Getting on the Data Bandwagon

JData Logo_largeBy Jonathan “J.C.” Cohen

The American Jewish education enterprise is huge. More than two billion dollars is earmarked annually for youth education. In so many communities, funding for education tops the disbursement list. To make those sorts of planning and allocation decisions demands significant data tied to the right questions and analyzed in a thoughtful manner. So why is it so hard for so many of our communal leaders to get on the data bandwagon?

Prior to joining JData, I was the director of an overnight camp, a position I held for almost 15 years. During the first years of my tenure, I was certain that I knew everything that was going on around me. I knew how my registration was trending; I knew what my campers, their parents, my counselors, alumni, and my area communal leaders thought. I knew it all.

Sound familiar?

For the record, I was gathering data the whole time. We distributed surveys to various cohorts. Most of our surveys were paper forms, and then late we moved online. Whether it was at formal meetings with constituents or in informal conversations, I paid good attention.

But before I would take any of the data into consideration, I would filter it, because I was the only person looking at the results. “I know who wrote this, and they don’t know what they’re talking about.” “That person just doesn’t get it.” In the end, I only heard what I wanted to hear. Be they positive or critical comments, as long as they were in sync with what I was thinking and feeling about what we were doing well or where we needed work, the data was accepted. If it was out of sync, it was rejected.

Then the Jewish camping world, thanks to the leadership of the Foundation for Jewish Camp, got onto the data bandwagon. The FJC started working with JData in 2011, and from then on my camp was encouraged to collect and share even more data. I was excited because our survey tools were going to look better, “more professional.” I would get the same content in a cleaner, easier-to-manage format. Boy was I wrong.

When outside researchers reviewed the data, they weren’t applying the same filters I was (despite my efforts to the contrary). They viewed it through the lens of industry benchmarks and best practices. In data that I would have just disregarded, they found important threads. In data that I would have just aligned with my priorities, they teased out what our constituents’ priorities really were. And perhaps most importantly, they showed us how we measured up to our colleagues and competitors in the field. Needless to say, my relationship with data changed drastically, and I came to highly value what can come when that data is shared with and viewed by others. I became a believer in the power of data.

JData is a shared resource for Jewish education in North America. Each year, JData collects information from the primary Jewish youth educational institutions – day camps, day schools, early childhood enters, overnight camps, and part-time schools – and delivers assessments on the health and wellness of the Jewish educational endeavor.

We focus on six core metrics: recruitment, retention, staff development, financial health, fundraising capacity, and governance. Thanks to our robust platform, we are able to track these metrics over time. We work with a range of national organizations and communal-based institutions to look at segments of the data of particular importance to them, providing them with the information they need to evaluate the present and plan for the future.

To be on the data bandwagon requires a willingness to be open and honest, to be willing to share and hear the good and not-so-good news. Even harder is being able focus on trends and patterns, to take in the full picture, and not get bogged down (or let others get bogged down) by one or two particular data points.

If you are engaged in the Jewish educational endeavor, and are interested in getting on the data bandwagon, we would love to talk to you.

Jonathan “J.C.” Cohen, MAJCS/MSW is Executive Director at JData. He can be reached at: