Lessons learned

Don’t just look back: Using evaluation to inform future planning

In Short

Beyond looking back at the initiative’s outcomes, we plan to utilize the data from this report to inform a variety of approaches moving forward — from considering potential investments in teen engagement, elevating the needs of Jewish-teen-serving professionals, cultivating collaboration, and developing a cohesive community vision around teen programming.

In 2014, Rose Community Foundation and Jim Joseph Foundation partnered to create the Denver and Boulder Jewish Teen Education and Engagement Initiative, one of 10 community-based efforts across the country in the Teen Funder Collaborative (now housed at The Jewish Federations of North America). Our initiative, like others, was designed to cultivate new Jewish teen offerings, increase teen engagement and involve teens who come from diverse Jewish backgrounds. 

Each initiative had a critical component in parallel to these external efforts: independent evaluation. Over the course of the initiative, our evaluator, Informing Change, provided us with findings, data and analyses showing progress toward our desirable outcomes. And, if we weren’t making progress, we gained an understanding of the reasons why. The final report, based on seven years of data collection and evaluation, is a valuable knowledge-base for professionals and institutions — both locally and nationally — seeking to engage Jewish teens and their families. 

Beyond looking back at the initiative’s outcomes, we plan to utilize the data from this report to inform a variety of approaches moving forward — from considering potential investments in teen engagement, elevating the needs of Jewish-teen-serving professionals, cultivating collaboration and developing a cohesive community vision around teen programming. To that end, our organization has identified key takeaways where the collected data can meaningfully inform our future investments in the Jewish community. 

For example, the teen programs themselves were described by stakeholders as high quality, responsive to teen interests and needs and effective in engaging teens from a variety of backgrounds. Yet, despite the quality of the programs, there remain opportunities for cultivating a more collaborative and sustainable Jewish teen ecosystem in Greater Denver. We plan to leverage this report to catalyze a shared community vision that prioritizes Jewish teens — not organizations — and elevates shared opportunities in which programs, communal professionals, parents and lay leaders all support them as they navigate emerging into young adulthood.  

Additionally, though Jewish-teen-serving professionals and group leaders are generally well-trained, we learned about gaps in staff talent development, retention and pipeline. We need to ensure that professionals see room for career advancement within their organizations, as teen-facing positions often are viewed as early career roles with high turnover rates. Training and professional development of program leaders will further the Initiative’s progress on the diversity and quality of Jewish teen programming. While professionals affiliated with national Jewish organizations have access to national training events and networks, local educational programs and training offerings are critical supports for professionals in smaller stand-alone organizations. Professional development also helps program leaders feel valued by their organization and by the broader Jewish community and contributes to longer tenure in their positions. Because of this, our organization is committed to supporting innovations and investments that attract and retain a talented crop of Jewish teen professionals.

Going forward, we also must develop strategies to ensure that the two Jewish communities involved in the Initiative, Denver and Boulder, continue to offer a mix of diverse and high-quality programs that appeal to teens. Maintaining this quality will require ongoing monitoring of the Jewish teen ecosystems. We need to find ways for each community to stay informed about available teen programs and opportunities, keep an eye on program quality, and increase awareness of parent and teen satisfaction with the existing programs. Providing low barriers to entry to Jewish teen programs is important in all communities, but especially so where there are smaller populations of Jewish youth or where Jewish families are geographically dispersed.

As a foundation serving the Greater Denver community, committed since 1995 to grantmaking in support of the region’s Jewish community, the Jewish Teen Initiative and subsequent evaluations provide us with valuable insights. We better understand how we’re doing our work, how we connect with grantees and partners, and the results of these efforts. Over the course of the Initiative, thousands of Greater Denver teens participated in immersive experiences, one-time events, in-school clubs and more. 

We are ready to build on this success. By embracing learning as an organization-wide priority, Rose Community Foundation plans to make space to keep listening to our grantee partners, peer organizations, and others. We’ve asked grantees what they need — resources, training, technical assistance — to strengthen their capacity and evaluate their work in ways that nourish and sustain Jewish life in our community.

As our region and communities across the country consider future models and innovations for improving Jewish programming and increasing engagement, we hope the report and the data findings serve as a helpful resource. Through our grant making efforts in the Jewish community, we encourage a dynamic and inclusive Jewish ecosystem, which embraces myriad ways to be Jewish and builds enduring community infrastructure to sustain it. We know other foundations and grantee organizations around the county share this vision and approach. Thankfully, many learnings from the final report extend beyond the teen ecosystem and may apply to broader engagement efforts within the Jewish community. These learnings can help contribute to a roadmap for the future of Greater Denver’s Jewish teen programming and other communities around the country interested in creating and sustaining meaningful Jewish experiences. 

Vanessa Bernier (she/her/hers) is program officer, Jewish life, at Rose Community Foundation.