Five Years and Who Knows What’s Changed

In the summer of 2006, I was set on pitching a new magazine in what I was told would be a four-day global contest for funding held in Jerusalem. The magazine, of course, was PresenTense, an effort a few friends of mine and I started in December of 2005 in Morningside Heights of Manhattan. After months of unsuccessful attempts to raise $10,000 for the first print run and distribution, we ended up printing it ourselves. For $5,000 that a friend and mentor gave me, and around $5,000 that lived on as a (growing) debt on our credit cards, we printed 1000 copies of what we called ‘Issue Zero’ and tried to leverage these copies to gain subscribers and advertisers. We saw this conference as our chance to shine. It brought 120 innovators from around the world and was structured around a series of pitches and workshops supposedly culminating in a grand prize. We were determined to win that prize and scale PresenTense. The conference’s very name convinced us that we were a shoe-in: it was called ROI120, indicating the Jewish community’s desire to get a return on its investment, and was, at the time, a joint effort between the Schusterman Foundation, Taglit-birthright israel, and the Israel Democracy Institute.

We did not win the contest, and from what I understand there was no cash prize at the end. But thanks to the conference, many of the relationships that built PresenTense were formed or strengthened. To go through the list of individuals who attended ROI120 that first year and now are leading major efforts in the Jewish community would be to tempt the consequences of forgetting a name, so I’ll leave others to list them. But what is clear to me is that ROI120 of 2006 concentrated a surge of creativity and innovation that impacted a certain strata of the global Jewish community, and will impact the Jewish community for years to come.

Five years later, what’s changed? A lot. And very little. Some of the larger, more clearly identifiable elements can be sorted out: out of ROI120 came Schusterman’s ROI, which celebrated its sixth summer conference this June bringing 150 young adults from around the world to a four day conference; following ROI120, PresenTense grew from a magazine to a global network of twelve community entrepreneur accelerators launching 155 new social ventures thanks to the efforts of thousands of local volunteers; following ROI120, the Forest Foundation’s Moishe House project received sufficient funding to grow independent, supporting dozens of apartments for young Jews across the world to help them host local events; following ROI the Jewschool and Jewlicious led blogosphere rose and fell in influence, and comparable programs such as the Professional Leadership Project, Heeb, Guilt & Pleasure and others rose and fell in prominence (and out of existence). In other words, if you look to the top of the waves, some of the main actors caught the wave, others did not.

But beneath the surface, I have no clue what has happened. And that is because there isn’t enough data out there to make any good comparison to know whether the Jewish People are any better, or worse, than they were five years ago.

For example, I can tell you that ROI brought together approximately 120 young adults together five times over five years, and 150 one year, to total approximately 650 (adjusting for repeat-attenders) individuals who networked together in Israel over a four day stretch. I can tell you that PresenTense has produced 14 separate issues of PresenTense Magazine due to the efforts of approximately 800 volunteers and the interest of tens of thousands of readers, and run 12 fellowship programs that have engaged approximately 80 young professional volunteers per program and helped 160 community entrepreneurs launch 155 ventures. But I can’t compare the impact of the two in any meaningful way, nor can I find enough data on the former efforts of PLP, KolDor, Guilt & Pleasure, and others, to provide any meaningful conclusions as to whether our efforts have been worthwhile. There is no way to do a cost-benefit analysis, no way for a responsible manager to decide whether the efforts she is working on is “worth it,” or whether she should adjust operations to increase the impact of the dollars under her disposal.

There is a reason there isn’t good data: the capital markets (i.e. philanthropists and foundations) do not demand it, and the organizations, therefore, cannot justify allocating scarce resources to provide it.

As a result, we’re almost a decade since the Jewish community become obsessed with ‘young adults,’ with the ‘un-movement,’ since tens of millions of dollars flowed to organizations such as Heeb, JDub, KolDor, PLP, and so on, and we have absolutely no clue whether we’re better or worse off than we were before.

This irrational behavior is hurting, and not helping, the Jewish People. This is similar to the situation Rob Eshman describes in his article, Count-Less, concerning the lack of data for Los Angeles, “What we are working off are guestimates that are, at best, almost two decades old and, at worst, self-serving and self-aggrandizing.” This lack of information – about the size of the population we’re addressing, about the impact our efforts have had on the population, about how our efforts line up against each other – have caused those excellent professionals among us to get fed up seeing philanthropic investment flow to silver tongued efforts with no base of sustainable support.

If we want the next five years to improve on the previous ones, we need that data, and we need it now. We need to know, for example, whether the dollars spent per participant on birthright israel have the same long-term effect as the dollars spent per (non-birthright alum) PresenTense fellow. Or how Paidea’s JPropel ranks versus the efforts of KolDor. This is essentially a Jewish requirement: we are commanded to have unified weights and measures, and yet our community has not taken the small step of setting up standards and goals, metrics and measurements, done by any political party apparatus who is in it to win it. If we want to grow the members of the Jewish People as bad as the Republicans or Democrats want to grow their party base, we need to measure whether our efforts have any effect.

Five years have passed, and many of the individuals I met at that first ROI120 remain my friends. Five years have passed, and many of the community entrepreneur fellows I met summer after summer, and year after year through PresenTense, remain my heroes. But five years have passed, and with them the blood, sweat and tears of dozens of young community entrepreneurs trying to build a better future for our People, and I cannot tell you if we are any closer to our goal than when we started. We owe it to those activists who toil day in and day out to build a rational capital market, to reward based on measured impact, and to invest in efforts that on comparison are furthering the goals of our People: strengthening our core, building ties of mutual responsibility, and extending the impact of our values through fixing the ills of our world.

Ariel Beery is the co-founder and director of the PresenTense Group.