Making People Count: A Call for Partnership and Data-Driven Empowerment

By Zev Eleff

In December 2010, Brandeis’s Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies published a well-received population study indicating an upswing in the numbers of American Jews. One pundit, however, proffered a trenchent critique – not on the quality of the research methods, but on the study itself. “Rather than counting Jews,” he surmised, “we would be better off investing in creating and communicating Jewish wisdom and practice that helps make people count.”

This commentator’s frustrations were more than a century in the making. Jews have tried to tally their coreligionists in the United States since the mid-nineteenth century. Demographic labors picked up significantly a hundred years later. In the 1960s, dozens of Jewish Federations responded to fears of the “Vanishing American Jew” – a term deployed by Milton Himmelfarb several years before Thomas Morgan’s infamous Look exposé – by commissioning rigorous population studies and paying close attention to intermarriage rates. Subsequent research counted Jews by the intensity of their “identities.” National surveys appear almost every decade. More focused community-based studies come out more routinely.

The impulse to count Jews has obfuscated the need to pay closer attention to the activities that foster and further Jewish life in North America. Frequent reports bemoaning the dropping numbers of Jews has typically spurred calls to innovate and improve Jewish education and outreach, with the shared goal of redirecting the downward population trends. Yet, the Jewish community has rarely asked the most important question: what works?

This is the guiding question behind the Impact Genome Project (IGP). The IGP is an attempt to develop predictive models and tools that can radically improve the return on investment in social change. By cataloguing and coding thousands of published and unpublished research studies and evaluations, the IGP boils down social impact into a taxonomic structure – a sum of the component “genes” of activities, beneficiary types, contexts, environments, and more. The result is a shared, actionable language for the intended outcomes and a framework for better understanding social impact.

The Project now seeks to research the complex arena of Jewish engagement.

The Jewish Impact Genome (JIG) is the first intervention-based, field-wide approach to outcome standardization in the Jewish world. In tandem with input from a broadminded Advisory Council and a landscape-defining Practitioner Council, the JIG team has collected and coded hundreds of program evaluations and other valuable data to inform our objective: to create a universal, actionable, outcome-based language of impact for Jewish engagement and philanthropy.

The benefits to Jewish engagement are limitless. With a shared, data-driven language for impact, organizations will better learn from theirs and others’ programs and interventions. They will leverage comparative data and collected insights to make better, more informed decisions. What is more, aided by a unified language for impact, the need for individualized funder reports disappears. This will save thousands of hours of reporting and administrative burdens. Taken all together, this amounts to more impact for more people, and in all varieties of contexts.

Many organizations have already taken steps to gather and utilize evaluative data. Accountable to their stakeholders, they have engaged in self-reporting exercises to document their impact of their interventions. More recently, private foundations and many Jewish Federations – driven by a desire to assess the returns on their investments – have compelled grantees to commission professional evaluators to assess their work. Unfortunately, the collective utility of these evaluative efforts is limited. Most of these evaluations remain internal documents.

With the important exception of path breaking work on Taglit-Birthright Israel, little has been published on the effects of the myriad of programs aimed to support Jewish life. The scholarly journals are filled with valuable material on Jewish demographics and smart analysis of those figures. But it is rare to find a curriculum tested in a variety of school environments and camps or how various interventions meant to increase teenagers “Jewish networks” farad in different conditions and communities.

We can do more. In so doing, we will better understand the field.

Program evaluations approximate success in quantitative and qualitative measures. This meaningful research acknowledges the challenges that organizations face in increasing Jewish life, advancing Jewish learning and culture, instilling Jewish values, and all the other efforts initiated in this complex space. These evaluations tell the stories of Jewish professionals and their constituencies, outlining the ambitious expectations of well-meaning programs designed to engage all kinds of different Jews of varied backgrounds and belongings. For those seeking answers, this research will provide the best available roadmap to a stronger Jewish future.

The Jewish engagement area ought to take this research at full depth. We need to better understand how Jewish programs make people count and to share this information. Please consider joining the effort, sharing program evaluations in a discrete and sensitive way. Partner with us and empower the field.

For questions and to continue the conversation, please reach out to evals.jig@missionmeasurement.com.

Zev Eleff is Research Director of the Jewish Impact Genome and Chief Academic Officer of Hebrew Theological College. He can be reached at zeleff@missionmeasurement.com.