By Abbey Frank
I clearly recall the thrill of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge each summer on the way to Virginia Beach, looking out the window to the surrounding water and feeling a rush of excitement. This narrow road, supported by a strong base and endless wires and pulleys, was taking me somewhere else — to vacation and days in the sand. As I grew older, my fascination morphed from pure excitement to hesitation. Crossing a large body of water on pavement supported by a skeletal foundation held up by thin pieces of metal was scary. How is this bridge holding up all the cars and people crossing? Is it worth the risk to get to the other side?
Like others, I give thought to how the metaphor of crossing a bridge influences my personal and professional life. Like building a physical bridge, moving forward through a narrow space is not always easy. But bringing two sides together most often leads to something better; resistance often leads to stagnation. This is particularly true within the Jewish community. Much has been written about connecting traditional institutions with innovative start-ups that are attracting younger members; far less, about bridging our operational structure to those of the business sector.
In a recent meeting, a lay leader shared a vision for our organization — to change our operations to function more like a business. In other meetings, I have fielded questions about our “product” and measuring “returns on investment,” or ROI. These are welcome conversations as nonprofits should pay closer attention to fixed and variable costs, maintain a balanced budget and think strategically about how our investments impact change. More concerning, however, is adapting a for-profit model of ROI to our work. In the private sector, managers scrutinize monthly, quarterly and year-end profit statements to assess their performance. If a product is not yielding a profit, it is often abandoned quickly to protect against further economic loss.
This is not a strategy that can easily be bridged from the corporate world. Our investments are in people, programs and strategies that make up a Jewish community. Measuring short-term impact, while useful, only tells a small part of the story.
Consider an allocation to local Jewish day schools. Nationally, on average, grants to day schools account for 16% of total allocations. Communities make this investment utilizing research that day school graduates are more likely to have a strong Jewish identity and connection to community, and that these schools are essential to a Jewish community’s health and growth.
However, in the United States, only 7% of Jewish children attend a day school. Applying a pure business model, this does not make sense. Communities are investing a significant percentage of scarce resources to a small percentage of the population for results that may not come for 20 to 30 years. But research has shown that day school education has significant returns in which an entire community will benefit.
Similarly, there is growing investment in innovative teen leadership programs that are reaching unaffiliated teens. The hope is that participation will increase connections to the community, Jewish learning and Israel. These programs are expensive, and the impact will be unknown for many years. If we apply a business model of short-term ROI to these programs, investors may become disinterested and funding may not be adequate to keep them running long enough to reap the benefits.
Adopting best practices for fiscal management will undoubtedly improve the functionality and efficiency of Jewish nonprofits.
These are productive bridges to make between the Jewish community and the for-profit sector. More concerning, and potentially harmful to the Jewish communal world, is the growing expectation of short-term results and immediate returns on investment. If philanthropists are unwilling to invest in areas where impact may not be known for an extended period of time, we may not be able to afford important components of a rich, vibrant and knowledgeable Jewish community.
A popular Hebrew song states, “The whole entire world is a very narrow bridge and the main thing to do is have no fear at all.” As a Jewish professional, I challenge this notion. Our organizations need to continue crossing bridges and learning from others; but a healthy dose of skepticism and fear is OK, too. It may just become the foundation needed to support getting to a better, more impactful, place.
Abbey Frank is senior director of program operations and planning for Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia. This piece was first published by eJewish Philanthropy.