Alumni: At the Corner of Engagement and Advocacy
Oscar Wilde got it right when he said that experience is simply the name we give our mistakes. This axiom has certainly proven to be true over the past three years, as our school employed a range of traditional engagement strategies to transform indifferent alumni—especially millennials—into involved emissaries. Until recently, a great deal of effort was spent planning larger-scale events with perceived cachet, which supported a somewhat-flawed theory that the “right” events would draw in alumni; they didn’t. We were initially dubious whether more customized, personal touch points would yield anything tangible; in fact, they did.
As a pre-K to 8 institution, Schechter’s success rate in changing long-past young adult or young-parent alumni into “active campaigners” turned out to be particularly challenging. Take Sarah Schulman’s experience. A rising sculptor and installation artist with her own studio in New York City, the 2004 alumna cheerfully ignored the steady stream of emails and invites to attend premier Yankee games, hip barroom soirees and Sunday brunches. After a series of poor showings, we discovered that she, along with many of our alumni, was uninterested in paying for opportunities just to hang out with classmates from a school that had been relegated to her proverbial rear-view mirror.
We began to reframe our thinking. We looked for “win-win” opportunities to engage our alumni: opportunities that would provide a forum in which they could share their successes and, in turn, from which we could eventually cultivate long-term relationships. Here are some of the strategies that have worked.
Showcasing alumni successes
We comb social media and query our parent and staff networks to track down alumni with interesting personal and professional stories. We then offer to feature them in the school’s alumni association newsletter, Shelanu, and on our alumni Facebook page. During the interview process, we ask questions about their personal and professional trajectory as a way to help them articulate the impact Schechter has made on their lives. This worked for Sarah Schulman; she was delighted when invited to return to Schechter for a cover photo shoot with our veteran art educator, whom she credits with nurturing her passion for art. The experience gave her an opportunity to rekindle a bond she once had with a beloved teacher. It also renewed interest in her alma mater and gave her a chance to reflect on what she gained from her early academic experience.
During her interview with Shelanu, Schulman recalled that much of her installation work with remnants and scraps culled from around New York City is inspired by the Jewish value bal tashchit (not to destroy or waste), a concept she said she learned at Schechter. “In sixth grade we went on the teva (nature) retreat and were taught about our imperative to care of our planet; this is a sentiment I carry into my art today,” she said. Since then, Sarah has reconnected with classmates through a series of smaller, more informal gatherings, something she had not done in the 14 years since graduating from our school. Her interest and involvement in the school have been reawakened—and a potential future ambassador-cum-donor has been born.
Aligning school mission with speaking engagements
In late 2016, Jeremy Feigenbaum, class of 2003 and Harvard Law School graduate, was thrilled when asked to share his experiences as a clerk to United States Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan with seventh graders during their three-day exploration of the nation’s capital. A centerpiece of Schechter’s educational philosophy is to host leading experts, eyewitnesses and role models throughout the year so that students may learn from those with primary experiences in a particular field.
The objective, which is shared with alumni invited to participate, is to help ignite students’ curiosity, spark essential questions, open their minds to the many ways individuals can impact our world, and inspire students to think and act globally as they grow. We’ve discovered that engaging alumni in mission-aligned opportunities packs a powerful punch: As alumni return to Schechter to share their expertise and experiences, they become partners in the school’s educational mission. Jeremy says he found his experience so rewarding that when he was asked to be the keynote speaker at the launch of Schechter’s Endowment campaign, he jumped at the opportunity to advocate for the school he felt helped pave his path to success.
It’s still about the little things
College packages. Schechter sends care packages to college alumni every December; this small gesture keeps Schechter on their radar and lays the groundwork for a potential advocacy role. Care packages include a Schechter-branded item (SSDS pajama pants, T-shirt, wristband, coffee mug, environmentally friendly water bottle) along with a host of other goodies. There’s always a small ask involved: Send us photo of with your Schechter SWAG (Stuff We All Get) and we’ll post it. Simply, we keep up the contact as we continue to nurture a positive association with Schechter.
Birthday emails. We send emails to alumni wishing them a happy birthday, just to remind them we are thinking of them.
Hanukkah Across Schechter. A new program designed to engage alumni in small groups. Alumni “hosts” are given a modest subsidy, a menorah and candles to host an intimate group of alumni friends on a night of Hanukkah. Schechter puts together a “party package” with branded goods and gives $5 per alumnus to spend on food. All we ask in return is a photo. This has proven to be more effective than larger, more structured events, as alumni were able to get together on their own time and in a low-key setting. More than 30 alumni participated this year at five separate events—small numbers, but highly effective.
Connected Parents = Connected Alumni. In many cases, the school’s biggest advocates are alumni whose parents remain involved with our school. When a parent continues to volunteer and/or donate to Schechter, that trickles down to their children. These relationships make our job easier, because parents invariably encourage their children to stay involved. Many times, parental involvement helps lead alumni to become Schechter parents, and hopefully, Schechter grandparents. Currently, there are 12 alumni with children at Schechter.
At Schechter, cultivating effective advocates has become a long-game strategy, one that demands a long-term plan and long-term goals, and doing things now that will set us up for the future.