Scaling a 96-Year-Old Start-Up: The Sequel

By Adam Lehman

We are undertaking an important leadership transition at Hillel International. As Eric Fingerhut moves on to his new role as CEO at Jewish Federations of North America, we are both celebrating the many accomplishments we have achieved during the past six years, and moving forward with energy and purpose as a leadership team, organization and movement.

While we are proud of our recent progress, we know we have much work ahead of us. Having engaged more than 130,000 Jewish students across our movement last year, there are still many others we need to reach to achieve our goal of engaging and inspiring every Jewish student.

Against that backdrop, I’d like to reflect on the themes I described in a piece I wrote three years ago for this site about the remaking of Hillel International titled “Scaling a 93-Year-Old Start Up,” what we’ve learned in these three areas, and how we’ll be applying those learnings to engage more students than ever before in the coming year.

Enabling Customer Success: In my 2016 post, I wrote about our efforts to apply Silicon Valley approaches to driving adoption among our customers, local Hillels. This “customer success” mentality has served us well in our quest to match the needs of individual campus Hillels with the expanded set of grants, programs, services and other resources we offer at Hillel International.

We’ve learned, however, that it’s not enough to change our philosophy, CRM technology or even organizational structure to better support campus Hillels. Through our partnership with the Marcus Foundation, we came to appreciate that the “who” in campus support is as important as the “what.” For experienced Hillel professionals to fully embrace a deeper, more hands-on level of support, it needed to come from people they respect and trust as partners who have “walked in their shoes.”

Accordingly, we have begun deploying highly experienced and successful former Hillel executive directors as “Campus Support Directors.” Each CSD is responsible for partnering with the professional and lay leadership at a portfolio of individual Hillels and coaching them toward excellence.

In just two years, we’re moving from a pilot with three highly skilled and respected CSDs to a full cadre of ten, who provide expert and trusted support to every professionally staffed Hillel. The CSD cohort is also increasingly sharing learnings, tools and best practices within their cohort in ways that are benefiting Hillels across the movement.

Driving with Data: In my earlier post, I discussed the expansion of our “Measuring Excellence” data analytics program from a pilot involving 20 campus Hillels to 80 campus Hillels, and how we were gleaning valuable learnings from this analysis. For example, our initial rounds of measurement data showed a strong correlation between the presence of a senior Jewish educator at a campus Hillel and the overall engagement levels of that Hillel, even across areas of student engagement that did not involve that educator or Jewish educational content.

In the past three years, our field has broadly embraced this new focus on data, with 150 Hillel affiliates now participating in Measuring Excellence. At the same time, we’ve learned the importance of sharing key learnings through multiple channels and learning modes, to reach and empower the full range of Hillel professionals working in 17 countries.

To that end, we’ve expanded our training and professional development offerings through Hillel U, with many courses explicitly incorporating learnings from Measuring Excellence. We’ve also created a new organizational intranet, called Hillel Hub, connecting all our professionals around the world. The Hub houses both our growing findings from Measuring Excellence as well as the practical applications of those findings in areas ranging from student engagement to governance to fundraising to operations. And our CSDs translate insights drawn from Measuring Excellence into custom guidance for each campus with which they work.

Built to Scale: In my original post, I described the need for us to innovate with scale in mind, given our vision of ultimately serving every Jewish student. In the past three years, we’ve successfully scaled several new, high impact programs. For example, we progressed from the pilot of our Springboard Fellowship to currently recruiting for 90 talented early career professionals who will be placed as Fellows at campus Hillels across North America this fall; and, through our Office of Innovation, we scaled a novel, text-based Jewish education program at NYU into a Jewish Learning Fellowship which will engage upwards of 4,000 students in pluralistic, Torah-based study and dialogue on more than 140 campuses in the coming year.

Even while we’ve had the opportunity to scale these in-depth professional and student-facing programs, we’ve also acquired the skills necessary to rapidly prototype and implement more lightweight and lower-cost experiences, such as the MitzVote program, through which students promoted and celebrated voter registration and civic service on more than 100 campuses during the 2018 election cycle.

We’ll continue to focus our resources toward scaling core programs and supports that we know work. For these proven programs, we’ll be scaling in multiple ways – making them available to more campus Hillels; extending certain platforms geared toward our professionals, such as Hillel U, to also serve lay and student leaders; and even considering ways to scale highly effective programs in ways that serve other institutions in the Jewish community. In addition, we’re committed to continued investment in non-linear innovation, challenging ourselves to identify what will be meaningful for students in the future.

Our namesake, Hillel the Elder, is quoted in Pirkei Avot as saying “The more Torah, the more life; the more learning, the more wisdom; the more counsel, the more understanding; the more charity, the more peace.” In that sense, we are following the strategic plan Hillel established 2,000 years ago – as we dedicate ourselves to fulfilling this vision for the many students, professionals and communities we’re privileged to serve.

Adam Lehman is the incoming Interim CEO of Hillel International.