Does the Jewish World Have an Internal Constituency Problem?

by Marc Blattner

I recently read in The New Yorker, James Surowiecki’s article, The Next Level, that in essence talked about the concept of “customer drift” – when small factors initially tip the balance in favor of a new company over the old. The example used is Blockbuster Video. Blockbuster, which dominated the movie rental business with convenient locations, solid inventory management, and a known brand, is now (unbelievably) almost extinct. They lost out to a changing world that included a combination of Netflix, cable companies, Red Box, and easy downloads. These companies hit on Blockbuster’s weak-points – what Blockbuster thought were convenient locations were not compared to door-to-door delivery, and no one wanted to pay annoying late fees. The company tried to take what it did well – “the bricks” – and combine it with what was lacking – “the clicks.” Unfortunately, they were unable to respond fast enough and today they are in Chapter 11.

In the article, Surowiecki writes,

Why didn’t Blockbuster evolve more quickly? In part, it was because of what you could call the “internal constituency” problem: the company was full of people who had been there when bricks-and-mortar stores were hugely profitable, and who couldn’t believe that those days were gone for good … The familiar sunk-cost fallacy made things worse. Myriad studies have shown that, once decision-makers invest in a project, they’re likely to keep doing so, because of the money already at stake. Rather than dramatically shrinking both the size and the number of its stores, Blockbuster just kept throwing good money after bad.

Wow! Can we take a moment to reflect on this statement and truly be honest with ourselves – how is this similar to the Jewish community today?

  1. Do we have enough new and “outside voices” sitting on our Boards and committees providing fresh perspective on our current and future Jewish community? Are our “internal constituency” groups willing to change quickly and deeply enough, if they even see the need for change at all? And do our volunteer and professional leaders (including myself) truly understand the evolution of the Jewish community?
  2. Are we looking at our programs, services, and infrastructure with a critical eye? Are we doing the same things we have been doing for years and years with little impact instead of new and innovative high-impact ideas? Are we prepared to say “no” to those beloved programs of yesteryear that “worked then,” yet may be unnecessary for our Jewish future?
  3. How can we maximize the incredible infrastructure in our community? Can we find ways to better share and utilize space (and back office support)? Reduce our overhead costs? Have our buildings occupied to capacity the majority of the time?

Just because our community invested money in the past does not mean we cannot change course. Sometimes one must “cut his/her losses” and make the necessary changes – or else we, the Jewish community, could find ourselves like Blockbuster. As Surowiecki writes, “Sometimes you have to destroy your business in order to save it.”

The world is moving at a rapid pace and that is why TODAY we must collectively plan for our community’s future. We have the opportunity to create a vision – one that is compelling, inviting, convenient, meaningful and minus any barriers for involvement.

Ready to exercise leadership and make difficult decisions? Let’s all join together, as a united community, and get the job done.

Marc Blattner is President and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland.