The Numbers Game

Colourful preschool numbersThe Jewish community does itself a disservice – and actually stymies its own efforts – by allowing rampant inefficiency, organizational reporting with inherently cooked books, and serious and systemic duplication.

by Joshua Einstein

The Jewish community, its leaders, many of the most involved members and communal organizations repeatedly discuss continuity and inculcating a sense of Jewish identity in the younger generations. To this end many Jewish funding organizations and individual donors require that our mainstream outreach organizations keep track of and present data on engagement – i.e. the number of participants. That the Jewish community keeps an account of the impact of each dollar spent is prudent policy. In a sluggish economy and with an already shrunken pool of engaged Jews from which to solicit funds it is obligatory that the community do so.

Yet the methodology the community uses for this audit is fraught with error. Rather than holistically take in the total sum of previously unengaged participants each organization engages, disqualify certain participants based on prior engagement in similar programs, and create a scalable model to measure said engagement, the community treats each organization as an island unto itself. This leads to several related and serious problems – low hanging fruit, double dipping, and the inability of the Jewish community to accurately track Jewish involvement as well the impact of a particular organization/program.

Approximately 7 years ago the head of a then new international Jewish program told me of his disinterest in starting branches in big cities (such as NYC, LA, Chicago) because as he put it, it was “low hanging fruit”. He continued, “there are tons of Jewish activities already going on in the big cities” for young Jewish adults. Today that organization has many subsidiaries in the same cities it once disavowed. This is not to chastise any organization for opening shop where donors have approached it but it is to suggest that donors, foundations, and federations no longer enable the numbers inflating game that is low hanging fruit. Undoubtedly, participants in these programs find meaning in their involvement with each outreach organizations they are involved in. But if the reason the Jewish community supports outreach organizations is to build Jewish identity and continuity in the unengaged than we must realize that many of these programs are engaging the already engaged.

(The same problem is also found in the Israel activism world. While each Israel activist organizations claims it has trained X amount of activists, the reality is that they have trained less. For the activist on their second {or even third} Israel training trip it is merely a free or low cost trip to Israel. Both in this case and that of mainstream outreach and engagement organizations, efforts by organizations to inflate their numbers by attracting the already engaged is money better spent elsewhere.)

The effort to satisfy the “numbers game”, to meet the unstated but ever present target number of Jewish youth or young adults sought by funders in order to gain additional support has another mal-effect (other than encouraging organizations to go for the “easy pickings”) – Double dipping. “Partnerships” between organizations meant to artificially boost at least one organization’s stats are relatively well recognized in communal circles and unfortunately tolerated. One example is that of the partnership between Birthright Next and Moishe House. For four years Birthright Next has sponsored at least one Shabbat dinner a month at all participating US Moishe House branches and both organizations include those attending in the general number of the target demographic they have engaged. In this all too true example Birthright Next, an organization that has had several revamps since its inception in 2008, is able to pad its engagement numbers with what are essentially already engaged local Moishe House community members.

Finally, because there exists no independent mechanism to verify the number of previously unengaged Jews each outreach and engagement organization claims, nor to scale the level of participant involvement into quantitative terms, the Jewish community has no unbiased data on the efficacy of the different engagement programs. Organizational surveys and testimonials cannot be trusted as they are inherently self-serving. Participants in such marketing tools are not unbiased members of random samples of the target demographic but (sometimes self-) selected stakeholders in their local outreach organizational community. Whether a youth, collegiate, local or national young adult group, respondents have a vested interest in maintaining their low-to-no-cost access to the Shabbat Dinners, holiday celebrations, trips, and community programs they enjoy. While it is understandable for respondents to downplay previous Jewish engagement and exaggerate the effect of their favored organization, it is inexcusable for the community – donors, foundations, and federations to continue to accept what is at best piecemeal and misleading data.

Inculcating a sense of Jewish identity and engaging the unengaged is the current primary goal of the communal Jewish world. The Jewish community, rightfully worried about complete assimilation, has been funding youth movements, Hillels, Moishe Houses, Birthright, Masa and a whole host of local efforts to keep the light of Jewish identity from going out. The Jewish community does itself a disservice and actually stymies its own efforts in this regard by allowing rampant inefficiency, organizational reporting with inherently cooked books, and serious and systemic duplication. The Jewish community can change this and get more bang for each donated dollar, reach more young Jews on a meaningful level, track their engagement, and help them created a relationship in and with the Jewish community if it creates a Jewish outreach and engagement auditing organization.

Participation by the outreach and engagement organizations can be achieved if the major Jewish foundations and the federation world require their in-field beneficiary organizations to do so. Such participation would be multilevel for national Jewish organizations that have local affiliates; and having the data available in an objective and transparent format online will allow individual donors to see where they too can make the most difference. The organization will serve as a non-partisan clearing house for objectively gathered data on the reach, depth, and efficiency of each organization, program and branch evaluated as well as being able to provide an overall picture of the strength and weaknesses of the outreach and engagement field by community, locale, state and region.

The auditing organization will serve best as an independent agency that is sponsored by the Jewish Federations of North America, major Jewish foundations, and by a scaled subscription fee for rated organizations and programs. In this way the organizations will be able to evaluate not only the beneficiary agencies that receive community funding for Jewish outreach and engagement but also the in-house efforts of the JFNA, federations, and foundations.

The conversation that many are having about Jewish continuity and engagement for young Jews is meaningless if it only turns into half measures. Supporting youth groups, Hillel’s, Moishe House, Birthright, Birthright Next, Masa and local efforts and programs can indeed be a worthy and productive use of resources if we realize that throwing money at the problem is not a solution in and of itself. Rather, if we add the missing second half to the youth and young adult engagement field, that of a independent auditor, we can get a clear picture of which programs are actually engaging the unengaged, which serve direct them to greater involvement, and how many young Jews we are actually reaching.

Joshua Einstein is a rabid (but non-totalitarian) secularist Jewish young adult from Hoboken, NJ. He is a conservative Republican and has Hispanic roots. He writes regularly at www.SaveJersey.com.