Whither Community?

by Paula Jacobs

It was a routine e-mail request that rankled me. “A few volunteer slots are still available. I’d like to fill in the gaps on the schedule,” read the blind distribution e-mail sent by the volunteer organization where I have volunteered for years.

I shouldn’t have been taken aback when this perfunctory request popped into my inbox. After all, I have written about technology for years, have conducted business via the Internet for more than two decades, have taught online courses, and have long relied on electronic calendaring and scheduling. My husband calls me an Internet junky.

But coming from a non-profit Jewish organization which prides itself on fostering community, this impersonal e-mail was unsettling. Am I now someone on a mass distribution list who simply “fills in the gaps” on a Google spreadsheet? Is valuing volunteers for their skills now relegated to the pre-digital past? And when Jewish institutions struggle for dollars, is this how we nurture donors and members?

Importantly, what can we infer about the future of human connections? Perhaps, as MIT Professor Sherry Turkle argues in her new book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, technology lowers our expectation for human connection and leads us to treat others as objects.

Hello Technology, Goodbye Touch?

Unquestionably, the Internet is deeply embedded in volunteer group and organizational life in America. We connect to civic and religious organizations via the Web, e-mail, electronic newsletters, and social networking. With a simple click, we stay informed about community events, keep abreast of organizational news, communicate with committee members, express our opinions, and make charitable contributions online.

A new national survey conducted by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project found that 59% of all Americans say that the Internet has had a major impact on the ability of groups to organize activities, while 68% say that the Internet has had a major impact on the ability of groups to communicate with members.

Granted, the Internet saves organizations time and money, providing an efficient way to share routine information. The new media presents unprecedented opportunity for engagement and outreach to the unaffiliated and to reach potential young donors. For instance, the Pew study found that 80% of Internet users participate in groups, while 82% of social network users and 85% of Twitter users are group participants.

What’s particularly disturbing is when non-profits take the easy way out and substitute tools for touch. When technology becomes the goal rather than the means, we lose sight of the big picture. Let’s use technology wisely.

Individual and Community

Our increased reliance on technology is a copout . It’s easier and less time-consuming to e-mail a mass distribution list or post to our 500+ Facebook friends, and we don’t face the risk of personal rejection. But it’s not the way to form deep-seated attachments nor should it be the model for forming human connections.

Years ago, Marshall McLuhan got it right when he wrote, “The Medium is the Message.” Despite the virtues of social networking, it’s difficult to argue that a “get well” posting from a Facebook “friend” conveys the same sense of intimacy as a phone call or visit.

Social networking has its place, and is reality for those in their ‘20s and 30’s. But latching onto the new media as the universal panacea is a misleading, short-sighted path.

Consider why individuals affiliate with religious, civic, and other non-profit organizations. When the organizational mantra is “follow me on Twitter and connect on Facebook,” can we realistically expect long-term donor and volunteer commitment?

If Jewish institutions are to grow their donor and membership base, it’s time to get back to the basics. Instead of focusing organizational debate on new media versus traditional forms of marketing or whether the two can seamlessly co-exist, let’s re-examine our fundamental goals and Jewish values.

At a time when it’s increasingly challenging for Jewish communal organizations to acquire and retain volunteers and donors, a customer-centric approach is essential. Listen to your customer, ask for feedback from your volunteers and donors, and adjust your approach accordingly. Take the time to pick up the telephone to show you care.

Importantly, understand your customer base, segment according to interests and demographics, and act on these insights. Use the right mix of tools, traditional and new communication channels and technologies, and personal marketing strategies to identify and appeal to varying needs. Craft messaging, strategies, and outreach that speak to these audiences. Without understanding customer hot buttons, something as simple as inviting someone to join your Facebook page can backfire and mar your organization’s credibility.

Jewish tradition teaches that every individual is created in the image of the Divine. In an era of iPads, iPods, and iPhones, it is incumbent on communal organizations, synagogues, and educational institutions to value the “I,” the individual customer. By demonstrating a commitment to the Jewish values of individual dignity and self-worth, Jewish non-profits can strengthen community, while securing a leadership position in a highly competitive landscape.

Paula Jacobs is a Massachusetts-based writer and consultant.