The Missing Piece in Our Capital Campaigns

by Sacha Litman and Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky

Our Jewish community’s capital campaigns are back, now that the economy is in recovery. That means tens of millions of dollars will be available for building renovations and new community campuses located closer to areas of rapidly expanding Jewish populations. But there’s something missing: an investment in the infrastructure to find, connect with, and engage the majority of those in the wide expanse of the Jewish community who are not going to walk into these buildings.

For generations, the Jewish community has been investing in its real estate. Since the end of World War II, in particular, the American Jewish community has been engaged in a frenzy of building. These buildings that served the Jewish community were designed for a population that was being suburbanized and anticipating the activity of the baby boom. Most of this building activity came to a screeching halt with the economic downturn of 2008. Recently, as the economy has improved, we have seen a resumption of capital campaigns even as the Jewish community is decrying its relative inability to reach out to newcomers, those historically disenfranchised, as well as attracting those who have become disaffected by the Jewish community.

We are not debating here whether or not we need more or different buildings. There are advantages to physical structures, as well as challenges for maintaining them. But what we would like to argue is that such capital campaigns should include capacity-building for strategic outreach to ensure a flow of actual people and the development of the right programs that meet the needs, interests and life stage of all those in the orbit of the Jewish community.

Let’s take a look at corporate infrastructure investments which have changed drastically in the past decade. In 2003 well-entrenched bookseller Barnes & Noble was opening 30 new superstores each year while simultaneously getting out of the digital ebook business, because it was not yet profitable. At the same time, Amazon.com – while still a relative newcomer to bookselling – was investing tens of millions of dollars in infrastructure without building a single store. Instead, Amazon built out its online presence, digital books, and customer service team. It developed online platforms and digital books to capture customers, customized the experience for each individual, made customized recommendations that generate more than 33% of all sales, made sure to encounter the buyer when surfing the web, and had a customer service team available anytime, anywhere to help. You know how the story ends. Barnes & Noble is now on a different trajectory, closing dozens of stores each year without opening new ones. Currently, it is furiously investing in the online digital book business in a somewhat futile attempt to catch up with Amazon.

There are many other examples. Almost any successful business in 2013 – look at Target, Walmart, Home Depot or any big box retailer or department store – is investing as much (if not more) in its Internet presence, big data (one of the top investments of big businesses during the recession), and service concierges as they are in their bricks and mortar stores. The personalized “case management” approach, and the bricks and mortar outlets are unified in strategy. Stores are becoming showrooms to sample while the Internet and digital become the point-of-purchase. And in these stores, like Home Depot and Nordstrom, there is a welcoming presence as soon as customers enter, guiding them to find the product they seek, and following up afterwards to ensure that their experience was positive (in order to retain customers since recurring business is the key to any profitable company).

The entire customer service and product sales industry are focused on the customer, rather than facilities, a needed change in the focus of the Jewish community as well. Some may argue that the Jewish community is not a business and will be reluctant to think in terms of customer service. However, to thrive and reach the current generations, as well as those in front of us, Jewish community capital campaigns have to leave behind their 2003 mindset and embrace a new approach – one that includes digital, big data and customer service infrastructure – as well as the expansion of reach and services to attract target populations.

Consider the finances. The cost per person for online and concierge work is much cheaper than buildings. In most communities, buildings cost $100-300 per square foot to build. Programs cost $500-3500 per person per year (program budget plus overhead divided by number of participants). Customer-centered case management costs only $5-15 per-person-served a year and can reach much more of the community while expanding both the database of participants and bettering the programs themselves. Imagine what your community could do if a reasonable percentage of its next capital campaign was set aside for an integrated strategy of customer case management which incorporates concierges, big data, and digital presence. This is not a choice. It is a matter of survival and successful growth.

We need sophisticated techniques for engaging both specific target populations and broad swaths of the Jewish community. The infrastructure of trained engagement professionals and the technological and data tools to mobilize the masses are as essential to any organization as the pipes and wiring of their physical structures. Without it, the Jewish community will be building and securing beautiful buildings that once again are empty of the very population that it seeks to reach.

Initiatives like Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute and GrapeVine build the capacity of the Jewish community to find newcomers, engage the previously unengaged, and leverage customer-centered management a la Amazon to help ensure that each individual in the community remains on a Jewish journey from cradle to grave even as his or her needs, interests, lifestage, and geography change.

By ensuring investment in customer-centered case management through digital media, data, and outreach as a major percentage of our community capital campaigns, our communities will have the resources necessary to thrive in 2013 and for decades beyond.

Rabbi Kerry Olitzky (kolitzky@joi.org) is the Executive Director of Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute, innovators in Jewish communal life, promoting such programs as Public Space Judaism and Big Tent Judaism Community Concierges, including on the ground programs and concierges in communities throughout North America. Among his many publications is the recent Jewish Men Pray (Jewish Lights Publishing).

Sacha Litman (sacha@grape-vine.com) is President of GrapeVine, which provides communities with a customer-centered case management platform and is currently serving six Jewish communities including NYC and LA. He is also CEO of Measuring Success, which has helped over 800 foundations and nonprofits achieve their mission through data collection systems and make data-driven decisions.