Forms matter

Question your questions: Building better forms for community building

In Short

Every single meaningful Jewish experience begins with a form

[Caroline] Years ago, my flight landed in Israel for a summer intensive program I was attending. Excited, exhausted, and a bit nervous, I followed my fellow passengers through customs and baggage claim, waiting to meet my group at arrivals. When I finally did, I was greeted and immediately handed a bar of Israeli pop rocks chocolate by a leader of my program. Baffled, I asked what it was for, wondering if this was the beginning of an activity. “You put it on your form!” he grinned, opening a backpack of everything from Bamba to Bisli to Krembo and more. “Your favorite Israeli snack. We brought everyone their favorite!”

Every single meaningful Jewish experience begins with a form. Whether you had to sign up, apply, register or enroll, you likely filled out a form (hopefully online) as a first step to participation. Forms matter! As professionals, they’re our way of collecting essential information and documentation before embarking on programming that has major logistic (and sometimes legal) requirements. As participants, or people registering other participants, forms are our first introduction to a community and its values. Whichever cliche you use – widening the tent, lowering the barrier, unlocking the gates, opening the doorway, lengthening the table – our forms speak volumes louder than the Facebook ad, Instagram campaign, or the 6’ banner with a rainbow of faces out front.

Have you ever tried to purchase something on a website that was so frustrating to use that you decided just to buy it elsewhere, or not at all? That feeling of intense frustration is one that all of us have known, and that we want to avoid our own customers experiencing. When folks register for our programs, the signup process should feel exactly the way we want the actual program to feel: welcoming, exciting, streamlined and clear. The program or experience you’re inviting them to doesn’t begin at 6pm ET on Tuesday, December 1st… it began the moment they clicked ‘Register Here.’ (And we hope you double-checked that the ‘register here’ button works on desktop, tablet, iPhone and android!)

How your customers experience your form is how they experience your community. If your form is cumbersome and repetitive, so are you. If your form is exclusive to households who don’t fit a two-opposite-gender-parents-plus-children family structure, so are you. If your form is unclear about what you want your participants to do, write or bring, you are communicating that you are disorganized and inconsistent. 

On the other hand, if you use language that is accessible and define your terms, you may just prove to someone that the Jewish community does have a space for them. If you ask for information you need and will demonstrate how you’ll use it, you may just build trust and spark joy (especially if it results in someone getting handed a bar of Israeli pop rocks chocolate).

Best Practices For Forms:

DO: Be clear about why you are asking for certain information. 

Asking for a participant’s gender because “we always ask” is different than asking because you’re taking youth participants on a plane and the airline requires this information. (And in this case, you need sex and not gender – so be clear. Keshet has some great advice for forms!) If you can’t think of a good reason why you truly need a piece of information, chances are you don’t, and yet you’re asking for information that can be deeply complicated or personal. Being clear on the “why,” with both your internal team and your participants,  goes a long way towards building meaningful and trusting relationships. 

DON’T: Ask for information you’re not sure how you’ll use.

If you’re not sending someone physical mail regarding the current program you’re registering for, you don’t need their mailing address. Your supplementary religious school program has no need for a child’s legal name (a nickname is just fine). If you’re asking for the name and contact info of a child’s dentist, and you only have them for two hours on a Sunday when their dentist is closed, consider in what scenario you might actually use that information or if it’s just another barrier to signing up. Being thorough for the sake of being thorough does not make your community any safer, but it does make you seem out of touch to the very people with whom you’re trying to connect. 

DO: Ask open-ended questions.

Very few of us fit neatly into a box! Allowing participants to type in their own pronouns rather than selecting from a list you provide, or providing space for folks to share their accessibility needs to be able to fully engage in your program, gives autonomy over one’s own experience and is far less limiting. (This excerpt of an Inclusion Training Guide from Foundation for Jewish Camp includes some sample language.) When possible, provide flexibility in what you ask people to share with you, especially if it’s personal.

DON’T: Assume that asking more questions leads to getting more information. 

At synagogues, camps, schools and beyond, the core of our work is relationship building. On one hand, this means that no matter how many hours a caregiver pours in to describing their child’s personality in detail before sending them to the program, we as the professionals still do not know the child until we actually meet them. On the other hand, asking better questions and including context for the questions can help build trust, reduce stigma and fear, and elicit better information. Quality – not quantity. So, what information do we need today? What is going to help us prepare to meet this participant’s needs? What is shared on a form is a single snippet of a complex human being. Anticipating that we can really know someone just based on what is shared on their behalf is not accurate or fair. 

DO: Be realistic about what you can ask people to do at this moment in time.

Caregivers filling out forms on behalf of their children are rarely, if ever, going to go get their second grader and read the behavior contract you so lovingly crafted out loud to them and then provide their 7 year old’s e-signature. We are all trying to get where we are going and do what needs to be done as quickly and efficiently as possible. If someone has to stop the enrollment process to go get a copy of their insurance card, a family photo, and a state ID that you are insisting they upload for one hour of after-school art class…chances are high they may never finish completing that form. (And if they really need to collect materials beyond their keyboard to complete the form, put that ‘packing list’ on the first page!)

DON’T: Ask for repetitive or easily acquired data. 

Asking people to fill in their home address three different times for all of their children is cumbersome and unnecessary. Consider what information can be streamlined per family or household, and what differs by participant. If you have their date of birth, you don’t also need their age! Perhaps someone else in your organization has already collected these details last year, and those you’re engaging can simply indicate if there are any changes.

DO: Ask about symptoms, not diagnoses.

Knowing a diagnosis that a child, or staff member, may have can help us better support them – but even more so, asking how that shows up for them, what supports they already have, and talking through expectations cannot be replaced by checkboxes. This is especially true if someone is new to your setting and, for example, wouldn’t know to ask about how loud the dining hall is or whether they need to bring their earplugs to dampen the sound. If asking about diagnoses, we must take the opportunity to ask how this shows up for the individual and the best ways we can support them in our settings – and put aside the assumptions that labels mean the same to all. One size never fits all.

The Jewish community has always wrestled with questions. (One of Jill’s partner’s favorite cliches about Judaism is that whenever there is a question, he knows there is typically more than one answer.) The examples above are technical solutions, but they are also steps towards addressing an adaptive challenge. Forms are not simply a formality. Once someone has decided to interact with us – through registration, application, enrollment or even a feedback survey – we have a responsibility to care for them.

If after reading this and perusing the resource links embedded in the article, if you’d like a chevruta buddy to reflect with on your current forms – reach out!

Caroline Dorn is a managing director at Real Time Strategy Group, a consulting firm dedicated to supporting synagogue growth through customer care, meaningful engagement, professional development and more. Caroline cares deeply about hospitality and welcoming and knows that the smallest details can have the highest impact on the way people feel about their communities. Caroline is a trained comedian and half of the voice behind the synagogue parody account @RogueShul on Twitter.

Jill Goldstein Smith has been questioning questions as long as she can remember – while working in television news, as a teen youth group advisor, a student at JTS Davidson School of Education, and as a senior program manager at Foundation for Jewish Camp. She oversees Yedid Nefesh: Nurturing Mental, Emotional, Social, and Spiritual Health (MESSH) at Jewish Camp, an initiative supported by the Marcus Foundation. (Applications for Cohort 2 open in October!) The program is developing a MESSH Question Bank to help camps’ forms align with their values and support them in asking thoughtful questions as they build relationships with campers, staff, and families.