EYE ON INFRASTRCTURE
The conveyor belt mentality
Shortly after World War II, the suburbs of New York were transformed by an ambitious development company known as Levitt & Sons. In a span of just four years, this company produced 17,000 homes, papier-mâchéd together on stilts. Instead of digging out foundations for the houses, they were constructed on concrete slabs. Lacking basements and designed in cookie-cutter styles, the “Levittowns” were built in frenetic frenzy, and their homes were known more for their quantity than for their quality.
Because of the sacrifice in quality for a larger inventory of houses, these houses weren’t built to last in their original styles. They would eventually require significant renovations and additions. Today, many of the original Levittown homes have been added onto and changed so much that they are practically unrecognizable.
In my work as the founder of the Amen Institute, I think constantly about how to construct a Jewish nonprofit organization that is built to last. While most of my time and attention have been directed at the project’s actual mission — empowering Jewish creatives and connecting artists and rabbis with the wider Jewish community — I have learned over time that there are other things that are also foundational to sustaining my organization.
Today, technology is often the first means of spreading awareness about any creative work. For the Amen Institute, a key missing piece of our organization’s development was its website. For a long time, this was a thorn in my side. I considered myself too busy with the day-to-day mission of the Amen Institute — organizing fellowships, classes and other events — to think that the website was more than an ancillary aspect of the project. I had initially created a placeholder website, and I knew that the Amen Institute was not maximizing its reach online; still, I felt that the website was more of a cosmetic than a foundational aspect of this endeavor, so I continued ignoring it. As the Amen Institute continued to scale, our initial website felt increasingly paltry as a showcase for the exceptional creative works that it housed. And still I felt resistant to migrating the site to a sleeker, more elegant digital domain, a home worthy of the treasures it was to house.
I realize now that I saw the role of my website like that of a conveyor belt — merely the means by which I was churning out a product. A conveyor belt often sits on a cold assembly line, whirring away day and night to make sure that the output of goods into the world continues apace. Nobody cares whether the conveyor belt looks pretty while it facilitates the creation of a masterfully crafted product. It is judged only by its functionality and efficiency.
In my case, however, my conveyor belt of a website was on full display, simultaneously serving as both production line and storefront. When I was just launching the Amen Institute, I was most concentrated on making the website as efficient and sustainable as possible, while putting little to no emphasis on its aesthetic. As the face of my organization’s work, it should have been functional and beautiful. This forced a redesign on the website, where I needed to marry both form and aesthetic.
Of course, one could get carried away and be so focused on an aesthetic that one loses sight of the importance of optimizing the efficiency of their site, or creates a site that is labor intensive in both its construction and its maintenance. It’s all about striking a balance. It is true that a site designed with both aesthetic and form in mind takes a lot more work in its construction, but then it is built to last (and should ideally be constructed for easy updates as time, growth and/or other changes demand).
With the help of a coach and my sister, who has a keen eye for graphic design and who has served as my collaborator, I got to work completely redesigning my website. In choosing font styles and colors, I emphasized the marriage of form and function as much as I possibly could. In my design choices, I strove to create a website that truly embodied the creativity of my partnering artists and rabbis. The website was to be not only a conduit for creativity but a piece of art in itself, a visual ode to the very essence of creation, a portal to a world rich in wonder and wisdom.
It is easy and tempting for nonprofit founders like myself to resist change and to delay much-needed infrastructure projects like website redesigns. A founder might feel nostalgic for the original website. It might also feel like a waste of time and money — resources that are endangered for many nonprofits — to direct so much energy to something that is not directly carrying out the project’s mission.
As we continue to amplify the wellspring of creativity fostered by the Amen Institute’s programs, however, we have seen the payoff of having a more attractive and functional website. We have discovered that while our institute produces heartfelt moments of connection and inspired works of art, all of them slip through the cracks if we don’t do our part in building a crisp platform to bring our work to the public. How undignified would it be to house the art of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in a cluttered flea market stall, jumbled among knick-knacks and forgotten bric-a-brac.
I would encourage nonprofit founders to consider this idea of the “conveyor belt” when they are assessing and making decisions about the online presentation of their organizations. Not much attention is brought to the conveyor belt that produces your favorite iPhone, but its effects are noticed every time you turn it on. Effort invested in building the right infrastructure for your mission yields efficiency, ease and a better engagement experience for the people you aim to reach.
Dvir Cahana is the founder of the Amen Institute and a rabbinical student at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah in Riverdale, N.Y.