The $54,000 Strategy Step 2: Making “Change” Happen

by Mark S. Young

Last May, I wrote The $54,000 Strategy: A Bold Solution to Undervaluing our Jewish Professionals for the Journal of Jewish Communal Service “Big Ideas and Bold Solutions” issue. It was re-printed on and generated a stir. Comments and follow up articles revealed the complexities that underlie our current models of Jewish professional compensation, management practices, and professional development, and how making meaningful change can be a difficult and lengthy process.

So let’s talk about making change and real strategies that can achieve 1) positive lasting impact for our own career situations, 2) the proper organizational investment in our human resources that yield a strongest possible return on the investment and 3) a more robust communal conversation that connects how Jewish professionals are valued to the community initiatives that aim to strengthen our collective future.

Making Change HappenEmployee, Organization, Community:

I suggest three categories of action, inspired from the NYU graduate student team who conducted the 2012 Jewish Communal Professional Compensation Survey. The team utilized this framework in partnership with the Advancing Jewish Professionals of NYC at a joint event discussing the state of Jewish compensation in February of this year.

Employee Actions:

To the individual employee, from entry-level to mid-management:

1. Advocate for yourself – The compensation survey found initial evidence that Jewish professionals who negotiated their starting salary earned significantly higher salary levels then those who did not, and several studies including those by Career have demonstrated this as well. When offered a starting salary, ask for more. Once a job is offered, typically the worst-case scenario is “we can’t offer more,” but more likely there is some room for improvement in the offer.
2. Think about compensation broadly – Compensation also comes in many forms, including leave time, stronger benefits, flexible schedules, child-care, and job training. These items can be part of the initial negotiation process or when advocating for a compensation increase. There are many creative ways for an employee to achieve the real or symbolic “$54K or $108K” type of salary each deserves.
3. Making smart career decisions – Take into account the variables of each job one is applying for including, 1) location and cost of living, 2) researching the manager’s background and leadership experience, 3) opportunity for your career to grow, and 4) whether the organization administers meaningful employee evaluations. You need to be walking into jobs with your eyes wide open. That said, these variables shouldn’t justify feeling undervalued in your work.
4. Share your ideas and provide solutions – Thoughtfully share your ideas with the larger community. My personal lesson from the $54,000 Strategy’s strong response: people both pay attention and respond to issues they care about. Those who are concerned and have something to say, say it. Talk about it with your friends, your boss, and your executive director. Share ideas and possible solutions publicly (and appropriately, everything we say sends a message) in a comment, a separate piece, or other avenue of conversation. Change happens when we speak up and provide both real and concrete solutions.

Organizational Actions:

To the executive director, lay leaders, and senior administrators of Jewish organizations:

1. Get to really know your staff – Identify and become knowledgeable about the strong talent already on payroll and plan for their long-term growth within the organization. An alternative, if an organization is small, consider sharing talent with other organizational leaders so these strong individuals keep their passions and skills within the Jewish community. Ask:

  • “Have we really taken the time to familiarize ourselves with our staff, each of their talents and challenges?”
  • “How are we measuring staff talent and performance? Are we properly evaluating job-performance, providing positive and constructive feedback and setting challenging yet realistic goals each year?”
  • “Is job performance connected at all to higher compensation or other reward?” Addressing these questions is critical. Even in nonprofits, mediocre and stellar staff shouldn’t be receiving the same raises.

2. Examine salaries in relation to employee turnover – Cross-reference employee salaries to each staff’s organizational tenure. I imagine few entry-level staff actually stay beyond 1-3 years if they continue to earn $30-$40K annually, or that quality managers stay if they continue to earn in the mid-5 figures. Over 31 studies cited by the Center of American Progress show that turnover costs can range from 16% to 22% of annual salaries. We waste precious resources and reduce productivity levels if we are constantly recruiting and train new personnel for the same positions every six months to three years.

3. Start with management practices – Restructuring salary levels is essential but, perhaps the lowest hanging fruit of the $54,000 Strategy in both cost and time may be to provide managers with skills to execute their supervisory responsibilities in a manner that continuously and impressively motivates and inspires staff, acting like a coach. One way to begin is to enroll managers in the new Jewish Coaching Academy from or other specialized management skills training program.

Community Actions:

To the philanthropists and professional leaders who support many of our communal initiatives:

1. Understand the need to extend the value – An expression of thanks, sincerely, for generously supporting the Jewish camp, Israel trip, and graduate school programs in Jewish Education and not for profit Management that have enabled so many Jews of Generations X, Y and Millennials to both embrace Jewish life and engage in Jewish community professionally without incurring mountains of debt. We wouldn’t be in this position without your vision. That said, I urge these conversations and visions to shift to how we can maintain this demonstration of value to encourage this generation to make a career as a Jewish professional.
2. Request for Proposals (RFPs) – Foundations, federations and the broad community should release RFPs as well as provide both starter grants and other financial resources that will provide, initially, many of the programs I’ve mentioned above:

  • stronger and more competitive employee salaries and benefits
  • supervisory training
  • robust and thoughtful performance evaluation systems,
  • meaningful professional development aimed at employee growth

Philanthropy can get us started while organizations begin to develop models of sustainability so our proposed employer of choice culture can stand on its own. Philanthropy can also hold organizations accountable by requiring these practices as a stipulation in providing grants.

3. Convene a communal conversation – Take the lead on questioning the accepted norms of our field. Specifically, let’s ask:

  •  “Are our salaries appropriate? Are our current compensation models impacting our ability to attract and retain the strongest talent possible?”
  • “How can we re-envision revenue and expenses in order to strengthen levels of compensation for entry-level and mid-managers?”
  • “How can we prioritize quality management training and employee professional developments without busting organizational budgets?”

Actualizing the $54,000 strategy is the responsibility of many. Employees must be knowledgeable about and advocate for our own situations. Each of our intelligent, thoughtful choices and actions can help make change. Organizations must strategically manage staff to both meet institutional missions and drive a healthy financial bottom line. Invest in employees so they really feel valued, aptly trained and supervised by managers that inspire. Local and national leaders must set this tone by providing vision, resources, and conversation space that will promote healthy workforce cultures and strong employee value within our field.

Let us all make a long-term career working within and for the Jewish community the choice any emerging professional would desire. Let us keep talking, acting, debating, and let us act to make change happen.

Mark S. Young is the program coordinator of the experiential learning initiative at The Davidson School of Jewish Education, at The Jewish Theological Seminary. Mark is also board chair of the Advancing Jewish Professionals of New York City, and alumnus of the dual-degree MPA/MA program in public administration and Judaic studies at New York University.

courtesy Jewish Communal Service Association of North America