We Have Proven Good at Talking the Talk. Now it’s Time to Walk the Walk.

We are fond of using timeless quotes at conferences and gatherings talking about the importance of change … Yet, our basic playbook is the same today as it was 15 years ago. How we do business hasn’t changed.

by Keith Greenwald

The Pew study is not “breaking news.” It is the latest in a long series of studies, reports, white papers and conversations to highlight these trends. Declining donor numbers in both absolute terms and as a percentage of the community population was an established issue when I first got involved over 15 years ago. Assimilation, intermarriage, generational values, etc etc were the known challenges (I could say excuses) back then and still seem to be today.

As I read the commentary and opinions on the Pew study two main questions jump to mind:

  1. Why is the proverbial finger consistently pointed outward, seemingly blaming the “next” generation and not inward at the organization?
  2. Does this finally end the debate of whether or not our current operations are yielding the desired results so we can stop having “conversations” and start doing?

If you are reading this article then you are likely plugged in enough that you already know that the needs of our community are greater than they ever have been. We are dealing with a double-sided problem: on one side, funding cuts associated with inflation abroad has reduced the buying power of our gifts tremendously while, at the same time, the economic crisis has increased the number of people dependent on our help.

In order to be effective (which in our world ultimately means raising money collectively), we have to be relevant. In order to be relevant we have to meet the community where it is at. The 70 years since the Holocaust, the birth and success of Israel and our general progress combating anti-semitism and BDS in North America have also removed a huge part of the narrative that our fund raising and community building operations were built upon. That narrative created a false sense of organizational security and has led to complacency.

Technology, which holds great promise for us, is also enabling more and more access to micro funding and donor designation. The challenges from the Arab spring on Israel’s borders, rising anti-Semitism in Europe and the existential threat from Iran are not, at this point, uniting the Jewish world. This is our competitive landscape and reality.

The world is different. People are different. Unless we are satisfied with our current results and trends, we need to accept it and move forward.

The goal is a strong, healthy community. Period. Without the qualifying, implied “the way it once was.”

We have a huge job to do. To do it we have to broaden and deepen the base. We can’t continue to expect the community to come to us. And, when they don’t come and/or don’t give, assume it is their fault, instead of ours, and then go back to the same (shrinking) base for more.

The solution is not yet another series of round tables talking about grand plans but with no details on specific next steps and no follow through. In fact, bringing groups together to talk about the challenges and then doing nothing does more harm than just continuing to do things the same way.

We know what the feedback is at this point. We are fond of using timeless quotes at conferences and gatherings talking about the importance of change, the definition of insanity, etc. Yet, our basic playbook is the same today as it was 15 years ago. How we do business hasn’t changed.

Why should we expect different results?

We need defined and measurable goals tied to an overall plan. And there needs to be accountability.

In that vein are three ideas that would change how we do business:

  1. Set specific fundraising goals based on where we are going, not where we have been. The goals should be based on needs, not on last year’s results. And have goals for next year, three years from now and five years. We have to be able to plan ahead. How many spaces at camp do we want to fill and how many meals do we need to supply should be driving our goal setting, not just declaring 10% over last year.
  2. Be transparent with budgets and results. For example, relative to the GA: what was the goal for attendance, what is the actual registration number, what is the real breakdown of that between lay and pro, Israeli and North American, paid vs. guest? How many registered for the entire conference vs. just for a day or as part of a mission? And of course, the bottom line – how much did it cost and how much did it raise? These numbers can be shared today and it will start to change our culture immediately.
  3. Missions – Anyone who has been on a mission knows they are life altering experiences. We should be thrilled to expose more people to the work we do and stop telling them “no, only if you do it my way.” We should have, and promote, interfaith missions. Missions should be able to be kosher or kosher style. They should be affordable. And not because we need subsidies to offset costs but because they were built with a realistic budget. Site visits shouldn’t be obligatory – itineraries should be based on the goals of the mission and participants, not on agencies.

Most importantly, no more deflecting criticism and defending the status quo. Let’s stop blaming the messenger. We need to have the confidence to listen to the message. Let’s own it and respond to it. The Pew study highlights the stark reality we face. Our community is changing with the world around us. Our organizations have to adapt their operations to this new reality.

We have proven good at talking the talk. Now it’s time to walk the walk.

Let’s #makeithappen!

Keith Greenwald is the immediate past co-chair of National Young Leadership for JFNA