Why I am Funding Big Data in the Jewish Community

by Simone Friedman Rones

One of my biggest challenges in managing our family’s philanthropy is knowing whether our grants – especially those we give to organizations serving Jewish young adults – are really making a difference. Are the programs we fund truly having an impact on the individual Jews who are participating in them? Are the young adults attending these programs deepening their involvement in the community by participating in other programs as well? And most importantly, are the programs we fund empowering young adults to move from being passive consumers of Jewish programming to becoming active participants in creating their own Jewish experiences? Unfortunately, the Jewish community suffers from a leaky pipeline problem as individuals move between organizations or disappear from an organization altogether as their interests, needs, life stage, geography, or friends change. One of the big new trends in philanthropy, being played out in education, healthcare, and socialservices is called Collective Impact which includes the cooperation of organizations serving the same population, and, critically, the integration of data systems across organizations to ensure an individual is being served effectively over time. Some call this “big data” in philanthropy, and in the Jewish community, there is a collective platform called GrapeVine which has already started to be rolled out in several cities across the country. From my perspective, GrapeVine presents the only comprehensive way to answer my questions as a philanthropist – at the level of the individual Jewish young adult (as opposed to a population average).

GrapeVine works by building online profiles for Jewish individuals, and with permission, connects with those individual’s social media presence to keep track of the programs he or she attends. GrapeVine then analyzes that data and provides content and program recommendations which correspond with that person’s preferences. Because GrapeVine is doing this for over a hundred thousand individuals, Jewish communities have the ability to do something they have never done before, which is develop a comprehensive picture of the Jewish journeys of young adults. Several forward-thinking Jewish communities have begun to recognize the value of this service and have committed resources to funding its rollout.

Our funding will be directed toward the use of GrapeVine in the Los Angeles area, which will be part of the “NuRoots” initiative. This initiative, stewarded by the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, will help young adults with no formal ties to the Jewish community connect with Jewish values and engage with their peers. The program will have geographic hubs in three areas within LA, and will tie together programming from local organizations already working with young adults in innovative ways. Most importantly, NuRoots will hire rabbis and community professionals to serve as on-the-ground concierges who will connect young adults to meaningful Jewish experiences. By integrating GrapeVine, NuRoots will be able to track the interactions that rabbis and community professionals have with young adults, and then continue tracking the programs and experiences that these young adults have within the community. By connecting to social media, GrapeVine will also be a source of lead generation for the concierges and for the program partners that are part of the initiative.

Critics of big data and GrapeVine have claimed that because the quantity of data is limited compared to quantity of data generated by Netflix or Google, the use of big data in the Jewish community is somehow misguided. My response to this is that we need to start somewhere. If as a community we expect to engage a new generation of Jewish young adults, we are going to need to have a lot more information about what makes each individual person tick. We cannot rely on anecdotal evidence, nor can we necessarily rely on studies of the Jewish community that interview just a small sample of the population because they occur too infrequently (every 10-15 years in most communities) to create a continuous feedback loop for our community. Our sample size needs to include everyone that we engage through our funded programs (which is many more Jews than we often realize), and big data techniques allow us to do that.

No one is under any illusion that GrapeVine is a panacea that will singlehandedly solve the challenges facing our community. What is clear, however is that GrapeVine has real potential to help us reach people in ways we have never been able to before and to develop programs that are aligned with their true interests. Could it fail? Absolutely. Given the stakes we are playing with and early indications of the system’s abilities, funding Grapevine is a risk that I believe is well worth taking and I encourage others to join me as well.

Simone Friedman Rones is the Executive Director of Emanuel J. Friedman Philanthropies. The opinions expressed are her own.