For more than ten years now, Birthright Israel has succeeded in enhancing young people’s Jewish identities and increasing their attachment to Israel. Like it or not, Birthright has been a silver bullet, the “it” brand in NextGen engagement, and the expectations have never been higher. Does Birthright Israel have the leadership in place to meet this new challenge?
Birthright succeeds at attracting the least-engaged Jewish young adults with the promise of a free trip to Israel. But Birthright’s board, governance, and executive leadership are, for the most part, a who’s who of Jewish insiders, politicos, and mega-donors. For most organizations, that would be fine, but to really reach the millennial age cohort and build a lasting relationship, not just a ten-day fling, leadership is needed that more closely reflects the mindset of the generation.
Why do we keep drawing on the same aging group of philanthropists to serve on boards? And when we do reach for a younger crop? The only ones we’re able to connect to are the children of the insiders we already know. We don’t draw the talented, visionary, and far-sighted; we settle for the available, the predictable, the familiar. Even the hundreds of thousands of Birthright alumni have no majority voice in the organization’s governance. That’s unacceptable.
The problem extends beyond just the generation gap. We aren’t putting together boards with the right skill-set, either. You wouldn’t hire a hedge fund wizard or a corporate lawyer or fundraiser to decorate your home or construct a bridge, so why are we entrusting them to oversee or develop the next Jewish organizational brand and outreach effort with all their social network nuances? A board recruited through political connections and giving-capacity works fine in most straightforward philanthropic “giving” endeavors, but Birthright, Birthright Next and even Hillel are simply different animals. They are attempting to reposition and create new organizations and new brands and re-engage Jews in a very complex social and technological environment. There are a lot of moving parts requiring people with new skills and the temperament to take risks, to work hard, and to try innovative approaches.
A healthy board for an organization focused on a 20s and 30s demographic needs members from that demographic, and not just token representation. Ideally, a board would be composed of traditional funders, young professionals who were on Birthright, and under 40, global experts in relevant fields, like marketing, entrepreneurship, communications, branding, and technology — and most importantly, folks that already built scaled new member or affinity organizations.
Birthright is blessed with so many alumni, many of whom are leading successful careers and are experts at understanding and engaging their own millennial generation. They need to be invited and engaged at more senior levels, up to and including governance and board leadership roles. But don’t expect them to stick around if their role is symbolic and their elders are still calling the shots.
The Birthright board and many other Jewish boards need an injection of top-tier talent from outside of the familiar Jewish non-profit circles. These boards are so insular they don’t even realize who isn’t at the table.
The executives and founders of successful companies today in new fields have track records of success in creating new products, building membership and customer base, and grabbing mindshare and market share. They create new things that people want and pay for, and they scale their businesses across geographic and ideological boundaries. Their voice, their experience, their ideas, and their networks would supercharge an organization like Birthright Israel or Next.
By focusing on people — not their dollars — we would send a message that would result in a huge new source of money that could sustain Jewish infrastructure. We ignore these people at a huge long-term financial peril.
In its first decade Birthright successfully laid the foundation for part of the future dreams of the American Jewish community. But while we may support and love Israel, the reality is we’re not interested in living there. In the next 10 years we need to define an American Jewish identity and community that the next generation of Jews will actually sign up for, and cherish as their own.
Birthright may be the only organization positioned as a portal through which an entire future diaspora generation will pass through – a massive opportunity. We have no time to waste, because we have not succeeded in making many young adults feel that the Jewish community is a motivating force in their lives. And that’s because our leadership isn’t representative of them. It is an insular, aging, wealthy, group
Isn’t it time we brought on new faces, listened to new voices, and turned over the keys of Birthright to a new generation?
James Goldman is the founder and CEO of JWG, an advertising and marketing firm he sold to Monster.com. His belated bar mitzvah project is www.bridgepath.us