The post-pandemic pivot to relationship building

In Short

The impact of using smart tech is too big to leave to the IT department alone. Leaders in the boardroom, the C-suite and on staff need to lean into what smart tech is and what it does.

Purim is one of the most joyous times in the Jewish calendar. A spiel or carnival or masquerade ball bring people together to celebrate, cheer, jeer and, of course, eat hamantaschen. This year, like the previous two, we are likely celebrating Purim largely online. In the same way we continue to have services, religious school, b’nei mitzvah classes, fundraisers and board meetings by Zoom. Someday, hopefully soon, the pandemic will be behind us, and our doors will once again be open for events, meetings, services and classes. The big question is: will our people come back? Or maybe the question should be: why should our people come back?   

Having physical places to gather is fundamental to who we are as people. Our strength comes from our connections to one another. And yet, for many years, Jewish membership organizations have primarily focused on responding to individual requests as quickly as possible. This hub-and-spoke organizational model values transactions over community building. If you work for a communal organization, or sit on the board of one, and doubt this, just look at how time is spent. You might not want this to be true, but the math won’t lie. The structures, processes and cultures of communal organizations have created alliances of acquaintances.  

Even before the pandemic, membership in Jewish organizations was falling precipitously. The pandemic intensified this problem. Membership crises have cascading effects. Membership falls, revenue drops, programs are slashed. The remaining staffers are constantly responding to fire alarms, jumping from meeting to meeting, and batting back emails. Staffers end their days feeling more overwhelmed, playing a daily game of email whack-a-mole, and realizing that they haven’t even started on mission-critical tasks. This toxic combination creates staff burnout, and leaves members and clients and donors and volunteers feeling like faceless cogs in the machinery of institutional life.

Jewish communal organizations are not alone in this struggle. Membership in all American religious institutions precipitously declined this century. Over two-thirds of workers believe the pandemic has worsened burnout.   

In our new book, The Smart Nonprofit, we present a solution to these problems.  We coined the phrase, “smart tech,” to describe the universe of technologies like Artificial Intelligence (AI) and its subsets and cousins such as machine learning and natural language processes, that make decisions for and instead of people.  

Before you throw up your hands in disgust at the idea of more tech promising to make life better, this is not the digital tech you have known. Social media created cacophonies of complaints, outrage and noise. The commercial platforms like Facebook manipulated our attention and stole our data. Smart tech can change organizational life for the better, if it is used strategically and ethically.

The most likely places you have bumped into smart tech are voice-activated systems like Alexa and online chat bots. But that’s just the beginning of its use. The organizational use of smart tech is going to skyrocket over the next several years. It will screen resumes, answer rote questions from members or congregants (e.g. “what time do you open?” “is my donation tax-deductible?”) automatically update budgets, organize meetings, find information in organizational archives, screen clients for services. 

Ultimately, it has the potential to save staff the 30% of time currently spent on rote, administrative tasks. We call this result the “dividend of time,” meaning newly freed time staff can use on relationship building  and connect community members to one another. It can be used to share stories and solve problems together. Or it can be used to just spend time together without an agenda, without asking for donations, without thinking about our growing to-do lists.

Imagine what a holiday like Purim could be like if staff had the time to reach out to less involved members individually and invite them to participate, and share stories of Purim for their own childhoods, and connect members to one another for pre-spiel dinners.   

Using technology that substitutes for human decisions and experience is an awesome responsibility. If used poorly, there is a real danger of organizations using smart tech to become even more transactional, only with fewer staff. The dividend of time will not just happen, it needs to be created. To do this, organizational leaders must focus on being:

  • Human-centered. This means finding the sweet spot between people and smart tech, while ensuring that people are always in charge of the technology.
  • Prepared: These leaders must actively reduce bias embedded in smart tech code and systems. A thoughtful, participatory process is required to select values-aligned systems, vendors, and consultants.
  • Knowledgeable and Reflective:  The impact of using smart tech is too big to leave to the IT department alone. Leaders in the boardroom, the C-suite and on staff need to lean into what smart tech is and what it does. Once automated systems are in place, leaders need to be vigilant about whether the technology is performing as intended, or whether unintended consequences have arisen, and how clients and end users ultimately feel about the systems.

Smart tech to remake organizational life in ways that align better with our Jewish values. Let’s lean into this next chapter of life and work together and create the world we want to live in.

Allison Fine is among the nation’s pre-eminent writers and strategists on the use of technology for social good. 

Beth Kanter is an internationally recognized thought leader in digital transformation and wellbeing in the nonprofit workplace. She is the co-author of the Happy Healthy Nonprofit and The Smart Nonprofit with Allison Fine.