Beyond Management 101: Professionalizing the Jewish Nonprofit World

Jewish organizations, from AIPAC to Lakewood’s Beth Medrash Govoha, are implementing cutting-edge corporate management techniques in unprecedented ways.

Being heimish is no longer cutting it.

For years, many Jewish organizations were able to survive—and even thrive—as long as they could prove to the community that they provided a necessary service or benefit—whether it was delivering food for the needy, offering a place to daven or providing a quality day school education. Classic business ideas of management systems or metrics and data tracking didn’t seem relevant to these institutions doing the hallowed work of sustaining the community.

That’s no longer the case.

As the Jewish community’s needs become more wide-ranging and complex, as funding opportunities become tighter, and as lay leaders who are highly trained professionals in diverse fields demand that their schools, shuls and chesed organizations display the same sophistication they see at work, Jewish nonprofits are being forced to tighten their ships and professionalize.

“For many years, the frum community operated like a mom-and-pop shop, with each small community taking care of itself and its own [needs],” says Dr. Yitzchak Schechter, founder of the Institute for Applied Research and Community Collaboration (ARCC), an organization in Rockland County, New York dedicated to conducting research on psychological and social issues in the frum community. This model, says Dr. Schechter, is not effective in today’s world.

“We can no longer afford to have our institutions operate like a giant candy store,” says Allen Fagin, executive vice president of the OU. “We’re talking about enormous sums taken from the community and spent running schools, yeshivot and mikvaot, bikur cholim and chesed organizations and more. Increasingly, we’re seeing management techniques being imported from the business world in ways we didn’t see ten or fifteen years ago.”

Planning for Success
Since taking the helm at the OU in 2014, Fagin has made professionalizing the OU a top priority. One major shift, for example, has been making strategic planning a central component of all operations. At the beginning of each year, all OU departments must prepare detailed goals as well as provide the objective metrics they will use to measure their success in reaching those goals. “Engaging in a robust evaluation of all our programs ensures that every dollar is spent wisely and with maximum impact,” says Fagin.

NCSY, for example, recently completed a five-year strategic plan with the goal of impacting students’ lives even more, while also expanding its reach from 16,000 to 24,000 teens annually. Evaluating its programming in such a rigorous fashion helped NCSY staff clarify what they are doing well—and what they are not doing as well. They discovered, for example, that while Shabbatons and classes help bring teens closer to their Jewish roots, experiences that immerse them in a Torah environment for a period of a few weeks, such as a summer program, are often the most transformative. As one NCSY senior staff member put it, “Getting a teen to a six-week summer program is going to have a different effect on that teen than going to a coffee shop for an hour-long ῾Latte and Learning.’”

“Virtually every aspect of our operations is now utilizing detailed strategic planning,” says Fagin. “This is something that was unheard of at the OU several years ago.”

Many synagogues and day schools are also turning to strategic planning. When Ben Porat Yosef Day School (BPY) in Bergen County, New Jersey, began experiencing explosive growth—the student body grew from 100 to 500 children in the last five years—Cheryl Rosenberg, president of the BPY Board of Trustees, began planning how to provide for the rapidly growing school. Recently she led a school-wide strategic evaluation to identify areas for improvement. One area in need of attention was re-recruitment. Whereas in the past administrators would wait for reenrollment season to see which families were hesitating, this past year they used a reenrollment tracker that traced each family and the likelihood of them re-enrolling. Additionally, BPY devised a proactive plan for engaging with families that needed extra attention. Besides helping with reenrollment, Rosenberg found that this strategy has improved communication between parents and administration and that parental concerns are being dealt with much more quickly and efficiently.

Another priority since Rosenberg became president was transferring operational responsibilities from board members, who work as volunteers, to paid staff. While it was tempting—and necessary in the school’s early years—to use the accounting expertise of a board member to close the books and create cash flow reports every month, Rosenberg found that not having an employee accountable for those tasks was creating a work lag.

“The differentiation of staff and board roles was rocky at first, but necessary as the school transitioned to adulthood,” Rosenberg says.

Beth Medrash Govoha, founded in 1943, currently boasts a student body of about 7,000, making it one of the largest yeshivot in the world. “We had so many talmidim and new challenges and the old organizational structure hadn’t grown fast enough,” says Rabbi Aaron Kotler, CEO of BMG. Courtesy of BMG

Efforts similar to those made at BPY have long been executed at one of the largest Orthodox Jewish institutions in America: Beth Medrash Govoha (BMG) in Lakewood, New Jersey. Rabbi Aaron Kotler, grandson of the famed Rav Aharon Kotler who opened BMG in 1943, was enlisted in the nineties to rescue the yeshivah which was, at the time, in dire financial straits. The yeshivah was simply not equipped to handle the thousands of students pouring through its doors.

“We had so many talmidim and new challenges and the old organizational structure hadn’t grown fast enough,” says Rabbi Kotler.

Taking on the title of CEO—an unusual position within a yeshivah administration since it implies a strategic rather than simply an operational role—Rabbi Kotler began tinkering with the system’s nuts and bolts. Many times he would make a change that didn’t end up working out operationally, so he would go back to the drawing board and try something else. This tension of tinkering and adapting continues until today and is healthy for organizations, he believes.

More than two decades later, Rabbi Kotler has not only restored the yeshivah’s financial health—its current annual budget is about $48 million dollars—he has turned the institution into a powerhouse that serves as the nerve center of the township of Lakewood, and indeed, of the American yeshivah world. Currently, BMG boasts a student body of about 7,000, making it one of the largest yeshivot in the world.

Rabbi Aaron Kotler, CEO of Beth Medrash Govoha, has restored the yeshivah’s financial health and turned the institution into a powerhouse that serves as the nerve center of the township of Lakewood. Courtesy of BMG

Running this massive enterprise not only requires sophisticated leadership skills, it entails ongoing strategic planning and thinking. “It’s a huge challenge to step away from the day-to-day operations, because that’s your front-and-center responsibility, but it’s how you’ll build for the long-term,” says Rabbi Kotler. “The more one invests on [the long-term] side, the more solid your institution will be.”

BMG’s impact is enormous, with thousands of alumni setting out to create and lead Torah institutions around the world. Moreover, for decades, BMG has been strengthening communities around North America by setting up and investing millions of dollars into establishing community kollels—currently, some eighty-five BMG kollelim exist throughout North America. But before settling on a particular community, Rabbi Kotler’s team will do an extensive strategic analysis, identify what the community’s strengths and weakness are, and only then determine whether or not BMG will focus its energies there. “We do a lot of research before we invest in a community,” says Rabbi Kotler.

“[Rabbi Kotler] is fantastic at assessing a situation,” says OU Senior Managing Director Rabbi Steven Weil. “He takes a linear, critical approach, as if applying the ‘Brisker derech’ used to analyze a sugya to analyze a business proposition. He’s always thinking strategically.”

Measuring Up: Using Data and Metrics
“If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it,” management guru Peter Drucker famously stated. While the use of data and metrics is quickly becoming a standard of practice in almost every field, it is still a relatively new development in the Jewish community. But Dr. Schechter, who has devoted his career to conducting research on the frum community, is a strong proponent of the need for Jewish organizations to collect data and use metrics. Without data, he says, people make decisions based on their feelings, and “are subject to all sorts of biases.” A good investor, he says, doesn’t go with his gut.

“Many Jewish nonprofits fear data,” says NCSY Director of Data and Evaluation Dan Hazony. “The idea of tracking, metrics and quantitative goals is very foreign, and goes against the ethos and corporate culture of most organizations.”

But Jewish organizations are slowly—albeit somewhat reluctantly—coming to the realization that to realistically compete in this increasingly data-driven world, they have to become more data savvy.

In 2008, the OU hired Hazony to build a sophisticated database to track each NCSY region’s success. Field staff are now expected to input information on all the events that are run and the teens who attend them. “While our staff were initially anxious about using the new database, they eventually became the biggest advocates for data collection,” says Hazony. “They began to understand its power.”

Recognizing that smaller organizations don’t have the capacity to track and evaluate metrics, the OU currently makes members of its professional staff available to help other organizations create data-gathering systems and analyze the information. (Interested organizations may contact Hazony at dan@ncsy.org.)

Organizations that are not moving in this direction are doing themselves a disservice, say experts. “There’s waste and an opportunity cost,” says Rabbi Chaim Schwartz, formerly the director of fellows at AIPAC, who currently serves as vice president at Bernstein Private Wealth Management. “Mediocrity breeds failure.”

When Rabbi Schwartz was at AIPAC, he built a young fundraising team. “Fundraising and sales are the same—it’s all about engaging someone in something they want to invest in, [irrespective of ] whether it’s a product or a service.”

A recent AIPAC convention in Washington, DC. Photo: Noam Galai/Getty Images

In a short time, Rabbi Schwartz created a successful sales force that is—somewhat astonishingly—comprised of young professionals with little or no experience. “Most of my staff were hired straight out of school and had no fundraising experience whatsoever.” And yet, Rabbi Schwartz says, “it’s not uncommon for a young fundraiser to bring in $150,000 within his first year on the job.” What is Rabbi Schwartz’s formula for success? “We not only track and manage how much money fundraisers are bringing in . . . We track activities that drive success—the number of phone calls made each day, the number of meetings per month, the number of referrals made.” By tracking his team so very closely, he is able to guide them more effectively. “Instead of just hiring people and hoping for the best, we coach our employees and help them grow.”

While it is natural for some to find such intense monitoring intimidating, Rabbi Ilan Haber, national director of the OU’s Heshe and Harriet Seif Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus (OU-JLIC), views it differently. Evaluation is a “tool for learning,” says Rabbi Haber, who oversees the rabbinic couples serving Orthodox students on twenty-four campuses throughout North America and Israel. “It helps you learn, grow and simply do things better.”

Rabbi Haber’s staff conducts quantitative as well as qualitative assessments. Recently, some 2,900 students filled out annual satisfaction surveys where they rated their experiences with OU-JLIC, but also provided more than 7,000 qualitative comments. “Ninety-five percent of the participants said OU-JLIC educators are effective role models for them,” says Rabbi Haber. “Such descriptive comments are enormously helpful.”

Investing in People
Jewish organizations and institutions are also, somewhat belatedly, coming to the realization that they need to invest in their greatest asset: their staff. “You can’t create an exceptional organization without exceptional people,” says Abby Saloma, senior program officer at the Schusterman Foundation, a major Jewish community funder.

One obvious way to invest in one’s staff is to attract and retain talent by offering competitive compensation packages. To that end, the OU recently undertook a year-long, organization-wide salary study. “Most Jewish organizations have, as we did, a reasonably haphazard salary system,” says Fagin. Working with a compensation consultant, OU Chief Human Resources Officer Lenny Bessler, along with Senior Compensation Analyst Josh Gottesman, spent months studying employment market data and reviewing all of the positions and responsibilities across the organization to come up with a solid compensation structure. “No other Jewish nonprofit has done this. It is unprecedented in the Jewish nonprofit world to make salaries consistent across the board, irrespective of whether a man or woman occupies the position,” says Fagin.

Aside from creating a competitive compensation structure, ensuring that there is ongoing professional training as well as clear and direct career paths is crucial to keeping employees satisfied with and loyal to the organization. Shortly after Rabbi Micah Greenland was appointed international director of NCSY in 2013, he resolved that NCSY’s professional development needed to be world-class. “In order to attract the talent that we want to attract, we needed to develop those people in the most robust way possible,” says Rabbi Greenland.

Shortly thereafter, Fagin hired Rabbi Ari Rockoff to lead the newly established Department of Leadership Development. With a background in communal leadership and industrial psychology, Rabbi Rockoff is responsible for designing career trajectories within NCSY, ensuring appropriate staffing and creating a culture of mentorship across the youth organization. Beginning with a thorough review of each NCSY region, Rabbi Rockoff quickly located many holes, including the fact that there was no central web site listing all available NCSY jobs. Additionally, he implemented an employee onboarding system to help new employees learn about the organization. “Previously, it could take an employee two or three years to get truly acclimated,” says Rabbi Greenland.

While the majority of learning happens on the job according to management experts, no one disputes the need for ongoing professional training. Rabbi Kotler, who does not have the background of a traditional CEO or an MBA, acquired his leadership skills by learning from top-notch mentors (some of whom are successful businessmen on the board of BMG), by being a ferocious reader of management books—especially those by management guru Patrick Lencioni—and by adopting a mindset of growth for both himself and his staff.

Over time, he says, people working in such a growth-oriented environment come to feel like they’re thriving. “There are people who say to me, ‘I came to this team because I knew I would grow more here than I would grow in any other place,’” he says.

Commitment to Mission
One cannot discuss highly successful Jewish organizations without mentioning Chabad, a billion-dollar global empire that maintains its own publishing house and news service. An insular Chassidic sect almost decimated by the Holocaust, Chabad today boasts more than 4,000 shluchim (emissaries) in about 3,000 locations and institutions in ninety-five countries. Chabad Houses are found in all fifty states and in all of the Canadian provinces.

“Our evolution as a movement is largely due to the Rebbe’s belief in the utility of every individual and every item in our world,” says Rabbi Efraim Mintz, the founding executive director of the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute (JLI)—Chabad’s adult education arm. “Chabad’s highly sophisticated operation observable today is built from leveraging the talents of every person in our network and every advance in technology. It’s what keeps us relevant.”

Chabad recognized the power of media decades ago, and began broadcasting Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson’s talks on cable TV back in the 80s—amidst much opposition. In the Chabad worldview, however, technologies—the Internet, intercontinental satellite programs, streaming video presentations—are to be harnessed for the purpose of bringing estranged Jews closer to their roots. “If we really believe that God gave the world these tools to spread Yiddishkeit, how can we not take advantage of them?” says Rabbi Mintz.

Despite the movement’s state-of-the-art approach to outreach, Rabbi Mintz prefers not to discuss the particulars of Chabad’s professionalism, because he doesn’t see that as the basis for its extraordinary success. Its success, he says, is rooted in one thing: religious conviction.

Shluchim don’t view their position as a stepping stone,” he says. “They view it as a life calling. Training is important, skill sets are important, but they are all secondary.”

Rabbi Mintz—a gifted innovator himself who created a dynamic educational program that provides training and support to thousands of Chabad shluchim worldwide—insists that “the most important thing is to inspire a sense of ownership in the work that [shluchim] do.” For Chabad protégées, this passion is simply part of their DNA, says Rabbi Mintz, and not something that can be bottled or taught. “[Outreach] is not something we do, it’s who we are.”

While this formula obviously works for Chabad, can it be replicated outside of the Chabad framework? “One must care about and be committed to [an organization’s] mission,” says Rabbi Schwartz. “If you’re not fully passionate about the mission, you will not be successful. But there are many people who are passionate but simply lack the right skills or training. It’s not enough to be a passionate person.”

The Making of a Leader
Seventy-five to ninety-five percent of CEOs and executive directors of Jewish nonprofits are going to be retiring in the next five years, according to Leading Edge, an initiative created to cultivate senior leaders for Jewish nonprofits. Most Jewish organizations, of which there are some 9,500 in this country (including schools, camps and synagogues across denominations), have senior leaders who are on the verge of retiring. Finding people to replace them is no simple matter. “We were seeing leaders of major Jewish organizations retiring, with no succession plan or obvious successor in place,” says Gali Cooks, executive director of Leading Edge. “Number two’s are not being trained to be number one’s.”

Also, there’s little, if any, leadership training, so lower-level managers are not moving up. “[The Jewish communal world] has fantastic professionals [in middle management], but we never gave them opportunities to develop through mentors or role advancements or outside accreditation. They see that they are being looked over and there’s no point in staying in the [Jewish] sector,” says Cooks.

In response to the “leadership crisis” in the Jewish communal world, some fifteen federations and foundations came together to create Leading Edge two and half years ago. Since then Leading Edge has launched a variety of initiatives including a CEO onboarding program. “A great organization starts at the top,” says Cooks.

Other organizations are taking leadership seriously as well. Years ago, leadership development used to happen through one-size-fits-all training opportunities, but that is no longer the case. “Today’s leaders are working in more complex environments,” says Saloma. “The skills that they require are much more diverse.” Leadership training, many believe, has to be customized, which is one reason why Saloma helped start a fellowship training program for Jewish nonprofit leaders.

With an eye toward grooming future senior leaders, the OU has sent a few employees that have exhibited exceptional promise to an intense, week-long management program at Columbia Business School in New York.

Changing the Culture
Aside from the lack of succession planning, a problem plaguing most Jewish organizations is the fact that, as Cooks puts it, “the Jewish communal world has an image problem.” Few Jewish young professionals are drawn to work for the sector because Jewish organizations are not perceived as being great places to work. “Our structures need to evolve. If Jewish organizations were great places to work, we could attract and retain the best and the brightest,” she says.

Recently NCSY participated in a Leading Edge Employee Engagement Survey, the only Orthodox organization to do so, to better understand how to create a better workplace culture. The survey, in which fifty five Jewish organizations participated in total, honed in on each organization’s strengths and weaknesses; when the results were in, NCSY celebrated its achievements (its staff, for example, is highly engaged: 9 in 10 NCSY staff members feel proud to embrace its mission and work for the organization that fosters it), but also took the time to work on some of its weak points. NCSY implemented certain changes almost immediately, such as offering more formalized mentoring relationships as well as development training for the NCSY fundraising staff.

While the OU as a whole still has a way to go with regard to creating a great workplace culture, it is taking steps in the right direction. “Apart from Hillel, we have not seen such initiative and creativity in terms of investing in people and in creating a great workplace culture as we’ve seen at the OU,” says Cooks. In the coming months, Yachad/NJCD will participate in Leading Edge’s employee survey as well. 

Going Forward
“We expect sophistication in every area of our lives,” says Rabbi Ari Rockoff. “We have high expectations for everything we do, professionally and personally. Why should we expect any less from our institutions?”

Change is difficult, but an opportunity. And, as is evident from many of the highly successful and effective institutions researched for this article, the hard work of making changes pays off. American Orthodoxy, says Mark (Moishe) Bane, president of the OU, must acknowledge its emergence as a large and complex community. Once “a start-up community,” over the past several decades, the American Orthodox community has enjoyed explosive growth. “Yet as the social, educational and religious needs of the community expand, the community’s institutional infrastructure remains one designed for a fledgling community,” says Bane.

“American Orthodoxy is no longer a mom-and-pop community.”

Rachel Wizenfeld is a frequent contributor to many Jewish publications. She lives in Los Angeles with her family.

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This article was featured in the Winter 2017 issue of Jewish Action.
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