May JDub Be a Call to Action

During the General Assembly of 2005, I heard a revolutionary idea during a panel discussion: that Jewish institutions should invest 10% of their annual budgets in new programs that can engage the younger set in their communities. The speaker: Aaron Bisman, founder of JDub records, and one of the brightest stars of my generation of committed community activists.

Bisman’s call made perfect sense to me: Jewish communal organizations are custodians of the Jewish People’s organized interests. Along with short-term responsibilities of program provision, these organizations also needed to ensure their prospects for long-term viability, which means that they had to keep an eye on what in the general market would be called ‘customer acquisition.’ Since all the data I was privy to then and since pointed to the fact that the number of Jews who are affiliating and supporting these institutions is fading, it would seem to me that increasing investment in customer acquisition was the only viable option. And since these institutions have not proven able by historical fact to raise affiliation rates, it would be only logical that they search elsewhere to find talent, ideas and programs that enable them to bring new people into their reach.

In the years since, I have yet to see an Institution heed Bisman’s call to clearly and unequivocally invest in its own future by making a set percentage of capital available each year to new, risky efforts to bring young adults into the communal framework. Through PresenTense I have been fortunate to meet some of the Federation and JCC leaders who are making this very same case, and pulling their communities towards this very commitment, but yet have I heard of an Institution that straight-out says: we have falling numbers so we’re setting a target and come hell or high water we are investing 10% a year in developing new opportunities to stem the tide. (Just think what would happen if out of the on-average $32M annual budget of the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), 10% ($3.2M) was spent on buying services from smaller social ventures that seek to address this core demographic?)

Buying services, here, is the key – as opposed to providing grants. Too often our institutions take a monopolist’s view of the market. Since, historically, Federations and JCCs were the main actors in any given community, some have grown accustomed to doing everything themselves. As such, nearly every Federation has a Young Leadership Department of one name or another, and almost every one of those YLD efforts consists of similar programs: bar nights, concerts, and so on. This means that every local community with a YLD department needs to hire staff which has expertise in planning events, and then staff to execute the events, and then pay to plan, publicize and run the events locally.

But often buying from a specialist can raise quality and lower price. Taking JDub as an example, it probably would have been more efficient and effective for Federations to redirect their operations budgets to positions that have higher touch with the public, and let JDub specialize in the event planning, publicity and production. Recently, I heard of an intriguing business model wherein JDub offered just that: they would create a special community portal using Jewcy, and then leverage that portal to connect with the Federation’s choice target demographic locally, survey demand for events, and then bring targeted events to the community to engage local young adults. Now that’s a solid business model – for both parties – and might have resulted in an exciting pivot for JDub wherein they could reduce their dependency on Foundations and focus on providing the services they’re good at and getting paid for it.

Or, alternatively, focus on some of JDub’s other accomplishments, such as three gold albums. One of the main reasons Taglit-birthright israel is such a darling of the Jewish institutional world is the data, provided by Len Saxe and the team at the Cohen Center in Brandeis, that attending a Taglit-birthright trip can increase markers of affiliation by around 10%. If that 10% bump is the return on the community’s investments of hundreds of millions of dollars in Taglit-birthright, would investing in JDub’s ability to grow another dozen gold albums, an investment which would come out to approximately 30% of the equivalent investment in Taglit-birthright, lead to a bigger or smaller observable bump? I know Mattisyahu deeply affected me; would other artists and poets have increased the rates of Jews marrying other Jews – which is the most-often discussed measure in the Cohen study? If we are serious about long-term yield on our investments, we need to start thinking in terms of field-wide metrics that can enable us to compare and contrast between program outcomes in a serious way. And then we need to hold the organizations we support to those metrics, and compare them so that they can make the case for how they’ll provide better ROI, instead of tugging on heartstrings and sacrifice efficiency for affect.

Unfortunately, it seems all of this will have come too late for JDub. Why exactly JDub’s board chose to close at this particular time remains a mystery to me, and why they decided to close as opposed to cut back or sell assets or seek a merger or acquisition I hope will be clarified during their transparent spin-down cycle. But focusing on JDub alone is to miss the forest for the trees. This particular tree, JDub, may no longer grow, but I am fully confident that the people it touched, and the leaders it nurtured, will go on to bigger and better things. But the forest will forever remain stunted until our institutions rethink how they invest in the future, and encourage service providers to better themselves through competition to meet targets that will increase our viability as an organized community in the long-run.

Ariel Beery is the co-founder and director of the PresenTense Group.

Here are additional responses to JDub Closing Up Shop.

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Comments

  1. Mordechai says

    With all the priority needs out there seeing their funding cut or plain unfunded – just 10%?

    It’s like struggling to pay your mortgage but going out and buying your wife a new pair of designer shoes. It feels good at the moment, but you’re still going to lose your home.

  2. says

    While I find Bisman’s proposal, and your elucidation interesting, I think the lack of sustainability starts and ends with JDub. While I am not privy to the operations of JDub, you can’t blame the organized Jewish community for not supporting it enough…it is the obligation of Bisman and JDub to break their teeth and create their own base of support.

    I am not sure why it is the defacto approach by JDub and others is to go after grant funding when the only sustainable model is to go after the private philanthropy and build a real base like most other sustainable orgs. A grant from a Federation or the like does not mean the individual philanthropists are vested. So I ask, was the JDub board giving leadership level gifts? Were they soliciting others? Was there a plan and execution of bringing in new donors and increasing their giving year over year?

    While I admire the foundations that provide early capital, the fundraising strategy needs to begin in year 1 and 2, not in year 3,4,5…

    This is where the real questions are. Sure, go for funding from Federations and others, but like any startup company, most VCs want to see your business model is sustainable before investing.

  3. says

    JDub’s end is the result of how they chose to run that organization. Other Jewish organizations are different. And some, like ours, are truly concerned with the Jewish present and future – and we are willing to boldly create new opportunities for Jewish connection.
    I work for an extraordinary independent congregation (www.bethadam.org) that in 2008 decided to take money out of its strategic reserve funds to build an online congregation (www.ourjewishcommunity.org). This was completely revolutionary at the time – and still is in many ways – as we continue to reach over 200,000 people in 155+ countries.
    Both our bricks-and-mortar and online communities do things differently – because at the end of the day we have a mission, vision, and values that guide us. And we have a philosophy that not only drives our contemporary approach to Judaism but also guides us in making financial/organizational decisions. A true commitment to transparency, forward thinking, strategic planning, fiscal responsibility, and including as many people as possible – these have allowed us to become a truly innovative Jewish organization unlike any other.

  4. Ornery says

    Ariel,
    YLD efforts are geared toward older more settled folks – young professionals with strong future earning potential. They are not geared toward engaging unaffiliated young Jews, but they still serve a valuable purpose. Outsourcing this aspect of Federation operations would be silly.

    Equally silly was JDub’s community portal idea. Jewcy’s traffic has declined precipitously under JDub’s management, at least based on the publicly available stats one can find on web sites that measure that sort of thing. There is also no compelling evidence that Jewcy ever reached a significant number of young unaffiliated Jews, and JDub’s website traffic has never been stellar.

    What you called an exciting business model has already failed. In 2008, JDub received a $250,000 cutting edge grant from the Jewish Community Foundation of LA. That grant was meant to “inspire the next generation of Jews and give them an opportunity to engage with Jewish culture and one another through music.” The grant period was from August 2008 to July 2011. In that time, JDub put on 21 concerts in LA. Not bad right? However, only 9 were specifically listed as having been “Made possible with support from the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles.” Of those 9, 4 were shows by the Sway Machinery and three were shows by Girls in Trouble (all 3 GIT shows took place within a month of each other). That’s over $25,000 a show (!!!) for bands that were already touring anyway. Would you spend 250,000 precious community dollars on that? Is this the organization that you would entrust to create community portals and execute targeted events? And what if after surveying demand they saw that people wanted hip hop or Pharoah’s Daughter? Would JDub reach outside its roster and promote independent acts or acts with other labels? And then using Jewcy as the lynchpin for all of this when Jewcy’s readership is in rapid decline and there was never any indication that they ever had broad reach or were in any way representative of young Jews? I bet those folks in Portland are breathing a heavy sigh of relief that they won’t have to pay JDub $50,000 to render service to their community the way they serviced LA.

    Then there’s the notion that music in and of itself can increase the “markers of affiliation.” Did you really propose that a budget equivalent to 30% of Birthright Israel’s be used to help JDub generate more Gold albums?? And you use the example of how Matisyahu affected you positively as proof of concept??? I’m going to assume that that was some kind of typo or a half baked idea that made it into this post after a late sleepless night.

    I get it though. The model you are presenting, NPOs as service providers, is one that your organization Presentense uses. I trust PT can handle “field-wide metrics that can enable us to compare and contrast between program outcomes in a serious way” for the sake of better ROI. I hope all organizations that seek community funding can do that too. But one thing is clear, the long list of foundations, Federations and individuals that invested in JDub did not do their homework. They bought into the idea of JDub without regard for the results.

    On another note, Rabbi Laura Baum cites stats related to ourjewishcommunity.org which continues to serve “over 200,000 people in 155+ countries.” That’s the kind of stats that have gotten funders into trouble before. Without passing any kind of judgement on ourjewishcommunity.org and its brave mission to bring Jewish worship online, Rabbi Baum neglects to mention that, according to Alexa, whoever these 200,000 people are that are being reached, they’re only staying on the site for an average of .9433 of a minute – that’s about 57 seconds. You might want to take that up with your developers so that they can feed you stats for how many people you actually serve – ie people that stay on the site and watch a significant portion of the videos and live streams – let’s say as little as 5 minutes. I’d like that figure given your commitment to transparency.

  5. says

    @Ornery – happy to share more stats with you if you’re interested. Not sure this page is the appropriate forum for that – so please email me for more info. Our traffic to http://www.OurJewishCommunity.org represents only a fraction of our activity since we reach people in multiple other places as well. We videostream on Livestream – and have the longest average view time there that their staff has ever seen for any type of streaming. That’s just one example of many.
    And our mission is much different than “bringing Jewish worship online” – you’ll see that on our website, or you can email me if you’re interested in learning more.

  6. says

    Ornery, or whoever you really are, you seem to know how to rip an organization a new one. Nice analytic skills. I’d love to have you give us feedback and suggestions. Find me: ari (a) jcorps.org .
    Ari
    p.s. That Jonah Halper guy is pretty OK, too (Though he might want to link to http://nextgencharity.com ;-)).

  7. Ornery says

    Rabbi Laura Baum: This page is perfectly appropriate. You didn’t have a problem sharing the stat of “200,000 people in 155+ countries” so please, go to your Google analytics page, click on visitors on the left, then click on length of visit and share with us the percentage and number of your visitors whose visit lasts for 181-600 seconds, 601-1,800 seconds and 1,801+ seconds. It will only take a minute for you to find the info and post it here.

    Please don’t take this is some kind of attack. It isn’t. In fact I don’t really need you to put that information up here. Most successful web sites only have 10% of their visitors stay on the site for 3 minutes or more. So when you tell me that you have 200,000 visitors, what it means is that you really only have 20,000 who interact with your site in any relevant kind of way. Which is perfectly acceptable. Yasher koach Rabbi!

    Getting back to the subject of this post, its easy to throw around stats when you’re trying to get funding and JDub did this to the very end. Their swan song press release cited 2.7 million unique visitors to Jewcy.com since JDub’s adoption. But they didn’t cite a 66% drop in traffic. They cited 3 Gold Records, but they didn’t mention that those were all by Matisyahu who left JDub for professional representation years ago. And what about the “800+ mainstream press stories” – pretty much all of them were Matisyahu related.

    There are lies, damned lies and then there are statistics.

    Ari Teman wrote: “Ornery, or whoever you really are…” No way. My name is actually Ornery, William Ornery. Pleased to meet you! As you can surmise from my above message to Rabbi Laura, I’m not about to reveal who I am to any of you. That’s my prerogative of course and the validity of my information, all of it publicly available, cannot be impugned merely because I am using a pseudonym. If I have some spare time I might create a throwaway gmail account and give you some feedback. I can tell you this, Ariel Beery’s model outlined in this post is really untenable. It suggests that newer NPOs generate revenue by offering better services to larger NPOs who aren’t organizationally nimble enough to offer these services themselves. You don’t need to be a non-profit to do that. Be a consultant and charge for your services. All you need to know as a non profit offering valuable services to your community can be found in Bob Goldfarb’s article here: http://ejewishphilanthropy.com/fundamentals/ – but do ignore his overly glowing assessment of “JDub’s considerable reputation and substantial impact…” He outlines a model for sustainability in the non-profit world that is tried and true. In that respect, when hardly any young American Jew has ever heard of JDub its no wonder they were never able to cultivate a large and significant base of annual donors to help keep them financially sound.