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.