What Hillel Learned from Investing in Talent

Photo courtesy Hillel International

By Mimi Kravetz

Four years ago this week, I began my role as the first Chief Talent Officer at Hillel International by visiting Hillel Institute, our onboarding program for new Hillel professionals. There, I kicked off a listening tour of Hillel professionals that allowed me to listen to a diverse set of professionals.

In these conversations, I began by articulating Hillel’s talent philosophy: The best way to enrich the lives of every Jewish student is to attract the right professionals to work for Hillel, and give them the training and support they need to be successful. Then, I asked these professionals how we were doing and what we needed to change to achieve our goal. 

While we already had outstanding people working in our field who were deeply committed to the mission, the depth and range of challenges I heard about in the talent/HR space was overwhelming. Many felt underappreciated, underpaid and overworked. Some lacked time and training to properly supervise their employees or to invest in their own career development. Others struggled to hire the people they wanted, and once they did, many of those hires turned over so quickly, it was difficult to justify investment in their education and growth.  

I began wondering if the task I’d taken on in leaving the corporate world and joining Hillel was achievable. But I was so excited about Hillel’s mission and the people committed to it, I had to try.  

Our Talent Team laid out a strategy and a set of programs for making sustained cultural change with the goals of attracting top talent to Hillel and the Jewish world, increasing their opportunities for learning and growth, improving individuals’ experiences in the workplace and reducing attrition. All of this was in service of improving student engagement in Jewish life.

In the last four years, for example, we have:

  • Supported 200 executive, new grad and educator searches per year with separate recruitment strategies
  • Launched the Springboard Fellowship, a two-year “Jewish Teach for America” fellowship 
  • Built out HR best practices tools, such as goal setting, performance management and job descriptions
  • Moved from a professional development model that supported a few ambitious high-potential employees to one where everyprofessional is offered best-in-class training through Hillel’s integrated professional education program, Hillel U.
  • Launched Dwell, a weeklong Jewish learning summer camp for our professionals, inspiring them while giving them Jewish education to bring back to students 
  • Invested grants in the salaries, benefits, convening and training of Hillel professionals across North America

Since 2015, we have seen encouraging results:

  • Employee turnover has dropped by half, from 52% to 27%
  • Employee engagement is up by 10% to 81%, and we exceed the Leading Edge Survey sector-wide benchmarks in almost every category 
  • Salaries have risen year over year in line with our new transparent compensation process and benchmarks
  • The internal hire rate has doubled from under 30% to 60% as we fill more positions with people at Hillel ready for career moves
  • We see more qualified applicants for each job posting
  • Candidates say they want to work at Hillel because we invest in our professionals
  • Employees report staying thanks to the opportunities for career growth

My team and I are often asked whether our success can be replicated by other Jewish organizations. The answer is yes, but the change we’ve seen is not the result of any one program or curriculum. Rather, it’s the result of a shared commitment at all levels of the organization to make talent a priority and to invest serious time and money toward that commitment.  

Six takeaways from our experience, for those looking to invest in talent in their own organizations:

  • Commit – Making cultural change relies on messages delivered consistently by top organizational leadership. The fact that our CEO, board members and executive directors resonated with and repeated the message that “talent is our most important investment,” has made a difference in our professionals internalizing and delivering on this commitment.  
  • Measure – The Hillel movement has goals around breadth and depth of student engagement, as well as talent-specific metrics such as around internal movement and retention. These allow us to make better decisions on our talent programs and services, such as who we hire, what we train on, how we guide campuses on goal-setting and performance management, and where we invest dollars. With data informing our decisions, we take calculated risks – scaling impactful programs while discontinuing others.
  • Go all in – While conventional wisdom and a scarcity of resources make nonprofits select one or two employee programs or populations to focus on, in fact, you need to do a lot of things at once to achieve results. We ensured we were hiring the right early career talent and simultaneously that all supervisors were trained and had the tools to support their teams. We attracted talented directors through improved searches and provided greater support and compensation packages to close these searches and retain these new hires. We also invested in professional development programs, not only to grow select high potentials but also to equip every professional with the skills and education to be inspired and excel in their work.  
  • Back with dollars – It’s hard to prioritize talent investments when you’re inclined to focus only on interventions that directly impact your end product. But your end product in a service business relies on the people providing it. At Hillel, people don’t come to Shabbat for the chicken, they come for the welcoming experience. Choose to allocate dollars to get the right people in your organization who will create the awesome experiences. Businesses have long understood the importance of investing in talent, and we are lucky that many philanthropists today also understand this need and are willing to invest in our people. We need to make dollars for professionals a priority in our budgets and include it in our asks to funders. There are many resources to help make this case.
  • Rely on experts – I’m grateful that Hillel made the decision to hire a Chief Talent Officer, a move that recognized the importance of this work. Coming into the role from the corporate world, I didn’t have experience in each area of talent. Instead, I hired the right experts onto my team, and we often bring in experts to consult on new technology or serve as educators. Many organizations hire subject-matter experts in other areas and should do so for HR, too. 
  • Act globally and locally – While centralized, systemic change is critical within large organizations, people respond most to their local day-to-day experience. Any talent strategy must recognize and support the important local components, like team building, individual onboarding and skillful direct supervision.

I realize this sounds like a lot!  In short, begin by stating this as a priority. Lay out the areas you need to invest in long-term to achieve impact. See what financial, in-kind and human resources you have or could put aside to increase investment in talent. Then, get started with the broadest inventions first, as they have the most potential to drive cultural change. 

These issues are ripe in our sector, and now is the time to start. 

Mimi Kravetz, Hillel International’s first Chief Talent Officer, was formerly an executive in employment branding at Google.