Mega Jewish Nonprofits in the Digital Sphere
Mega Jewish non-profits could be safely compared to aircraft carriers: big, powerful, and slow to turn. This is never more evident than in their journey into the emerging digital world that is changing the face of our Jewish communities. Sites like Myspace, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Digg have created a whole new set of tools to engage and cultivate donors, volunteers, and leaders alike. So how are the juggernauts of the Jewish world using these tools, and what could they do better? We put these questions and more to both insiders and outsiders working to change the way our Federations, synagogues, and other mega Jewish non-profits use tools that could be game-changers in the world of Jewish social change.
Where are the mega Jewish nonprofits with their work in the digital sphere today?
Adam: The Jewish Federations of North America and many other larger Jewish nonprofits are now trailblazers in many areas where we were previously followers. As one recent example, the Jewish Community Heroes program — led by the Jewish Federations in partnership with an impressive roster of the largest Jewish nonprofits — pulled in nearly 600,000 online votes, using better tools and tactics than CNN and other competitors in that sphere. Many Jewish organizations are launching outreach and fundraising efforts on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter that are at least as tech-savvy as their counterparts at other nonprofits.
Lisa: Today the technology, strategies and culture are evolving so quickly, that staying nimble is the name of the game. This will continue to be the rule for the next decade(s). Because of larger staffs to coordinate, more involved legal departments and the need for policies to govern communications and behavior, larger organizations are inherently less nimble when it comes to social media, which is their greatest challenge.
Josh: I think that they are now more firmly aware of the potential benefits of using emerging Web tools (blogs, Twitter, Facebook) but they are having a hard time measuring success in a way that can lead to benefactor buy in.
Combined Jewish Philanthropies, the Jewish federation in Boston, just launched JewishBoston.com, an innovative site that aims to house a comprehensive list of events and organizations in the area. The site is the result of more than a year's worth of work to solve a problem that many Jewish communities face: there is often no single place where people can go to find all of the events taking place in the local Jewish community.
JewishBoston.com is also integrating with Facebook and using a variety of social-networking tools to make it easier for organizations to promote and manage their events calendar. In addition, the site uses an integrated payment platform (through Amazon) to make it easier for organizations to allow people to pay for events online in a way that protects participants' credit-card information and allows people to store their information, so they don't have to enter their addresses and payment information each time they register for events. The response from organizations and members of the community has been overwhelmingly positive and enthusiastic.
(Note: I am a member of the volunteer committee which helped create JewishBoston.com.)
Ariel: Today YLD (Young Leadership Division) is all over the online sphere. We communicate with our donors regularly via Twitter, Facebook, personal e-mails, target e-mails and mass e-mails. We also occasionally spotlight some of our major events on Metromix and RedEye. We are also reorganizing our Web site to better promote the YLD brand and engage our members. We are hoping that this will help us communicate with our donors on a regular basis, without relying solely on events.
Talia: As it stands, my personal experience is that mega-Jewish nonprofits are where mega-forprofits were five years ago: Building their presence, starting to figure out what works, and following the lead of social-media pioneers.
Eric: Most agencies at least know that online outreach could provide them with the tools to communicate in very unique, targeted ways. But the vast majority doesn’t even know where to start, and the stakeholders within the organizations who have the know-how are generally not given their due. Most of them have to fight to get any resources at all to engage in social media.
Esther: Today's Jewish organizations are a bit more tech-savvy than they used to be, but that isn't always enough. There's still a sense of skepticism or fear of the technology, or of change, or of innovation. Many Jewish professionals also perceive that increased online visibility means a loss of privacy or creates a level of transparency they're not ready for, which, combined with people who claim that they "just don't get technology," creates great obstacles to embracing change.
What is your vision for the ideal Jewish organizational use of technology?
Adam: There's still a lot of room to grow. One place where I'd like to see large Jewish organizations play a leading role is in using technological infrastructures to seamlessly connect Jews around the world, enabling and fostering important conversations that matter to our community.
We should be linking together many of the new efforts that are pushing out in all directions so that success in one initiative feeds success in others, and ensuring that innovation is sustained and shared. We should be faster to agree to collaborate, both with other large agencies, and with some of the clever and impassioned new groups that are springing up both within and outside the many Jewish-idea incubators.
Lisa: Jewish organizations should be where their constituents are. It is no longer reasonable to expect, in general, that our participants, donors and volunteers will come to us. Thus, organizations need to stay on top of the evolving landscape of new tools and uses of those tools, and continually listen to the field to know where the people are and how they are making decisions and allocating their time, attention and dollars.
Josh: My vision is that organizations will identify and connect with people who are interested in and/or share each group's ideals and missions using social networking. I also hope that organizations will do a better job of using online tools to engage with donors.
Ariel: I believe that online technology can help Jewish organizations build relationships and communicate with members. Blogs, messaging, Facebook and Twitter are all useful tools to encourage dialogue and engage members. We are responsible for building the Jewish community and we continually need to examine best practices. The online community is very large and as leaders in the Jewish community we need to figure out how we can reach out to and add value to our demographic through technology. I am continually trying to figure out what is valuable to our members so we can best respond to their requests.
Talia: There should be no visible difference between Jewish nonprofits and any other for-profit organization. Innovative ideas cross all boundaries.
Eric: They should be embracing social-media outreach tools, while maintaining the use of the traditional processes that still work. They should use every method at their disposal to create a constellation of outreach experiences for their audiences. Of course, they need to stop and take the time to find out where those audiences are gathering, what their constituencies want and need, take stock of their value propositions for each audience segment, and then map out a set of strategies and a sustainable outreach plan. Jumping into Twitter won't make your organization more effective. Putting up a Facebook page or starting a blog won't increase donations or build word of mouth. My vision is for Jewish organizations to do the initial legwork and research first, then develop strategies and plans with clear roles, expectations and desired results — and, finally, to commit to those plans and act on them.
Esther: Especially in times when every dollar is precious, social media presents a real opportunity for Jewish nonprofit organizations to gain insight into their client base as never before. By listening to customers' perceptions - uncensored and in real-time via social media - they have a chance to increase their reach and better serve the audiences that rely on them. Every Jewish organization should hire a social media consultant to advise them on their options, to arm them with social media tools, and provide them the context to understand how to use them. For some organizations, this may include hiring a full-time social media person for a specific period of time. In other organizations, once the staff knows how to use the tools, everyone can pitch in a little, or a team member can be designated to send out a few Tweets a week. But what's most important is that since there's a learning curve for people who aren't used to technology, they should know two things: 1) they don't have to learn alone, and 2) the benefits are worth the struggle, expense and effort.
What can young leaders do to make the process of adapting digital techniques move faster?
Adam: The agencies need to do a much better job of opening the doors to the decision-making areas of their organizations, both among professional staff and lay leadership. And young Jews who want to play a leading role need to do a better job of pushing through the doors if they're not opening quickly enough. I'd also like to see many more joint efforts between established Jewish agencies and some of the worthy new ones like PresenTense. Some teamwork along these lines is already underway, but there's too often an instinct for nonprofits big and small to go it alone. Collaborating can move technology forward faster.
Lisa: First, share your stories with other staff. Some leaders are holding “Facebook Fridays” —a brown bag lunch in the conference room where the young staff are tutoring the senior staff on their personal uses and decision making, or other organizations they’ve connected with through social media which can be models or case studies to learn from. Second, be smart about your own use of these tools so you are a good model and you can offer transparency (to whatever degree) to your colleagues. Third, learn how to translate your personal use of social media into strategic uses for your organization. Be able to articulate how and why you should be doing X, Y or Z, and the benefit it will provide — this will help make the case for more adoption, less anxiety and dedicating more time to this work.
Josh: In many groups with which I am involved, it is the young leaders who feel most comfortable with social networking. Therefore, the tasks of establishing identities and pages, not to mention a strategy, often falls to them (us). We still need to convince the older leaders that, (a) social networking is worth the added effort, and (b) we will not lose control of our message if we embark on social networking.
Ariel: Young leaders in the community can help promote Jewish organizations online in a number of ways:
- Communicate with your local organization and let them know what would be of value to you!
- Help promote events — forward along emails, reTweet messages, respond to Evites and Facebook events.
- If you are a social media expert, let your Jewish organization in on some of your knowledge — we can always learn more about what is out there!
Talia: One huge hurdle that nonprofits have is the lack of resources and, in some cases, limited staff knowledge. The best gift to many nonprofits is the gift of experience. Offering to help fill in gaps and provide knowledge can help an organization take the next steps to social-media success.
Eric: Be patient. Remember, as a digital native, you have an innate sense of the landscape that those older than you may not have. And remember that they have institutional knowledge essential to the success of your organization. If you're going to initiate online outreach, or if you want to pitch social-media efforts, start by creating a plan with measurable goals, and be prepared to educate stakeholders in social-media basics (how Facebook and Twitter work, and why they can be effective; how bloggers and influencers can help your organization in its achievement; how much time you will spend on these efforts each week, etc.). You'll probably need to convince people in your organization that it's not going to take over your life, and show how you can do these tasks without disrupting workflows.
Esther: Some young leaders have a better handle on the tools of social media and technology from their own personal use, and may or may not know how to translate that into the professional realm. Young leaders who are in the position to suggest change should do so, and share their own knowledge with their less knowledgeable coworkers. Still, those who use Facebook and Twitter for personal use might benefit from additional help or training, and they should also be willing to ask for help when they need it.
How do inter-generational issues impact what technology gets adopted in Jewish organizations and how?
Adam: I'm not convinced that intergenerational issues are really at the core of our technology decision making. If one of our staffers or lay leaders makes an effective case for employing a new tool or strategy, we won't ignore it simply because of their age.
However, there can be something of a generation gap when it comes to relationships with startup groups that come up with new technological implementations. These efforts are often launched by younger Jews who may not have considered working on their new concepts within the more venerable Jewish organizations. We need to do a better job of recruiting innovation so that this kind of splintering of high-tech efforts is minimized.
Lisa: I think we’re past making generational observations about use of technology. For example, the fastest growing demographic on Facebook is the 45-65-year-old woman. However, there are cultural differences (as a generalization) between generations — for example, comfort with mixing one’s personal and professional lives online. Leadership (with the power and decision-making responsibilities) often see the world differently than the (younger) program staff. But the younger staff may have great ideas and skills (not to mention networks) that are a tremendous asset to the organization. Because of this, staff within organizations need to be in constant communication to avoid making assumptions that aren’t commonly held, and to help everyone learn what’s a comfortable and effective approach.
Josh: Technology is one key area where young leaders have the advantage of being more adept at using new technology (for example: flip cameras!). That said, the number of more mature leaders who think adapting to new technology is not worth it is declining rapidly.
Ariel: I think one of the biggest challenges with technology in Jewish organizations is making sure that we do not alienate anyone. An organization like the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago has members of all ages and it is important that our online technology is generation appropriate. That is why I think it is so important to segment online communities by division.
Talia: Oftentimes management can be of a different generation than their staff and it is even more common that social-media staff is younger than their management. Initially it was hard to convince a generation that had not used social media or any other inbound marketing techniques in their own personal life, to use them for their organization. Today, those hurdles are less of an issue since Facebook, Wikipedia, and YouTube are pervasive in our lives. Today the issues come around finding measurable results and being able to prove success and direct revenue.
Eric: I can only talk about this from an anecdotal viewpoint, but my perspective is that younger generations can easily forget that entire audience segments won't go anywhere near the Web, while older, established leaders have trouble moving out of the "this is how we've always done it" trap. A truly healthy and effective organization would embrace both sides of that conversation; acknowledging that a diverse set of tactics is the best method of reaching a diverse set of audiences, and that an integrated mix of traditional and new approaches is essential to that goal.
Esther: Sometimes, Jewish nonprofits are chugging along, maintaining if not growing, and serving some of the population they've always served. This results in an "if it ain't broke..." mentality - no need to change, just keep going. This is largely a function of people who have spent their lives investing in the organization and its mission, perhaps to the detriment of change that would make things more innovative or efficient. If there is an older leadership, it's even more complicated, as it evokes parent-child relationships. Just like parents tend to think the music their children are passionate about is noise, so-called legacy organizations may perceive innovators as threats to the entities they've spent their whole lives supporting. It's a very high-stakes game, emotionally, and the approach to these organizations has to be a sensitive one, which acknowledges that innovation (or technology) isn't here to replace and obliterate, but to aid and enhance the work of existing organizations.
What advantages and opportunities do you see for Jewish organizations and their work in the online sphere?
Adam: Despite the stereotype of ”two Jews, three opinions,” I find major advantages working for the Jewish Federations movement. Our strength is in our ability to marshal high levels of innovation, collaboration and participation behind high-tech ideas and initiatives that warrant our support. A lot of experimentation happens locally, but when properly amplified, can make a larger impact. When we are able to plug in to that grassroots innovation and leverage the investment, we come out ahead every time.
Lisa: Social media is the greatest thing to happen to the nonprofit community in a long time. Social-media culture prizes authenticity and transparency and real value, and is skeptical of those trying to “sell” something. We now have the opportunity to go to our audiences rather than making them come to us.
Josh: Jews often seem to be looking for ways to connect with each other. Online communities and platforms make that easier than before. If Jewish organizations can effectively spread their messages, they have the opportunities to attract people who feel excluded from communities, or who are unaware of existing organizations' efforts.
JewishBoston.com is an example of how this can be done successfully, through its Facebook Connect integration. Members of the community can promote events listed on JewishBoston.com to their friends on Facebook, enhancing organizations' ability to virally spread their messages.
Ariel: I believe that online marketing is extremely effective, especially for teens and young adults. As mentioned before, it opens many doors for communication and is a great tool for promoting ideas and events.
Talia: They are infinite: iPhone apps, programs that make it easier to practice our faith, and in general, applications that have day-to-day uses but branded to a Jewish organization.
Eric: Jewish organizations have intelligent, passionate staff who truly believe in the agencies they work for. The best advocates in the social-media realm are those who have an intrinsic belief in the messages they're sharing. And with an influx of younger workers who are committed to social action, Jewish organizations have a huge opportunity to leverage this enthusiasm into the online space, creating relevant, sharable content and developing affinity relationships with their audiences by engaging in online conversations.
Esther: There are tremendous advantages and opportunities. That social media costs next to nothing and that many consultants are available to help them get started, Jewish organizations could be communicating better within days, with noticeable increase in satisfaction or media mentions in weeks or months, depending on their devotion and willingness to invest in getting the systems in place.