Measure What Counts

by Hal M. Lewis

The weeks following Passover, known in the Jewish calendar as sefirah (from the Hebrew for enumeration), highlight the importance of counting and measurement in Jewish tradition. It is perhaps not without coincidence, then, that many Jewish nonprofit organizations use this time of year to set their annual budgets and to review their fiscal projections.

Over the past decade, exacerbated particularly by the events of recent years, the Jewish community has placed increased emphasis on metrics as part of the management of their institutions and agencies. A growing insistence on deliverables, outcomes, and fiscal accountability dominates the landscape of contemporary Jewish not-for-profits. Today’s organizational executives need to know how to interpret complex financial spreadsheets, understand sophisticated investment strategies, and be conversant with the intricacies of deferred giving vehicles if they wish to be taken seriously by a growing number of donors and trustees who demand a competitive rate of return for their outlay of time and treasure.

I describe this dynamic as the BLAB syndrome. BLAB is an acronym for Be Like A Business. Its popularity is widespread, and growing, across the Jewish world. Advocates insist that 21st-century Jewish organizations adopt corporate metrics because, as they would have us believe, “the trouble with most nonprofits is that they don’t function like businesses.” So, we have come to measure everything from campaign achievements to returns on our endowments to overhead as a percentage of our annual operating budgets. We track membership numbers, intermarriage rates, and student enrollments. We monitor demographics, attitudinal shifts, population figures, connections, and affiliations. We have become like businesses, consumed by raising our profitability and our profile.

As the CEO of an institution committed to training nonprofit professionals on the graduate level, I embrace this emphasis on professionalism and sophistication. Our institution is dedicated to the proposition that nonprofit organizational leaders can, and indeed must, be as savvy and proficient as counterparts in the corporate arena.

What is troubling is what lies below the surface of the BLAB syndrome, the insistence that nonprofits need to behave like for-profit businesses.

Peter Drucker, the dean of leadership studies in America, understood that nonprofits are different – that to be successful they do not need to emulate the for- profit world. Rather, they need to assert unabashedly their own unique and distinct place in the constellation of American enterprise. According to Drucker, “The bottom line of every social sector, nonprofit organization is changing lives.” That is to say, while for-profit institutions aggressively pursue profit and market penetration, returns on investment and increased efficiencies, non-profit organizations seek to transform the human condition.

Those who work in Jewish communal organizations – whether as lay leaders or professionals – are klei kodesh – sacred vessels for the transformation of the Jewish world and beyond. Unless nonprofits learn to focus on what makes them different from, not the same as, the business world they will fall short of projections, and end up as nothing more than cheap imitations, awkwardly trying to be something they are not.

In the Jerusalem Talmud, Rabbi Jeremiah taught that, “One who is occupied with communal needs is as one who is occupied with the study of Torah.” The work of Jewish communal agencies is holy work. Our organizations are under no obligation to adopt the language and the mindset of the for-profit arena, when they possess a mission and a lexicon of their own. We have heard that “nonprofits need to be run like businesses BLAB, BLAB, BLAB,” for so long we have begun to believe it. The job of Jewish communal enterprises is to change hearts, minds, and lives. And that is very different from the work of even the most successful for-profit venture.

The problem with the BLAB syndrome is not the emphasis on metrics, but with being unclear about what needs to be measured. For nonprofits, impact is the ultimate metric.

During this season of sefirah, as many begin to think about next year’s budget, organizational leaders would be well advised to focus on what really counts. Rather than embracing the misleading metrics of the for-profit world – size of budget, revenue increases, brand-name awareness, and low overhead – the time has come to redefine what it means to be successful as a Jewish organization. Distinguishing between the metrics of the corporate world and those that can be used to gauge our own accomplishments demands that we focus with clarity and single-mindedness on our bottom lines – that measure impact – the lives we change and the transformations we effect.

Dr. Hal M. Lewis is the President and CEO of the Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies in Chicago and the author of several books on Jewish leadership.