Understanding the Jewish nonprofit world, both before and after Oct. 7

The era that began on Oct. 7 has been nothing short of a trauma for Jews everywhere, and the Jewish nonprofit sector in North America has experienced profound challenges and changes in the past two months. 

As Barry Finestone highlighted in EJP a few weeks ago, our field needs a “yes, and” approach to supporting the urgent needs in Israel while also doubling down on the amazing work Jewish nonprofits do here in the Diaspora. To this end, Leading Edge is offering tools for gaining insight into the Jewish nonprofit sector’s recent past and unfolding present.

Leading Edge’s The State of the Jewish Workplace 2023 uses the largest dataset of its kind in the Jewish non-profit world. The report is based on data from 304 CEOs and 18,212 employees from 327 organizations, all collected in May 2023. It answers questions like: What keeps employees engaged and motivated so that they will perform better? How are CEOs relating to employees and their boards, with the same goal in mind? How are boards performing? How inclusive and equitable are our organizations?

Additionally, Leading Edge is offering a special edition Pulse Survey to help Jewish nonprofit organizations understand how their teams are doing now. Pulse Surveys are short, customizable surveys that individual organizations can administer to their team on the Culture Amp platform (the same platform used for Leading Edge’s annual Employee Experience Survey), and Leading Edge provides guidance and support for administering the survey. 

On so many levels — personal, professional, communal and more — we are in the midst of a difficult moment. Checking in with your team during times of significant emotional stress and rapid change can help you meet your employees’ needs so both you and they are empowered to focus on the important work you’re doing together.

A look back

Because it is based on data collected months before Oct. 7, The State of the Jewish Workplace 2023 is, in a way, a dispatch from another world. At the same time, understanding that world  — the starting place for our field when we entered this crisis — is deeply valuable for understanding where we’re going from here and what we will need moving forward.

Here are five key insights from the report that are directly relevant to the Jewish nonprofit field today:

#1: We need to shore up our physical security 

Back in May, 1 out of every 7 in-person employees (14%) said that they did not feel prepared to act in the event of a physical security threat. That was before the recent upsurge in antisemitism: recent polls suggest that 70% of American Jews feel less safe now than they did before Oct. 7 — and that does not account for all individuals who walk into a building with the word “Jewish” on it. This sense of insecurity can affect non-Jewish employees as well..

#2: Managers need support

Many Jewish nonprofits have been working in overdrive mode since Oct. 7, but managers were feeling squeezed even back in May. When asked about their workloads, getting support from systems and processes, having enough resources to do the work, and having enough people to do the job, managers were less likely than either top executives or individual contributors (i.e., employees with no direct reports) to report favorable responses. At this time of acute crisis, leaders should, of course, support their entire teams; but they should make a special effort to bolster managers.

#3: We’re on the edge of a well being and burnout crisis. 

Since Oct. 7, we’ve heard from leaders in the field that mental health and well-being have emerged as major problems for their teams. This is an escalation of a preexisting condition: the legacy of COVID. In May, 66% of the employees we surveyed said that employee well-being was a priority at their organizations. That’s 13 percentage points below the Culture Amp benchmark, meaning that well being is an area in which the average Jewish nonprofit is worse than the average American employer. This is a particularly unfortunate area to be lagging in, since our analysis also shows that this question about well-being as a company priority is one of the strongest “engagement drivers” — something that contributes strongly to how likely employees are to be proud, motivated and want to stay and do their best work.

#4: Belonging is key to performance, and divisions over Israel may be changing what that means. 

According to Culture Amp — a people analytics company and our survey partner — belonging is when you feel safe, supported, accepted, included, and truly a part of where you are. Our data, which is confirmed by Culture Amp industry findings, shows that an employee’s sense of belonging is vital to better performance at work. When people feel like they belong, they are both more likely to do their best work and more likely to want to stay at the organization. 

We’ve seen this finding over multiple years, and we believe it is evergreen. Since Oct. 7, however, we have heard that some teams are experiencing new belonging concerns related to employees’ diverse personal reactions to the situation in Israel and to their organizations’ official stances. Navigating tensions around this has become a pain point for leaders. Our data on the importance of belonging shows that this work, while sensitive and difficult, is critical to employee engagement and retention.

#5: Leaders: Communicate early, often and better. 

According to our data, the most important driver of employee engagement (motivation and, by extension, performance) is confidence in the organization’s leadership. Our data also shows that improving confidence in leadership is closely linked to communication. Leaders can help by establishing regular, two-way structures for engaging with employees, pathways for discussing what they need and what they need to know during these fraught times.

The points above are just a sample of the findings. Read the whole report to learn about timely and timeless issues that our field needs to understand if we want to become the most effective version of ourselves.     

As it was with COVID, so it is now: a crisis can bring out our best and our worst. For the world of Jewish nonprofits, I am hopeful that we can meet this moment, take care of ourselves and each other in pursuing our missions and ultimately support Israel and the global Jewish community far into the future — with the help of our past.

Gali Cooks is president and CEO of Leading Edge, which works to which works to foster a healthy, adaptive and high-performing Jewish nonprofit sector.