as a tool to reach them,” says PEJE Social Media Manager Ken Gordon. “Social media can be a great tool for reaching out to alumni – but it is not a replacement for the more traditional methods of relationship-building: phone calls, in-person meetings, and even, yes, email.”

Michael Rosenberg, Director of Community Relations at the Maimonides School in Brookline, Massachusetts, agrees. He has been working tirelessly on multiple fronts to build a vibrant alumni base since he started working at the school in 1988.

“Over the school’s 65-year history, more than 1,700 students have graduated,” says Rosenberg. “Of those 1,700, we have contact information for of all but 2.5%. And we’re working hard to find them as well.”

“There’s no doubt that the electronic revolution has made an enormous difference. Young alumni in their 20s feel comfortable giving online, so we make it easy for them to do so,” says Rosenberg. “This year, for the first time, representatives from each class volunteered to solicit their younger counterparts­ – the last 15 years of alumni – via email. And through my personal Facebook page, I friend every Maimo student – but not until they’ve graduated.”

More traditional campaigns, like volunteer-led telethons, a senior class gift fund, and a proactive Alumni Council Steering Committee – spanning four decades of alumni – also play an important role.

That said, nothing takes the place of cultivating students at a young age.

“By the time they are in middle school, I have personal relationships with many students. I spend a half-hour each week with the eighth graders. We look through old photos, identify our benefactors, and discuss the importance of shared responsibility for our school. Through this process, students implicitly understand the giving process.”

“You never know,” he continues. “Sometimes a recalcitrant 12-year old becomes an active donor as an adult. And sometimes a graduate who has never been involved with the school shows up 40 years later after having an epiphany about their Jewish identity.”

Do strong personal connections translate to alumni giving? “Well, not as much as I like … but we’re getting there – and it’s worth the effort,” says Rosenberg. “Through keeping in touch with generations of graduates, we learn valuable lessons about what works here at Maimonides—as well as what doesn’t. I want each and every graduate to understand that, after they leave, they are still part of our family.”

Getting Your Alumni on Board

If you want your school to have a robust alumni program that connects them to the school emotionally and financially, you have to start now. Or in 20 years you will be looking for the very students who sit in your classrooms today about to graduate.

So how can you get your alumni to start giving? Here are some ideas:

  • Create an alumni Facebook group.
  • Set up a Google-Plus page for your grads.
  • Build a dedicated alumni chat group on Twitter.
  • Run a video contest on your YouTube channel.
  • Send your head of school to the local high school once a year to connect with alums who currently attend that high school.
  • Invite students back for an alumni/staff basketball game over Thanksgiving break.
  • Ask students to participate in school events and to speak and mentor younger students.
  • Offer alumni summer jobs, around the office, supporting your school’s development or financial professionals.
  • Share alumni achievements in your weekly parent newsletter, including those of young alumni who are only in 7th grade!
  • Throw a back-to-school barbeque for young alum before they start their new school (middle/high/college).
  • Ask a board or faculty member who plans to be in Israel to take alums studying there on a gap year or semester abroad to dinner.

So get to work, friends, and don’t let another graduating class disappear into the abyss of missing alumni. Today’s alumni relationships will, over time, transform into tomorrow’s loyal supporters.

Engaging alumni: the time is now

“The point is, don’t lose [the graduates] in the first place!” exclaims Jennifer Weinstock, Strategy Manager, Annual Campaigns. “People keep telling me how hard it is to raise money from alumni, but if you’re not connecting with them and cultivating those relationships over the long term, you can’t expect them to turn around in one day and give your school that big gift.”

She looks at other independent schools and colleges for the benchmarks that Jewish day schools should be holding themselves to. “The data tells us that Jewish day school alums aren’t prepared to give back in the same way independent school alums are. At secular schools, annual campaigns and fundraising are unapologetic, they’re part of the school culture. Colleges get their students to participate in the telethons, write the thank you letters to scholarship donors – they get the students involved as soon as they’re in the door, not after they’ve left.”

Jill Goldenberg, Strategy Manager, Growing Endowment and Legacy Revenue, says the time is right to engage alumni for endowment gifts. “As the largest transfer of wealth in history occurs from the Greatest Generation to the Baby Boomers, day schools cannot miss this opportunity to connect with and steward their alumni, their parents, and grandparents for endowment gifts, whether outright cash or legacy gifts,” she says. “And, even for schools with young alumni, it is never too early to communicate the endowment message of building for the future. Every school’s strategic development plan must include endowment building.”

Whatever the campaign, the key is not to get bogged down on the age or financial status of your alumni. “Colleges solicit their seniors for class gifts – does a senior in college have more money than an eighteen-year-old? Not really,” says Weinstock. “It’s about cultivating a relationship where solicitation is just one of a whole array of ways that you’re keeping alumni connected to the school – there are newsletters, Facebook groups, pizza parties, and opportunities to meet with the head of school. It costs nothing to be nice and inclusive. And here’s the thing: if you don’t start building the relationship with your students because they’re too young, they’re going to go off to another school or college that is going to cultivate that relationship; starting with your current students and young alumni will yield you those $1,000 or $2,000 gifts 20 years down the road.”

This article first appeared in Sustained!: Viable Jewish Day Schools for an Enduring Future – a webzine for 21st-century day school professionals.