Why Jewish Organizations Struggle to Build Their Base

by David Marks

The question of why Jewish organizations struggle to build their base has been sliced, diced, discussed and debated for years. Root causes such as: the loss of Jewish identity, intermarriage, poor corporate management, and apathy about the need to support Jewish institutions have all been studied and examined thoroughly and are real problems to be solved. But often the most simplistic reason why Jewish organizations have a hard time growing their base and keeping them active gets overlooked and forgotten about – it is the way they communicate their core work to their base through their marketing, messaging and branding.

This observation may seem overly simplistic, but have you ever looked around at many Jewish organizations’ websites, brands and marketing materials? Often what comes across is a lack of clarity in what they do, who they do it for and why they do it. This is sad because so many Jewish organizations do wonderful things that deserve support and their management teams have taken major steps and spent major donor dollars, and staff time (sometimes months and years) to devise their mission statements and working visions. Of course this problem is prevalent throughout the non-profit sector too – non-Jewish organizations suffer just as profoundly. You know those cause-oriented people – they just want to do a lot of good all over the place, and often their thoughts are scattered and their focus unclear. This leads to a pool of potential donors and supporters who’d like to help, but may not know how to get involved or why to get excited. Donors want to know their money will do something spectacular and have real results. But for them to open up their wallets or devote time to a cause, they need to easily understand and grasp the big idea and follow its progress so they can feel they are truly making a difference.

So what’s the Big Idea?

The first thing I do when getting to know an organization and trying to understand its mission is put forth a couple of tough questions that will glean out its core goals and its intended impact on history. This can work for you and your career as a professional too. Try it for both. Start by asking yourself, “What is my big audacious goal for this year? And then ask, “In ten, twenty, or even thirty years, what will I (or my organization) be known for accomplishing?” By doing this you are forcing yourself to begin creating a road map for the future. You now have a starting point and an end goal in mind. Now you just need to fill in the steps to get there. (Note: Be sure to write the answers down so you can review them regularly and keep them in your sites every day.) This is the basis for putting together a strategy to achieving those goals.

Strategy + Messaging + Design = Results

Once you have a basic strategy in place, using the formula “Strategy + Messaging + Design = Results“ makes marketing your organization and exciting your base a whole lot easier. Your messaging gets written to articulate your big audacious goals and your brand gets designed around your messaging. Again, this is an oversimplification. It takes tremendous thought and creativity for both of these components. Unfortunately, some non-profits often turn these tasks into a committee and sub-committee fiasco. But if you can steer clear of that mess, keep it simple, and be willing to take some risks, you will be on your way to achieving great things. Of course people and organizations change all the time, so making this an annual or bi-annual exercise is a good way to keep focused while adjusting to changes, prime the momentum pump, update the brand, and most importantly – keep your base engaged.

Keeping it Fresh – A Case Study

Recently I took this approach with a leading Jewish environmental education organization, Teva Learning Center, when I was hired as Co-Director. The first thing I did when interviewing for the job was to ask those key questions. And literally within minutes had elicited the beginning of the organization’s new mission and planted the seeds of a big audacious goal for the future – not to mention landing a new job. We soon began work on updating the mission statement, the corporate brand and website. We changed the name of the organization to Teva Learning Alliance with a bold new mission statement to the world that Teva was staking its flag in the ground “to fundamentally transform Jewish education through experiential learning that fosters Jewish and ecological sustainability.” It was big, it was bold and it was audacious – and guess what … it worked.

The Bottom Line

All this marketing stuff is well and good, but any CEO worth his weight in salt will tell you it comes down to the bottom line no matter what you’re doing – and that means real results. And in the case study of Teva Learning Alliance, following the Strategy + Messaging + Design = Results formula yielded great results. It helped Teva increase its donor base by 37% and helped it raise the highest dollar amount in donations from individuals in its 18 year organizational history. Taking this approach set Teva on a path to attaining its mission to transform Jewish education and protect our world for generations to come. Imagine if every organization got this good at energizing its base. Imagine what could be accomplished. Instead of just imagining we could change the world – maybe we actually could.

David Marks is President of David Marks Creative. With a philosophy of Strategy + Messaging + Design = Results, over the last 15 years, he has helped non-profits and for-profit organizations increase market share, provide mission clarity, raise funds, and achieve corporate goals through highly effective “big-picture” brand marketing and communications.