By David Cygielman
“Institutional thickness” is a new term in the nonprofit space. I was first introduced to it by a board member just a few months ago when it was featured in a New York Times article. As described in the article:
“A thick institution is not one that people use instrumentally, to get a degree or to earn a salary. A thick institution becomes part of a person’s identity and engages the whole person: head, hands, heart and soul. So, thick institutions have a physical location, often cramped, where members meet face to face on a regular basis, like a dinner table or a packed gym or assembly hall.”
Since our inception, Moishe House has invested heavily in measuring our numbers and outcomes. We refer to these as our quantitative and qualitative measurements but now look at measuring our institutional thickness as a third, and equally important, component. While the traditional evaluation format has provided us with tremendously important data, something has been missing. Difficult to describe but easy to feel, it is the strong sense of belonging and connection people feel to an institution or organization. It is the difference between an organization or experience where people just show up to get what they want or one where it becomes a part of their own personal identity. They feel ownership, they feel belonging and they feel they can be their best selves.
There are no firm guidelines on how to measure thickness effectively, but here are at least four primary measurements that gauge institutional thickness, and are not areas of focus for our traditional qualitative and quantitative benchmarks.
1. Measuring the “n”
When looking at impact evaluation studies, we naturally focus on the survey findings, which are useful but do not tell the whole story. A very important measurement that often is not discussed, but may actually demonstrate the most information, is what is referred to as the “n,” or the number of responses on a survey. The “n” allows us to understand how connected the end users are to the organization.
At Moishe House, we have two basic categories of end users. The first are those who are heavily invested in by the organization – Moishe House residents or Moishe House Without Walls (MHWOW) hosts. By taking part in our evaluation survey, we know these leaders have a sticky and important connection to the organization. A response rate of at least 80% of these leaders would display strong institutional thickness, and with this level of participation, we can use the data to build a more effective organization. On the contrary, even with results that reflect well on the organization, a response rate of less than 80% would demonstrate a real concern about a deep connection between our organization and those we invest most heavily in.
The second basic category we measure are those who attend Moishe House programs, but do not lead them. For participants, knowing if they will take the time to fill out a survey is also an effective measurement of institutional thickness. This type of “n” can be a much lower percentage but should still be between 5%-10% of participants. We should not encourage participation in surveys with prizes or other incentives because this non-incentivized “n” is a very important measurement if we want to really learn about our impact.
2. Participant contributions
Very few nonprofit organizations are able to raise their budgets through the funding received by those they serve. It is why we rely so heavily on the generosity of donors who care about our mission and goals. However, people do vote with their feet and their wallets. Measuring the amount raised by participants is dangerous, but understanding the number of people you serve who contribute is a key measurement of institutional thickness. This can be assessed by understanding how many leaders and participants are financially contributing and how many are regularly volunteering their time.
3. Board meeting attendance
The more Moishe House has grown, the more apparent the need has been for a strong and active board. The board of directors shoulder the ultimate responsibility for the health, strategy and longevity of an organization. Many people ask how much the board gives and the size of the board, which are both important, but no one asks about the in-person attendance at meetings. A strong organization will have a board that attends its board meetings, even when travel is required. In looking at institutional thickness, I would look at 80% attendance as demonstrating a strong board commitment to the organization.
4. Frequency of attendance by participants
Impact takes time. Having high attendance numbers is wonderful, but also not enough. Frequency of attendance should not only be a priority, but also can be a more useful measure of institutional thickness than total attendance. Through past evaluations, we have learned that impact happens when a participant is engaged at least four times a year, preferably more, and Hillel International found similar data in their most recent evaluation (showing 6+ engagements/year). This would be a shift from how our community evaluates numbers today, but one that could serve us well if we care most about our ultimate goals in building the most vibrant and meaningful Jewish communities possible.
Measuring institutional thickness matters because it can be key to understanding impact. Ultimately, it is not having people attend a program that counts, but what impact the experience makes on their behaviors, attitudes and relationships. Traditional forms of evaluation seek to answer these questions and can provide good insight, but looking at measures of institutional thickness can help us to understand new elements of behavior and, ultimately, impact. This is what we strive for most at Moishe House: creating places and experiences where people can be the best versions of themselves.
David Cygielman is Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Moishe House.