One of the most striking societal changes in the past decade has been the emergence of data as a major force in shaping the way we think about the world.
We live in a world saturated with numbers. Statistics are ubiquitous in our everyday lives — not just in reports of macro trends but also in this increasingly technology driven world. How many friends on Facebook, the number of tweets in a day, the quantity of gigabytes on our data plans. Some 90 percent of data in the world today has been generated in just the past two years.
What does this seemingly insatiable appetite for data mean for our Jewish world?
Traditionally, support for Jewish organizations has been built less on numbers and more on identification with common goals, on loyalty and on emotion. The fundraising letter with a photo of a sad face or a swastika on a synagogue wall is still a staple of organized Jewish life.
But is that what will really draw the next generation of Jews to Jewish life?
Doubt is often cast on the commitment of younger Jews to the core values of the Jewish world (however one defines them), but perhaps the issue is more about the Jewish organizational world itself and how it is perceived by young Jews today.
Many Jewish organizations are lagging behind in a growing trend among other nonprofit organizations; they are focusing less on describing what they do and more on measuring what impact they have.
Yes, it is written that at the end of each hard day’s work during Creation, “God saw that it was good.” A definitive assessment by the ultimate authority as to what is good may be part of our tradition; but a similar assessment by a Jewish group of its work product today might not carry quite the same authority.
We are moving towards an era when organizations will increasingly be judged not by what they say they do but by what the data shows they do. “If you can’t measure it, don’t do it” is a refrain starting to be heard among a growing minority of funders. The temptation to produce data is great, but the important question is, “What does it tell us?”
Good works are not just about numbers. Annual reports and newsletters are often replete with figures — the numbers of Jews who were helped, the number of people who participated in a program, etc. In today’s lingo most of this data represents “outputs” — units of service or goods delivered by a program.
But increasingly, for many donors and potential supporters, what counts are not “outputs” but rather “outcomes” — the benefits, changes or improvements that are brought about by a program or service.
The numbers often tell us how many people were served, but not what actually happened. Frequently, they show us what an organization did but not whether something changed for the better because of those efforts.
Thus, the relevant data might be less about how many kids went to a Jewish camp and more about what impact that camp had on them. Relevant data is not about the number of people who walk through the doors of a JCC — more significant is whether, and to what extent, those visits actually brought them closer to Jewish life.
It is for good reason that arguments against measurement are frequently heard. Some outcomes don’t lend themselves easily to measurement. Data collection can be expensive. Sometimes it is hard to separate out cause and effect.
But measuring impact will, in time, not be seen as an option but as an integral element of how organizations work. Ultimately it will whether the public is willing to support them.
A key part of measurement is figuring out what “indicators” can be used to quantitatively measure the “outcomes.” Potential indicators are many and varied, and choosing among them is not a simple task.
For example, if strengthening Jewish identity is the goal of an initiative, indicators that some have used include the extent to which, as a result of an effort, the participants light Shabbat candles, celebrate holidays, take part in Israel-related activities, or feel connected to the Jewish people. As tools of measurement, indicators are far from perfect. No one indicators, in itself, is determinative of “success”; rather the idea is to come up with a collection of individual quantifiable indicators that, collectively, can get us closer to the elusive question — what impact did an activity actually have?
To be effective, those indicators need to be in place at the beginning of an initiative and then monitored closely as it develops. In time, the market place will start to expect the results to be on a public website for all to see.
The Jewish organizational world is not immune from global trends sweeping through our society. Consumer preference may well dramatically alter the landscape of our relatively staid Jewish world in the coming years.
Certainly loyalty to a cause or an organization will continue to be an influential factor for many in deciding where their support will go. Yet, for a younger generation in which data is ever-present, nostalgia will hold a less-treasured place.
As competition by Jewish organizations for the attention and dollars of the next generation of Jews meets our 21st century economy, the measurement of impact will increasingly determine their appeal.
Gideon Taylor has served as executive vice president of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany and as chief operating officer of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. He is now in the private sector.