by David Bernstein
Last week, I received a call from an old acquaintance in the pro-Israel community. “I just want to congratulate you on re-positioning The David Project,” he said. “I was recruited for your job, and decided not to pursue it because I didn’t think it was doable.”
Eighteen months into it, my team at The David Project has indeed managed to rebrand the once perceived hard-nosed, take-no-prisoners advocacy organization into a perceived moderate, thoughtful, and strategic advocacy organization operating in the pro-Israel mainstream. No doubt we have a ways to go, but many of the people who matter the most for our purposes are now fully aware of the change in direction.
In the course of this past year and a half, we made numerous mistakes, but somehow seemed to have gotten it right. Our rapid transformation may serve as a useful case study for other Jewish organizations in need of a similar change and makeover.
If there is one big takeaway from our experience, it’s the importance of sequencing. It would be a mistake to rebrand without being clear – really clear – about what the organization is trying to accomplish, and setting in motion a new approach. The brand simply won’t stack up to the reality on the ground. It must be a reflection of everything you’ve put in place.
In the wake of an eruption of anti-Israelism on the U.S. college campus in the early part of last decade, The David Project was formed to help shape the campus discussion on Israel. Eight years later, one of the first things I noticed when I started my job at The David Project is that we were too limited in our access to our primary target market – current and prospective pro-Israel activists in high school and college. Our hard-nosed reputation made it difficult to reach them.
Hillel directors, Jewish fraternities and sororities, teen programs and study programs in Israel, where we also operate, were sometimes hesitant to work with us. Many Jewish students were turned off by our rhetoric and approach. And perhaps, most importantly, years of public opinion research had shown that external target audiences – the larger campus community and opinion leaders – were much more open to a more moderate, nuanced and personal message.
We needed to change how we were perceived among the professionals who acted as gatekeepers, and the Jewish student leaders themselves, if we had any chance of moving the needle on campus perceptions of Israel.
When we felt ready for strategic planning, we could have opted for a quick and easy approach, but decided to invest in a full-fledged planning process. We worked with the principal of a foundation who had a strong interest in our success, involved as many team members as possible, conducted market research, and worked with the Board to ensure buy-in. We continued using the consultants in the implementation phase, which is where so many organizations falter. Six months into it, we are still using the same consultants to fine tune the plan and develop a new funding strategy.
We began making staffing changes the moment I arrived. When we completed the strategic plan, we further aligned staffing to the plan, changing around job responsibilities to reflect the new reality. We also devoted significant energy to strengthening the staff culture and articulating our internal values. A staff “values team” helps ensure people feel connected to the mission, completely free to speak their minds and fully empowered to carry out the plan. Professional team members serve as crucial ambassadors for any brand. If they are inspired, they’ll inspire others and make recruiting new talent much easier.
It was only after the strategy was in place and the team was aligned that we fully engaged in the re-branding process. Even with an in-house marketing capability, it’s crucial to bring in an outside firm. Otherwise, it’s too easy to get caught up in the daily grind and get off track. Our re-branding involved both a new look and clearer messaging. We are in the process of a complete overhaul of our website, focusing not on the information we want to share, but on the types of people we want to reach and how we can most effectively engage them. We’ve also doubled down on social media and video.
With a basic branding framework in place we turned to the public domain. We researched and wrote a white paper, A Burning Campus? Rethinking Israel Advocacy at American Universities and Colleges, with the goal of influencing the thinking of the larger pro-Israel community on campus advocacy and establishing the organization as a thought leader in the field.
We decided not to skimp on media. We hired a firm, planned multiple roll out events, and aggressively pushed out the white paper and our larger message. It paid off in spades. In a few short weeks, we managed to become a major public voice on campus issues.
Almost immediately we began receiving invitations to serve on panel discussions at major forums, to testify at Knesset hearings, and to write op-eds. Our access to campus grew by leaps and bounds. I received one of several calls from a Hillel director at a major university who had a year earlier taken a pass on meeting with me. He was now interested in discussing how we might work together.
Looking back, we used a simple but logical sequence: define the challenge, develop the strategy, re-align staffing resources, define staff values, begin implementing the strategy, clearly lay out the message, and ramp up PR. It was not a perfect progression from one phase to another – there was overlap – but it does reflect the priority we attached to each. Our next step is to measure outcomes, and ensure funding for growth dictated by our plan.
While we still have much work to do before we reach the promised land, our success so far gives us great confidence that we will get there.
David Bernstein is Executive Director, The David Project.