Growing Home is a Chicago-based nonprofit organization that helps people find meaningful jobs and access healthy food through farming. They are the first and only high production USDA-certified organic urban farm in Chicago! Founded in 2002, the organization puts people with employment barriers on the path to self-sufficiency through its farm-based training program that offers paid on-the-job experience and job-readiness training.
Growing Home has a robust alumni program, and that’s thanks to Ursula Phillips-Levi, Employment Training and Community Engagement Associate, and Zenobia Williams, Director of Employment Training. They use impactful strategies to keep their hundreds of alumni engaged and empowered.
Here are the four characteristics they believe every successful program should have.
“I think networking and communicating is definitely important for the alum we have,” Phillips-Levi said.
Growing Home uses various ways to reach out to its alumni, such as personalized phone calls, text messages, and social media. They even do 30, 60, and 90-day check-ins and send out surveys to gauge their interest in programs and do temperature checks.
“We send out a newsletter just letting them know what's happening with Growing Home, providing resources and anything that we think we may be of interest to them. We get that information to them weekly,” Zenobia said.
“We’re going to also start doing workshops on the Facebook live too. They have their own alumni page where we post resource links, and then we do the alumni spotlight monthly,” Phillips-Levi said.
This constant communication allows them to maintain the most up-to-date demographic information and reach their alumni where they are. They keep up with addresses, phone numbers, email addresses, job status, and even salaries.
“All of that is very critical to us. It helps us to know that the work that we're doing is really working,” Williams said.
“We are really intentional about keeping our communication strong with them,” she added.
Robust engagement strategies
“You have to engage them in every way possible. Just making sure they're involved is important as well, like volunteer opportunities, whatever events you're having, and things of that nature.” Phillips-Levi said.
Growing Home holds monthly meetings and networking opportunities for its alumni where they discuss topics of interest and identify and engage potential board members from the group. They build their discussions around the survey responses, sometimes even bringing in guest speakers to make the events more worthwhile.
“We invite them back to graduations to be guest speakers for our current cohorts. We invite them to come in when the cohort begins just to be an inspiration to the new folks that are joining the program,” Williams said.
“It's important to get them together, even if it's to do nothing but to celebrate. It's important to keep them together and involved. It really is,” Phillips-Levi added.
“Now let me add one thing that we do that most people may or may not be able to do, and that is we provide incentives for them,” Williams said.
These incentives include gift cards, giveaways, raffles, and food. The Growing Home staff always tries to think outside the box.
“We give them the opportunity to spotlight themselves at the events because some of them may be starting a small business,” Williams said. “It's free advertisement.”
For example, one of their alumni owns an ice sculptor business and presented his work to over 100 people. He was also able to discuss future business opportunities.
“This is an all-around win, win situation,” Williams added.
An authentic family atmosphere
“We treat them like they are family,” Williams said.
Growing Home staff tell their alumni during orientation that they will be part of their family for life. Even once they graduate, they always will have a team of people they can count on.
Boasting 500 active alumni and growing, Growing Home continues to build upon its strategies and has gotten its recipe for success down to a science.
“We have four cohorts. We just added a fourth cohort this year. And we anticipate probably 20 to 22 people in each group. So we can honestly say every year we graduate or put at least 80 people through the program,” Williams added.