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Building a Network: Insights and Strategies for Effective Alumni Engagement

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Jon Marker is a Program Officer at the Jim Joseph Foundation, which supports education of Jewish youth and young adults in the United States. From December 2013 - March 2014, Schusterman and Jim Joseph Foundation hosted #NetTalks: Alumni Engagement Series, which was a free, five-part webinar series for Jewish professionals who want to tap into the power and potential of alumni networks. For more information on this series, please visit our #NetTalks page.

Over a five-month period, practitioners and funders in Jewish education and engagement came together through webinars focused on alumni engagement to answer an overarching question: What are the best strategies to build, mobilize and engage effective alumni networks? 

Sponsored by the Jim Joseph Foundation and Schusterman Family Foundation, “#NetTalks: Alumni Engagement Webinar Series” gave participants the opportunity to learn from—and ask questions to—experts from both within and outside the Jewish world. Each webinar tackled a new area in alumni engagement, and focused both on the theories behind the strategies, as well as the nuts-and-bolts tools needed to put those strategies into practice.

Dan Ariely, Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics at Duke University, began the series discussing ways to motivate alumni to stay engaged in a network. The renowned speaker, trainer, and blogger Beth Kanter shared strategies for using social media to lead to measureable results. James Fowler, Professor of Medical Genetics and Political Science at UC San Diego, described new research that actually predicts future friendships and explained how this information is relevant to alumni engagement. Russ Finkelstein, Managing Director of Clearly NEXT, discussed the importance of offering career development opportunities for alumni. Finally, Or Mars of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship/Davidson Scholars Program and No’a Gorlin of ROI Community closed the series with a detailed case study of what an effective alumni network looks like in action.

The 679 webinar participants came from organizations with various foci (predominantly Jewish education, Jewish arts and culture, Jewish community, and also others) and had varying degrees of experience in creating and working with alumni groups. They could of course select the single webinar most relevant to their work to gain a deep understanding of a specific component of alumni engagement.

A participant in all five webinars—perhaps just beginning his or her alumni engagement efforts—would build a comprehensive understanding of areas to address to catalyze an alumni network. Beyond the learning that occurred, participants became part of a community that shared ideas during each webinar and continued the conversation after their conclusion.

They shared their favorite learnings in real time via twitter and blogged in more depth ineJewishPhilanthropy about key insights they gained—and explained how they related to their work—after each session. Participants were unabashed about their desire to learn and to understand the moving parts of an active alumni network.

Here is just a sampling of their reflections:

  • “What motivates you? During Professor Ariely’s presentation, many participants tweeted their thoughts, including: ‘Don’t give volunteers demotivating $ incentives, but provide meaningful gift that strengthens social ties w/your org’ and ‘Social good is stronger than financial good. Relevance #2: How to motivate good teaching? Dream with them abt students’ futures.” – Brenda Gevertz,  Executive Director, Jewish Communal Service Association of North America
  • “Beth [Kanter] also showed several examples from schools that are using reminiscing as an entry point to strengthen their network.  Their ‘Throwback Thursday’ photos are intended to go beyond reminiscing -- they are getting alumni to tag their friends in the group photos, which creates or re-creates a strong group dynamic and builds energy.” – Lisa Colton, Chief Learning Officer of See3 Communications and President of Darim Online
  • “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.” – Stephanie Ruskay, Director of Alumni and Community Engagement at AVODAH: The Jewish Service Corps
  • “For me, one of the main takeaways from the webinar is the idea that no one is only ‘your’ alum; people carry multiple identities, and often associate their Jewish experience with multiple programs, organizations, and communities.”  – Martin Storrow, Director of Leadership Development, Moishe House

Over the last several years, our field has seen immense growth in programing and initiatives aimed at young Jewish adults—from Moishe House, to Reboot, to Taglit-Birthright Israel and other programs and initiatives. And many of these programs have proven, positive outcomes in strengthening Jewish peer-to-peer connections and strengthening engagement in Jewish life, among other areas. But at the same time, the Foundation recognizes a need to offer support for organizations to engage young adults even after the conclusion of a program. The information gleaned from experts through #NetTalks is a part of this important support process. We look forward to sharing more insight and seeing the evolution of many more strong alumni networks.