Strengthening our missions with KPIs

In our Jewish tradition, our proclamation “Chazak, chazak, v’nitchazeik” — “Be strong, be strong, and let us be strengthened” — echoes through synagogues upon completing the reading of each book in the Torah, like we did last Shabbat after reading the final parsha of the Book of Exodus. The statement signifies both a conclusion and an exhortation to internalize learned wisdom and proceed with enhanced resolve and understanding. 

This ritual mirrors the journey organizations undertake through the establishment and evaluation of key performance indicators (KPIs). KPIs are quantifiable metrics that organizations use to gauge their success in various aspects of their operations. They are established based on the organization’s strategic objectives and critical success factors, providing a way to measure progress and performance against set goals. By regularly evaluating these indicators, organizations can identify areas of strength and pinpoint opportunities for improvement. Much like the cyclical study and celebration of the Torah provides our community with opportunities for reflection, renewal and strengthening of faith and practice, KPIs serve as pivotal milestones that enable organizations to pause, assess, and fortify their missions. 

That comparison being drawn, I’m a bit embarrassed to share the following story, but I do so with the hopes that it’ll help others have greater success.

In the world of education and nonprofit work, we pride ourselves on our adaptability and our commitment to our mission and purpose. Yet, in my journey through the realm of Jewish nonprofit leadership, I discovered a glaring oversight in my own approach — one that highlighted my vulnerability amidst many strengths — and it took me 10 years to realize it. 

Despite my doctorate in education and years of experience as a special educator and data administrator, during which I developed individualized data tracking systems for thousands of students, I had overlooked the critical importance of organizational KPIs when I transitioned to Jewish social entrepreneurship. Unlike individualized education plans (IEPs), which cater to the unique needs of each child, KPIs serve as universal benchmarks for organizational success — and I had never heard of them. 

My transition from the world of special education to Jewish nonprofit leadership carried with it an assumption: that the principles governing the success of individuals would seamlessly scale to an entire organization. This assumption was a mistake I didn’t realize I was making until, during a focus group with a group of funders, the glaring absence of organizational KPIs was pointed out to me.

When I heard this, I was stumped and embarrassed. I had no understanding of where I went wrong. I had a system where I could track each individual’s Jewish journey over multiple years in an iterative fashion — wasn’t that what mattered? Additionally, I had been crafting individualized KPIs for each funder, based upon their interests. Whereas hyper-personalization is critical when tracking data in special education, it’s quite the opposite in the business and nonprofit world.

Here I was, an “expert” in data administration in one setting, and then suddenly a novice all over again.

I recognized how I had been viewing my organization’s metrics and goals through an entirely upside-down lens. My experience in special education had ingrained in me the value of individualized tracking and bespoke metrics, an approach that, while invaluable in that context, obscured my vision when applied to the broader canvas of Jewish nonprofits. The feedback during that focus group of funders highlighted the absence of organizational KPIs and exposed how my well-intentioned efforts had led me and my organizational reporting astray.

This revelation was both a turning point and a call to action — to reevaluate, realign and prioritize what would advance our organization, embracing a holistic approach over the individualized intricacies. I worked with our grant manager and the head of the foundation’s data and accountability, and then with a seasoned consultant as well, to establish our own KPIs. 

The organization I lead, Career Up Now, aims to empower college students and young professionals to advance their careers while incorporating Jewish values into their lives through innovative networking and education opportunities. For this reason, our KPI focus narrowed to two core areas: Jewish continuity and identity, and career readiness. 

The impact of implementing these KPIs was profound. I could now monitor our progress in real time, assess our effectiveness and make informed decisions. Data collection became streamlined, and the nebulous concept of success gained clarity and measurability. These changes allowed us to demonstrate our value more convincingly to stakeholders and enhance our strategic planning.

For those standing where I once was, uncertain about creating universal KPIs, here is my advice:

1. Start with clarity. Define what success looks like for your organization. Engage your team, stakeholders and beneficiaries in this conversation to ensure a holistic perspective.

2. Seek external guidance. Do not hesitate to consult with experts or organizations that have successfully implemented KPIs. Their insights can provide invaluable shortcuts through the learning curve.

3. Focus on core areas: Identify areas that are pivotal to your mission and vision. Developing KPIs that reflect these areas will ensure they resonate with and reinforce your organizational goals.

4. Iterate and evolve: KPIs are not set in stone. Be prepared to refine them as your organization grows and as the external environment changes.

As I seek to incorporate Jewish wisdom into my professional ethos, I found inspiration in the words of Pirkei Avot: “It is not upon you to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.” This teaching reminds me of the responsibility to engage with the process, even when the outcomes seem distant or unattainable. Establishing KPIs is an ongoing journey, one that requires persistence, resilience and a willingness to learn from both success and failure.

Bradley Caro Cook is the founder of CareerUpNow.org and a member of the ROI community. He is also the creator of MediateHate.ai, a tool to help address anti-Jewish experiences in the workplace and classroom.