A ‘One Size Fits All’ Model in a ‘Bespoke’ World

by Cathrine Fischer Schwartz

There is a question nagging at the psyches of Federation Executives throughout the U.S. It’s on the agendas at conferences; it’s a hot topic when my colleagues get together; donors ask about it; staff members work on it; countless strategic plans attempt to solve it; and grassroots organizations have sprung up to address it. “How do we engage the next generation?” It’s a great question and, at the same time, it’s just one piece of a larger puzzle.

The question that keeps me up at night is, “How do we most effectively involve all of our Jewish population’s four unique generations (WWII, Baby Boomers, Generation X and Millennials) in the community-building work of the Federation?” Our historical ‘one size fits all’ model is no longer sufficient in an increasingly bespoke world. Each generation represents unique challenges as well as terrific opportunities. Each has different characteristics and concerns so we must custom design our approach. This is especially critical in terms of our marketing and communication strategies since each group relies on a different mix of media (print, telephone, radio, video, direct mail, email, online, social, mobile apps, text) to get their information and the language, theme and style of the message should be tailored to achieve the best fit.

Members of the WWII generation (born before 1946) are already engaged, representing our most loyal and generous donors. In fact, they are largely responsible for building the Federation system and the Jewish community institutional structure we enjoy today. They understand and believe in the power of collective action to meet the needs of the local community, to help Jews at risk wherever they live and to support the State of Israel. They primarily rely on traditional media, including ‘snail mail’ and newspapers and are increasingly adopting digital and mobile technology. As the youngest of this group turns 66 this year, our current strategy must include an endowment or legacy component to continue their support beyond their natural lifespan.

Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964) are our largest cohort and have been important supporters of Federation and Israel, although as a group they have not been as generous or engaged as their parents’ generation. We can and should deepen our relationship with them or risk missing an historic opportunity. Primarily empty nesters – with the oldest reaching 65 this year and the younger members in the prime of their careers – they are well-educated, and have both time and financial resources. Boomers respond to traditional media and the digital world and are increasingly involved in social networking. Known for doing things their own way, they are expected to redefine the notion of retirement and will no doubt continue to influence the types of services and programming they expect from the Jewish community. While this is a large challenge, it also represents a tremendous opportunity to harness their significant potential in order to: boost volunteer capacity at all levels of the system, strengthen professional leadership expertise, increase the number of donors to the Federation’s Annual Campaign and capture the inter-generational transfer of wealth to bolster Jewish Endowment funds to help meet the evolving needs of the Jewish community into the future.

Generation Xers (born 1965-1981), our smallest cohort, can be skeptical of Federation’s centralized structure. Born after, or too young to remember, the seminal events of the Israel narrative, their relationship with Israel is more complex than that of the two previous generations. This age group was the first to grow up with technology so they are highly adaptable and comfortable with change. They use both traditional and digital media and are always connected. There are competing demands on their time and resources and they place a high value on balance in their life; spending time with their family is a priority. Our strategy should include events and programming that involve their entire family and opportunities to engage them in activities, including positions on our boards, where they can make a significant contribution. Our traditional unrestricted giving approach should include targeted opportunities that speak to their philanthropic interests. Entrepreneurial and innovative, Gen Xers have a lot to offer to the Jewish community; we must create meaningful opportunities for them to do so.

The oldest Millennials (born 1982-2000) are out of school and in the work force. Shaped by similar experiences as their grandparents (America being attacked on its own soil during 9/11, seeing school friends go off to war, experiencing the largest economic decline since the Great Depression) and, at the same time, having a global view of community, the potential for Millennials to understand and support the Federation’s mission is huge. While they have grown up in a time of anti-Israel media bias, they are also the first generation to benefit significantly from the Jewish continuity agenda that focused on Jewish Day School education, Jewish camping and transformative participation in Israel experiences, such as birthright. In the general population, this group is almost as large as the Baby Boomers and is hyper-connected to the world by all manner of digital and mobile devices. We must demonstrate to Millennials that our work holds meaning for them through targeted micro-campaigns delivered directly to their mobile devices through email, video sharing, social networking sites and text messaging while offering ‘hands-on’ opportunities for them to get involved. Is there an app for that?

Of course, there are variations. At the beginning or end of each generation, the population may have views and experiences that are similar to the generation before or after. At the same time, our strategies should consider other factors, such as married or single; gay or straight; with children or not; interfaith families; Orthodox, Conservative or Reform; working, unemployed or retired, to name a few. And generational differences do not account for disparities in Jewish community styles. The Phoenix Jewish community is as different from the Miami Jewish community as it is different from the Hartford Jewish community.

In every generation, the Jewish community has been called upon to reinvent itself. Now, our Federations must reinvent ourselves in order to remain relevant to all generations and garner the resources necessary to accomplish our mission. While that underlying mission remains the same – Kol Yisrael Arevim Zeh L’Zeh, all Jews are responsible for one another – the way we think about it and express it changes depending on the unique generational lens through which it is viewed. Rather than marginalizing our system’s impact, these generational differences represent an unprecedented opportunity. Understanding those differences can help us strengthen our Federations and Jewish communities in ways we can only begin to imagine.

Cathrine Fischer Schwartz, a younger Baby Boomer, is the President and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford.