High Tech

Senser Foundation looks to help nonprofits stay up to date digitally

Though ‘not sexy,’ improving technology helps organizations do what they do better, according to one group helped by the Sensers

In 2021, Meredith Jacobs, the CEO for Jewish Women International, needed help to combat an uptick in domestic violence during the pandemic, so she decided to present a webinar.

“I said, ‘We need funding to get this work done. Please reach out to me if you’re interested,” she told eJewishPhilanthropy. “Within minutes, I had an email from Naomi Senser.”

Naomi and her husband, Jerry Senser, represent the Senser Foundation, based in Highland Park, Ill. Not only did they provide funds for JWI’s “Here for You” program, helping support domestic violence survivors and their children, but in 2022 they included  JWI in their newest initiative, a 10-to-12 month program using the Lean Digital Transformation Model, which assesses an organization’s technological needs and helps them implement the best computer programs to help them meet their goals.

Donors often shy away from investing in “infrastructure” for nonprofits, preferring instead to fund new initiatives and programs. But to the Sensers, improving organizations’ technological capabilities serves as a force multiplier, making them more capable of achieving all of their goals.

Jacobs didn’t realize how much JWI needed the Lean Digital Transformation Model, she said. It allowed them to stride forward into an increasingly virtual world.

“COVID exposed a lot of fragility, particularly in the nonprofit sector in regards to technology,” Jerry Senser told eJP. In 2021, through a partnership with Philtech, a Tel Aviv-based company that helps organizations stay up to date digitally, the Senser Foundation fully transitioned from funding specific programs to helping nonprofits learn the best ways to use and implement technology throughout their operations. “People who go into nonprofits are not necessarily tech savvy, especially depending on the generation,” Naomi said. “We’re there for the mission, and the mission doesn’t necessarily involve technology. What we’ve learned is that the technology really could help you do your mission much better.”

Since launching the partnership, 19 organizations have participated, including JWI, The Organization for the Resolution of Agunot, Lissan, Out for Change, Haifa Rape Crisis Center, the Ark and Shalom Task Force.

Each organization accepted to the program was supported differently based on their needs. Many wanted to improve communication between employees who were working remotely. Some needed support with crowdfunding. Others needed improved websites.

JWI implemented a program named Monday.com that helped remote team members communicate. Lissan, a nonprofit that provides Hebrew classes to Arab women from East Jerusalem, was able to create a new Customer Relationship Management platform that allowed them to scale their activity from 500 students to 1,300 students per year.

“It was not easy for a grassroots nonprofit organization to direct resources and personnel in favor of developing a digital infrastructure and embedding it within the organization,” Talia Vekshtein, the CEO of Lissan, told eJP. “We are still in the process of improving our digital tools, but now we are thinking more strategically and more technologically and are not afraid to use digital and technological tools in our work.”

Philtech and the Senser Foundation look to align with organizations who are in tune with the Senser Foundation’s goals — liberal and democratic values, women’s empowerment, strengthening marginalized communities in the U.S. and Israel, and engaging the next generation of Jews — and who are invested in moving forward digitally.

“Unless the organization has the right person, the right digital leader for this process, there won’t be a success there,” Shelly Tene Barkai, the CEO and co-founder of Philtech, told eJP. “[Employees] need to be innovative by nature. They don’t need to be tech savvy, but they do need to be curious about new things.”

Demand to be a part of the program is high. The first year, there were around 40 applicants out of which they chose 3. The second year, around 80 out of which they chose 7. This year, there were 110, and they chose 9. After the 10-to-12-month program is completed, Philtech continues to support organizations — to a lesser extent — over the following year, but the goal is for organizations to understand and have the technology to be able to continue to grow on their own.

This support is more important than funders realize, Jerry Senser said. “Capacity building, generally, is not all that popular among funders. Often, it’s considered supporting overhead. We disagree with [people who think this way]. I think building organizational structure and processes is really important… We don’t think we’re going back to a pre-COVID world, and it’s not just about fixing things that may need fixing, but it’s about expanding your reach, improving your relations with employees, improving your development, fundraising.”

For Jacobs and the JWI, being a part of the program allowed employees to go more remote while staying connected and working together as a team. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, her staff was based in Washington, D.C., but today they are located across the United States and in Israel. “[The Sensers] changed the way our staff works for the better,” Jacobs said. “I don’t know that I would have thought about a need to transform digitally had it not been for the Sensers.”

Jacobs recognized that funding infrastructure is “not sexy,” she said, but making sure your technology and programs are up to date is “almost the digital equivalent of heating and light. You can go farther, faster, if your tech is where it needs to be.”