A Small Nonprofit’s Journey from Startup to Sustainable
Part 3: Strategic Planning
By Esther Mendlowitz
Few things propel a company into strategic planning like a global market shift. To survive and succeed in the new digital era, businesses around the world and across all industries are working hard to reinvent themselves.
While digital transformation is a daunting prospect for many organizations, it actually intrigued us at Jerusalem U. As a film and media company, we realized that our primary products had the potential to scale into the hundreds of thousands of users if we just had a strategy that leveraged the digital landscape.
But succeeding in a major strategic shift doesn’t start and end with an adaptable product. There are other business pillars to pivot – some of them daunting indeed.
Internally, there’s culture, communication and structures to consider. Externally, there are customers and donors to bring along. No matter where we looked, there were real challenges. Pulling off a strategic pivot would be a long-term commitment – but one we were confident would yield unprecedented results.
Thanks to having put in place the cultural scaffolding I described in part 2 of this series, we had the space we needed to re-enter a rigorous strategic planning process and honestly assess whether we were making the large-scale impact we had been seeking since our founding nine years earlier.
Our previous strategic planning process had resulted in creating an innovative film-based education product for teachers called “Step Up for Israel” and a feature-film screening strategy that built our brand in the Jewish establishment. These strategies centered primarily around an offline B2B model in which the bulk of our customers were Jewish communities and school administrators, rather than our primary audiences of Jewish students and teachers. Five years in, we had to ask ourselves how successful we were at reaching the students we sought to impact and in meeting the needs of the educators who teach them. Our current strategy was groundbreaking and highly successful, but under scrutiny it wasn’t making the large-scale impact we knew was possible.
If we were to more effectively reach and impact Jewish high school and college students, it was time to get to know them better. Our research corroborated the market trends, which show that teens and young adults of all backgrounds spend an average of 4 to 9 hours a day consuming digital media. YouTube and Instagram are their platforms of choice, with Netflix among the top favorites and Facebook falling out of favor. Their content choices vary widely, according to their personalities and interests. The research revealed that to engage and impact young Jews, it would require a variety of content delivered on multiple platforms. And to meet the needs of their teachers, we’d need a new delivery platform and content that worked for them as well.
Bolstered by a new ambidextrous culture that was growing stronger by the day, and fueled by a global market that wasn’t waiting around for us to catch up to it, we decided it was time to create scalable digital strategies.
Making Choices: The Secret to Strategy
Given our understanding of where we sat on the business life-cycle continuum, we sought a strategic planning process that combined the aspirational thinking of the blue sky approaches with the rigorous analytics of the more conventional approaches. We found what we were looking for in a process called “Playing to Win,” created by A.G. Lafley, former CEO of Proctor & Gamble.
In his book Playing to Win: How Strategy Really Works, Lafley defines strategy as “a set of choices that enable an organization to win with its customers and against its competition.” The framework is built around five questions that comprise an “integrated cascade of choices”:
- What is our winning aspiration?
- Where will we play?
- How will we win?
- What capabilities must be in place?
- What management systems are required?
“Choice” is the optimum word here, and a fair warning to Go-Go organizations that have a hard time saying no: Coming up with the strategic choices is the easy part; choosing which ones to let go of is a whole different story.
The real choice-making happens in steps 2 and 3; in step 1, the work is to dream big and define your “winning aspiration.” Lafley describes aspirations as the guiding purpose of your organization – your dreams and vision, what gives you meaning and defines success. At this stage, the work is “to connect to a deeper idea of what the organization exists to do.”
Guided by a 9-year-old mission statement, we thought this exercise would be easy. But Lafley’s “Winning Aspiration Do’s and Don’ts” forced us to think differently, starting with our consumers’ wants and needs, and thinking in terms of winning. We ended up with a few variations of our winning aspiration, which we’ve refined over time.
Overall, we spent two months going through the full “Playing to Win” process, which resulted in roadmaps for digital strategies to reach both students and teachers. It would require adding new technologies, skill sets and team structures, and walking away from activities – and in some cases, the people who performed those activities–that would not be successful with the new strategy. Essentially, reaching our consumers digitally meant having less need for an on-the-ground sales force tasked with creating distribution partnerships.
Despite our preparation, focus and commitment to winning, making the tough choices was downright painful – so much so that we put off making some of them for much longer than we should have. It has been a challenging time for our staff, who have struggled with the lack of clarity and insecurity that marks a change process. We regret not having the foresight of Ichak Adizes, who cautions, “By postponing the pain of restructuring, the organization suffers years of prolonged anguish.”
In such a time, the only course of action is to learn from the mistakes and continue on toward the goal. Just as the management books preach, leading an organization through a time of transformation takes continuous hard work. We’re making greater efforts to over-communicate with transparency and build greater trust among our team to surmount the inherent challenges in the process and realize our vision together.
Once we had our strategic roadmap in hand, we got to work gaining the capabilities we needed to execute our digital transformation. To build and market strong digital products, we added resources to our web and marketing teams, hiring an experienced full-stack developer and a digital marketing pro to lead those teams, respectively, and priming one of our marketing associates to become a YouTube guru.
We also pivoted one of our successful on-the-ground staff who was executing the old strategy into the broadcast distribution space, where she’s becoming expert in the media industry–a rapidly changing landscape, where digital distribution platforms like Amazon Prime and Netflix are creating greater choice in what people watch and where they watch it.
Being able to make decisions based on real-time data is a major benefit of digital transformation. We hired a data analyst with proficiency in a wide array of data mining and visualization tools, who works across multiple departments and brings real-time insights into our work that were never before possible.
With education at the core of our mission, we’ve spent much time strengthening and integrating our education team, recently hiring a senior vice president of education to develop the vision of our education and to execute our digital strategy with educators.
We’ve also worked hard to rebuild our executive leadership team after losing our former president. At the very start of strategic planning, we were blessed to have hired a new president, who helped drive the process and has championed our new strategy both with our team and among our funders and partners. Helping tie all the pieces together is our new chief strategist, who leads us through continual strategic thinking and product development.
Experimenting and Seeing Results
With our new capabilities in place, this year we began our first-ever fully digital distribution strategy for our current feature film, When the Smoke Clears, using Instagram, Facebook and YouTube. The results have been astounding. In one day, our “High School Global Screening Day” reached over 10,600 high school students around the world – reaching over 1,000 more viewers than we reached over a 2-year period with our previous film Mekonen, and over a third of the views we’ve totalled over a 3-year period with our film Beneath the Helmet.
All this in just one day.
With our second digital campaign, over 2,400 college-aged students watched When the Smoke Clears in a two-week period. It took us a year and a half to reach this number with Beneath the Helmet.
This is just the starting point. The more we experiment with content and platforms, and the smoother our new processes become, the greater our reach will scale – and with better use of resources. Our college campaign alone proved that we can get to our target audience directly in their dorm rooms, and in higher numbers, without the need for staff pounding pavement at campuses around the country. We can now invest more resources into content creation and digital distribution – our primary scalable activities.
Playing to Win
Our digital transformation has been challenging and sometimes painful. But with our commitment to our deep values and mission to create a generation of young Jews connected to their Jewish identity and to Israel, the work is proving both doable and rewarding – we anticipate beyond our aspirational dreams.
In the next and final installment of this series, I’ll cover the management systems that are making it possible to execute our strategy.
Esther Mendlowitz is COO of Jerusalem U, a digital media company that connects young Jews to Israel and Judaism through media and film. Before joining Jerusalem U, Esther spent 12 years in the magazine publishing industry, serving as Editor-in-Chief of several national industry magazines and peer-reviewed journals, as well as editor of a dozen books on Jewish subjects. She led business development, strategic partnerships and editorial direction of her various publications, representing each title in national and international spheres. After moving to Israel, she served as a teacher of Jewish Studies and school administrator. Esther holds a BA in English and Education from the University of Florida.