A Broader Context: A Call to Change the Data-Driven Landscape

By Zev Eleff, Alex Jakubowski and Lauren Raff

Certain keywords animate conversations within Jewish life. Terms like “impact,” and “measurement” are now much in vogue, deployed by stakeholders to urge the Jewish Engagement field to become more accountable and, ideally, more effective. Outcome-driven efforts dominate the discourse in spheres like public health, STEM, and higher education. But unlike these spaces, the field of Jewish Engagement is unregulated and unscaffolded by standard definitions or relevant benchmarks. As a result, agencies tend to measure success based on “outputs,” like participation tallies, instead of “outcomes,” like how those in attendance were affected by a particular Jewish experience.

The Jewish Impact Genome (JIG) aims to change this. The JIG has established sector-wide outcomes for effective Jewish Engagement by providing the field with a data-collection tool that promotes, collects, and shares impact learning. Leveraging the methodology of the Chicago-based Impact Genome Project, our team has taken a grassroots approach, partnering with Jewish organizations of all sizes to account for the activities that foster Jewish engagement in North America.

The JIG team has studied the literature, interviewed practitioners, and beta-tested our work with agencies. As of June 2019, the JIG team has coded and incorporated more than 300 program evaluation and internal reporting documents into our Jewish Engagement impact analysis. Notwithstanding contextual limitations, evaluation literature has emerged as the very best source to understand the goals and processes of an intervention.

Researchers have used these and dozens of peer-reviewed articles to drill down and determine the major outcomes that are common across the field, as well as the strategies that agencies deploy to realize impact. In the end, the JIG has furnished a set of far-reaching outcomes in which all Jewish organizations can find themselves – proscriptive reductionism not included.

The outcomes are the core of the taxonomies – the “so what” of Jewish Engagement. In total, a genome is made up of four distinct taxonomies. Taken together, they compose the building blocks which can fully describe a given program or intervention:

  • Outcomes that programs in that social impact area are aiming to achieve.
  • Activities that programs may use to achieve one or more outcomes.
  • Beneficiaries that programs commonly serve; including characteristics such as age, gender, socioeconomic status, religious-cultural characteristics, etc.
  • Contexts relevant to how programs are commonly delivered; this includes characteristics of the immediate and larger environments (e.g., instructional setting, location, and program size).

The purpose of this work is to democratize impact learning and empower Jewish organizations to self-evaluate using standards and evidence-based tools. In short order, the JIG tool will help facilitate data-driven discussions around benchmarking so that stakeholders can identify the program designs that yield the greatest impact. Evaluators and the more sophisticated organizations which utilize their services will also be able to make use of the Jewish Impact Genome. By utilizing the JIG as a broader framework through which to compare data, evaluators can ensure that practitioners appropriately contextualize, analyze, and most importantly, utilize findings and recommendations.

In addition, the universal impact language will help streamline time-absorbing grant reporting and increase the reliability, consistency, and effectiveness of impact measurement, providing needed confidence to agencies and philanthropists investing in Jewish Engagement.

What, then, have we learned after months of data collecting and fieldwide conversations?

First, practitioners are ready for outcomes. Over the past two decades, many organizations have reimagined their programs and formulated logic models that articulate their well-intentioned impact goals. Most of these models, however, are crafted in an organizational vacuum, unable to compare results with likeminded agencies, to learn from best practices, or to adapt to local contexts. Through broader outcome alignment efforts, the JIG tool has the potential to activate each respective organization’s data to educate and empower Jewish Engagement practitioners across the field to better align their activities with intended outcomes.

Second, the component parts – i.e., the activities of an intervention – of Jewish Engagement programs are an untapped, uniting force for the North American Jewish community. Through a rigorous coding process, the Genome researchers identified 105 activity components used to cultivate Jewish Engagement. Meaning, in the process of breaking down an intervention to its basic parts, there are about a hundred essential building blocks that come together to form the entire tapestry of Jewish engagement in North America. This accounts for elements that fall under chromosomes like “Content Learning,” “Mifgash,” “Social Network,” “Facilitator,” “Experiential Learning,” “Leadership Development” and, among others, “Program Effectiveness.”

Instead of focusing on ideological differences, agencies will see within the JIG tool the commonalities and shared strategies of the Jewish Engagement field – and with them unprecedented opportunities for collaboration and impact. It will be up to further research to paint a more robust picture of the interventions which make up the landscape of Jewish life, dialing in on how they are utilized in differing situations and settings.

Third, the Jewish Engagement field requires better language and nuance to describe the beneficiaries of its programs. Practitioners prepare program proposals to engage various demographics of differing degrees of Jewish affiliation. Outreach efforts and educational initiatives are designed to reach people along an imaginary linear axis of attachment to Jewishness. Yet, there is no such line, nor are Jews so easily plottable.

In addition, rigid definitions of Jewishness tend to obfuscate the thick Jewish identity of, say, an Israel-engaged Jew who might rarely attend synagogue. Moving forward, research ought to take varieties of Jewishness at full depth, recognizing how this nuance plays a crucial role in how individuals react to Jewish Engagement programs.

To respond to these challenges, the JIG team is assembling a national experiment. In partnership with conveners, funders, incubators, and practitioners, the JIG team plans to establish interconnected ecosystems – geographic polities which will put the JIG’s taxonomies and outcomes to the test.

By engaging with and cataloguing the full-range of Jewish engagement efforts in a given location, the JIG will refine the universality of its outcomes and empower entire communities to unite around a shared framework of understanding and improvement. Through this, communities will paint a more robust, outcome-driven picture of local Jewish life and facilitate an informed discussion around benchmarking, comparing “success” with peer organizations and outcome-aligned agencies. Finally, The Genome will build up the capacity of Jewish Engagement nonprofits – of all types and sizes – to collect, analyze, contextualize, and utilize insights gleaned from this work to improve program performance.

The JIG team is seeking partner communities to refine, test, and employ this revolutionary idea. If your community is ready to help convene this work, please reach out to us at zeleff@missionmeasurement.com.

Zev Eleff, Alex Jakubowski and Lauren Raff are the senior members of the Jewish Impact Genome team.