Who Knows Five?

5by Stephanie Ruskay

I know five: five is the number needed to build a network, but more on that later.

Apparently there is no magic bullet. If you want to map your network, you have to do some hard work. Facebook and LinkedIn can help, as can a good CRM (Customer Relationship Management) tool as well. But nothing beats asking your folks to identify who they are most connected to and starting from there.

According to social scientist James Fowler, while we each do things for many reasons, we are only conscious of some of those reasons. Would you imagine that some of your own practices and the actions you take are because your friends, their friends and their friends’ friends do them? According to Fowler and other network theorists, it’s true.

As AVODAH’s Director of Alumni and Community Engagement, I’m excited about the possibility of understanding who is influencing whom to do what. Our vision at AVODAH is that our alumni will take what they learned with us and bring their analysis about root causes and effects of poverty and Jewish tradition’s response out into the world.

Our end goal is to help lead and support the Jewish community’s antipoverty work. To pursue that goal effectively, we need our alumni to continuously feel connected to AVODAH, view us as an ongoing source of support for Jewish and antipoverty learning and training, and see our nearly 700 person and growing network as the key people with whom they will help shape the Jewish community’s response to domestic poverty.

We need them to act in ways that support our theory of change: that we are helping them to become lifelong Jewish antipoverty leaders whose work will have a much larger social impact. As a result, the people they know, their friends’ friends, and their friends’ friends’ friends will all start acting in ways that alleviate poverty and create a more just world.

But how can we influence all those people? Since I began this role three years ago, I’ve relied heavily on community organizing skills and the book “Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard.”

From community organizing I learned about identifying and cultivating leaders, finding out what moves people, and focusing on working towards the world as it can be, not as it is.

From Switch, I’ve learned about being concrete, painting a picture of where you are going so others can also envision the end goal, and shaping the path. Arguing people into submission won’t achieve large-scale long-term change.

Thanks to the Jim Joseph Foundation and the Schusterman Philanthropic Network, through their #NetTalks Alumni Engagement Webinar Series, I can add Network Theory to my list of tools. The webinar series has been a terrific opportunity to hear wisdom from experts in their field whose ideas will influence how we do our work with alumni. I’ve also invited AVODAH alumni to join me for this opportunity, so that we can work together to take these ideas and experiment with them in developing our network.

So who knows five? James Fowler’s presentation inspired me to plan a micro- experiment, in the tradition of Dan Ariely, a behavioral economist who conducts many social experiments to develop theories about human behavior. Ariely was also another of the #NetTalks presenters.

I am going to ask each of our closest alumni lay leaders to tell me who their five strongest AVODAH alumni connections are. I will then keep track of their names and support those leaders as they mobilize their five strongest connections for training sessions, engagement and speaking opportunities, and fundraising. We will compare the activity of these connections and see how their activity during this time compares with their activity with AVODAH prior to our engaging them throughout this new network development model.

If we find that they are more engaged, play more consistent leadership roles in shaping the Jewish community’s antipoverty work and contribute financially in greater numbers to AVODAH, we will ask every member of our alumni community to tell us who their five strongest connections are and map our whole network.

Alumni work has been an elusive challenge in the Jewish and secular service learning world for many years. While there is no shortcut or panacea, I feel optimistic that Fowler’s approach to mapping our network can help AVODAH realize our full potential by engaging and organizing our alumni to fulfill our mission.

This Pesach, when we sing “who knows five?” I assure you I’ll be thinking both of the physical books of the Torah and the ways the individuals we mobilize using network theory can contribute to fulfilling the promise of those books: a more just world.

Please join the next #NetTalks webinar featuring Or Mars, Director of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship/Davidson Scholars Program and No’a Gorlin, Associate Executive Director of ROI Community to discuss case studies of successful alumni networks in action.

Rabbi Stephanie Ruskay is the Director of Alumni and Community Engagement at AVODAH: The Jewish Service Corps. AVODAH: The Jewish Service Corps strengthens the Jewish community’s fight against the causes and effects of poverty in the United States. We do this by engaging participants in service and community building that inspire them to become lifelong leaders for social change whose work for justice is rooted in and nourished by Jewish values.