Founded in 1998, AVODAH: The Jewish Service Corps develops a network of Jewish leaders working to promote social justice and fight domestic poverty. By engaging participants in service, learning and community building, AVODAH inspires Jewish young adults to become lifelong drivers of social change, with their work for justice rooted in and nourished by Jewish values. AVODAH offers yearlong Service Corps programs in Chicago, New Orleans, New York and Washington, DC, as well as a new nine-month non-residential fellowship program in New York City.
By 2015, after 17 years of programming, almost 800 AVODAH corps members and fellows have managed to touch the lives of approximately 590,000 people living in poverty. An alumni report conducted in 2012 by Dr. Lawrence Bailis, of Brandeis University, demonstrated that in addition to the impact AVODAH Service Corps participants had on their communities, the AVODAH program also had a profound impact on the Service Corps members themselves:
- 85% noted that the year of service strengthened their commitment to social justice;
- 85% said that AVODAH helped them find their place in the Jewish community;
- 88% stated that the year of service deepened their involvement in the Jewish movement for social justice;
- 90% reported routine participation in Jewish holidays;
- 91% stated that the year of service helped them build a professional and social network;
- 75% reported having continued to work in the field of social justice or in the fight against poverty; and
- 88% emphasized that AVODAH contributed to them getting their current jobs.
Despite AVODAH’s significant achievements, in 2012 the staff determined that there was more that could be done. If AVODAH wanted to meet the full potential of its mission to develop and support leaders who would lead the Jewish community's work against poverty, AVODAH would need to focus on its alumni and employ a multi-faceted strategy to address alumni’s needs at various ages and stages. As a result of their analysis, they decided it was time to expand the reach of the organization’s work through a more proactive approach to their alumni programming.
Led by their former Director of Alumni and Community Engagement, Rabbi Stephanie Ruskay, the AVODAH staff reflected on the alumni activities they had conducted since 2002. Although Rabbi Ruskay and the rest of the staff believed they had achieved impressive results given the relative youth of the organization and their limited resources, they felt confident that it was time to ramp up their alumni initiative.
Based on their objectives and the results of their previous efforts, the AVODAH staff identified their key areas of focus. The first would be to develop AVODAH’s alumni organizational infrastructure to better enable alumni, individually and collectively, to connect with one another and develop as leaders. Once the infrastructure was in place, the staff could create more opportunities for alumni to develop professionally and strengthen their connection to Judaism, social justice and one another.
With these intended outcomes in mind, the staff developed the following list of action items:
- Organizational Infrastructure
- Restructure staffing approach to alumni work such that AVODAH staff takes on more significant responsibility with alumni in their area.
- Select, train and support 14 “Network Weavers,” stipended alumni working closely with AVODAH staff to coordinate programming for alumni in their region.
- Annually assign alumni to serve as mentors for current AVODAH corps members. This program would enable alumni to develop mentorship skills, provide much-needed support for current corps members and lessen the burden on staff, thereby freeing the organization to support local alumni work more effectively.
- Launch a robust fundraising campaign for alumni based on Jewish ethical teachings.
- Jewish Community Leadership
- Support emerging Jewish professional leaders to help them obtain job and leadership opportunities.
- Support alumni seeking speaking venues in the Jewish community where they can draw attention to antipoverty work and present concrete actions to the community that address critical challenges.
- Connection to Judaism and Social Justice
- Create educational training opportunities for alumni that relate to poverty, its intersection with Jewish life and methods of social change.
- Provide stipends to encourage alumni to host Passover seders or meals on important Jewish holidays for their peers.
- Coordinate “alumni site visits,” in which local alumni are invited to the workplaces of their peers to learn about their organizations and how they fit into the broader framework of antipoverty work.
- Develop a toolbox with the guidelines and resources to create Jewish social justice networking and site visit opportunities for alumni in non-program cities.
Note: Case study reflects data through May 2014.
In 2014, AVODAH began to implement its new alumni strategy through the expansion of programming and community-building opportunities. At the end of the year, they reflected on their results:
- Organizational Infrastructure
- Staff Restructuring: A Director of Alumni and Community Engagement now directs and guides all alumni work, coordinates with local site staff, convenes Network Weavers and directly supports Network Weavers for non-program cities.
- Bridging Corps Members and Alumni: AVODAH has increased alumni involvement with current corps members and fellows to expand its participants’ professional and community networks. AVODAH alumni are instrumental in programming throughout the year and are active in many aspects of organizational life. Since the changes took effect, alumni are now able to:
- Sit on AVODAH’s national board, as well as the Chicago, New Orleans and Washington, D.C. local advisory councils;
- Train and support incoming corps members for their summer fundraising campaigns;
- Play an important part in recruitment, speaking on AVODAH’s behalf at college campuses and conducting applicant interviews;
- Serve as mentors to corps members throughout the year;
- Participate in or facilitate educational programs hosted by each AVODAH Service Corps site; and
- Engage with one another digitally through an active alumni listserv, Facebook groups, an alumni website and directory, Jewish resources and links to professional opportunities.
- Network Weavers: In 2014, AVODAH engaged 14 alumni as “Network Weavers,” leaders who work in partnership with local and national staff to plan and facilitate alumni activities. Programs have included organizational site visits, Shabbat and holiday gatherings, skill training workshops and networking events.
- There were two Network Weavers working in each of AVODAH’s four program cities, four in non-program cities and regions (West Coast, Boston and Seattle) and two dedicated to specific roles (one dedicated to “older alumni” and one focusing on social media). The Network Weavers received national training and support from Rabbi Ruskay. Those in program cities also worked closely with the local AVODAH Directors to better integrate and align local alumni work with the activities of the Service Corps program.
- Fundraising: AVODAH is committed to engaging alumni as supporters and ambassadors for the organization and experienced the highest level of fundraising success to date with the 2014 alumni campaign. In contrast to prior years, alumni leaders were more involved in the 2014 campaign, the theme was highly aligned with AVODAH’s values and the online component lasted only 48 hours, which created a sense of urgency and excitement.
- Jewish Community Leadership
- Supporting Emerging Jewish Professional Leaders: In 2014, AVODAH staff actively supported alumni in their efforts to attain jobs and leadership opportunities by writing recommendations, lobbying potential employers and offering alumni one-on-one coaching in preparation for job searches and interviews. AVODAH helped alumni secure jobs, fellowships, graduate school acceptances and roles as lay leaders. AVODAH staff stays in touch with these alumni regularly once they enter these positions or programs to offer support and resources that may help further their success.
- Community Outreach: In the last year, AVODAH facilitated a number of alumni speaking and teaching engagements with Jewish community organizations and groups. The alumni focused on raising awareness of poverty issues and empowering the Jewish community to take action. AVODAH staff worked with each alumnus in preparation for these events, planning and reviewing remarks.
- Connection to Judaism and Social Justice
- Jewish Learning: AVODAH has been working with Network Weavers and other alumni to plan a number of learning opportunities for alumni to deepen their Jewish knowledge--in general and in connection with their social justice work.
- Holiday and Shabbat Subsidies: AVODAH has granted small subsidies to 15 groups of six to eight alumni and their peers for High Holiday and Passover gatherings. These events placed intentional emphasis on how Jewish tradition, specifically the wisdom at the heart of these holidays, can inform one’s approach to combating poverty and creating social change.
- Alumni Site Visits: This year, many alumni across AVODAH’s program cities hosted site visits to expose members of the local alumni network to various antipoverty organizations.
- Trainings on Poverty and Methods of Social Change: Network Weavers planned several programs focused on skill building and poverty education.
Planning for 2015, AVODAH staff assessed what worked in 2014 and what was less successful. Based on their assessment, AVODAH created a plan to narrow the range of opportunities offered to alumni so that staff members could focus on optimizing the programs that were most effective. The strategies AVODAH chose to move forward with in 2015 were those that best served the needs of alumni:
- Refining Network Weavers: Based on the results of the previous year, the Network Weavers initiative scaled back to program cities only (as they had been prior to 2014) and were provided with target program metrics and menus of possible activities to maximize their effectiveness.
- Supporting Alumni Career Development: In 2015, AVODAH staff continues to actively support alumni in their efforts to attain jobs and leadership opportunities. The staff is also working to create tools that will enable more alumni to take advantage of this support.
- Fundraising: A higher goal was set for alumni fundraising in 2015, and Alumni Board and Advisory Council members were heavily involved in the planning for the campaign.
In addition, AVODAH began piloting a new intensive leadership advancement program for alumni that builds on skills gained through their experience in the Service Corps or Fellowship. This program, AVODAH Women Leading Together (AWLT), offers alumnae the opportunity for individual and small group coaching and Jewish learning.
Program participants were given opportunities to identify and enact their own personal leadership plan with the help of a dedicated team of alumnae supporters. AWLT was facilitated virtually through video conferences and webinars, which allowed alumnae across the country to participate—including several participants who were previously unable to join alumni programs because they lived in cities without Network Weavers or because of parental responsibilities. One participant reflected, “It is great to think of this group as a supportive group of women who are all helping each other strive towards their goals and dreams.”
Based on the highly positive feedback from members of the pilot cohort and the continued demand from other alumni, AVODAH plans to continue and expand the program by creating cohorts based on occupation or geographical location.
Through AVODAH’s strategic efforts over the past decade, it has established a robust alumni programming infrastructure, which has strengthened its alumni community as well as the experience of current corps members and fellows. Furthermore, by creating this infrastructure, the organization is better positioned to tackle its specific goals: cultivating Jewish community leaders committed to social change and fighting domestic poverty.
To learn more information about AVODAH, visit their website at www.avodah.net.