Since the launch of Federation’s NEXTGen in 2012, Detroit has emerged as a vibrant home for young Jews of every background and affiliation – a model city for Jewish community engagement. How do we account for our growing appeal to Millennials seeking meaningful Jewish connections? Ask Miryam Rosenzweig, Federation’s Chief Development Officer and former Director of NEXTGen Detroit. Here in conversation with Beth Cousens from Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), Miryam shares her insights into attracting, engaging and developing our community’s next generation of supporters and leaders. With Federation CEO Scott Kaufman, Miryam has been involved in shaping the dialogue and the presenting the clear message that engagement is a Federation responsibility in Detroit and throughout North America.
Beth: Why does engagement matter?
Miryam: It matters in the way we define engagement, and that, as we’ve seen over time, continues to change.
Even before we talk about activism or fundraising as a community, we need to think about the various ways we share experiences and buy into our collective set of concerns and Jewish values.
Generations before us defined themselves as affiliated with a community in terms of membership —connecting families via neighborhoods, schools and synagogues – and shared generational values — the responsibility of taking care of the local and Jewish global community. Today, changing generational communal values, the internet and the massive mobility of our generation have changed our sense of belonging. We no longer define community strictly by geography or affiliation. Our new definitions of community – or the kinds of connections people make through micro-communities online – have given Federation the unique role of providing a compass and bringing us home.
In other words, Federation’s purpose in the past was to be the central fundraising avenue of the Jewish community. We were responsible for meeting the needs of all members of the community here, in Israel, and around the world. Today, before we ask for anyone for communal support, we must first recognize that we first need to build community. We must create for individuals a community where they feel they belong, and where their entire contribution (presence, time commitment and financial contribution) is valued and can make a difference. Then we can talk about Jewish communal life and the need to engage, discover and play a part.
So what is Jewish engagement? It’s Jewish relevance to the individual. It’s finding a way for an individual to connect to the Jewish people in a concrete way. Not as an individual Jew but as a valuable member, who feels value by being part of a collective.
Beth: What does it look like when you’re helping people to understand that community can be valuable to them? How do you translate from community being valuable to them into some kind of financial commitment to Jewish community?
Miryam: In one word: Authenticity.
We don’t start with a linear conversation.
In Detroit we use the image of the funnel: We first pour a lot of our energy into getting large numbers of people to connect and find a way to feel part of the group, so that some will be moved to give, and an even smaller group will be compelled to lead our efforts. And we fundamentally believe and deliver the message that every part of the funnel is valuable on its own: Caring about our community is valuable; supporting our community is valuable; and of course, leadership is ultimately what we’re trying to develop.
Beth: Why doesn’t a linear model work?
Miryam: A linear model can’t work because it isn’t genuine. If we are telling you that you should care enough to engage in community only so that you can help others, we’re not asking what it is that you need to feel connected.
The funnel model means that there are many at the intake at the top, fewer numbers at the middle, and fewest moving or working through the output. It means that we’re engaging thousands of people who will never financially support the community. Even so, the community and the individual are far better off and stronger because of a stronger sense of collective.
We know this is a shift in thinking, especially in the Federation world. When we started, NEXTGen Detroit had 1,500 people engaged and over a 1,000 of them were donors. So, two-thirds of our division were giving.
Four years later, we had 6,000 people engaged and 3,400 donors. We dropped the percentage of donors to those participating in programs by 25 percent. But we tripled the number of people giving.
Now, in the old model, we would ask: What are we doing engaging 3,000 people who are not giving? That’s not our job. But our leadership recognized that 6,000 interacted with us; 3,000 more people attended a Jewish event. Of those, 2,000 became super-users because they attended a certain number of events or engaged with other Jewish organizations. And of those, 3,300 made a gift. And of the people who gave a gift, 500 gave a Ben Gurion Society Plus gift. Altogether, our young adult community grew stronger.
When we first started, we would sit down for coffee and get a suspicious response that went something like, “The head partner at my law firm said I need to meet with you. How much is this going to cost me?” And our response would be, “We aren’t here to talk about donations. We don’t even know who you are. We’re here to get to know you, so that we can better connect you to Jewish experiences that would be meaningful to you.”
We even see this with some of the children of our longtime legacy-giving families. We used to assume that caring for the Jewish community was hereditary – that parents who gave hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Jewish community would have children who would follow in their footsteps and give directly and generously to Federation. But it doesn’t work like that. Of course, children have different priorities than their parents. So, we thought, how can we play a role in engaging these families in Jewish philanthropy? Not just Federated giving.
A philanthropist doesn’t give just to the best event and doesn’t support just one place. There’s no hidden agenda.
Do we hope they will be inspired to support the organized Jewish community? Of course. But we are dedicated to informing an engaged philanthropist. So we also introduce them to lots of cool, Jewish nonprofits, often supported by Detroiters, because we want them to see that it doesn’t have to be either/or — that people who support Federation also support AIPAC, IDF, ORT – all kids of local and national non-Federation charities and Jewish causes.
The tribalism of philanthropy has to end. Our message is that we’re all connected. It can’t be all about connecting ONLY to Federation.
If you care about engagement and you care about supporting the community, you understand that they are all part of the funnel. We need the bottom of the funnel for leadership and philanthropy. We need the top of the funnel for community. As much as we have focused on major donors in the past, we need to honor the engaged communal member as well because THEY are making their community stronger.
Beth: So, what do you think is the implicit definition of engagement that you’re working with?
Miryam: I think that it is a personal understanding of the individual’s motivation for talking to you.
My first job was at a community center. I was the director of volunteers. We had a hundred volunteers; we had a lot of elderly retirees stuffing envelopes. We would get a young person who’d come in and say, “I want to volunteer.” And I would say, “Great, when are you available? Tuesday? Here’s what’s available.”
After five years, we had 11,000 volunteers at 28 of the 29 sites. And the difference was understanding the motivation of the volunteers. When volunteers came in, we asked “Who are you? Tell me about yourself.” And within two minutes, we understood what motivated them to come and talk to us. Maybe they just moved to the neighborhood and they wanted to meet people. Maybe they sat at a desk all day and they wanted something active that’s giving back. Maybe they were connected to a certain health issue or social issue. And we would connect the volunteer opportunity to the motivation that brought them in the door, not just to the presented time availability. And all of a sudden, what shifted was people got involved and they stayed involved because we were utilizing their time and talents for a cause that fed their motivation.
What does it mean for Federation? It’s shedding the old notion that “you’ve got to pay to play” to be part of the community. We also have to concede that it takes work to make someone feel part of a community. The religion that they are born with does not automatically make them feel part of a global Jewish world.
Beth: What else do we need to change?
Miryam: Our method of governing. We are set up for a baby boomer, committee-style mode of problem solving by coming together once a month for a year. Millennials will say, “Give me the problem, I’ll give you a Sunday. Let’s spend the whole day and knock it out.” So what is the solution? It’s not to throw away what works for baby boomers. It doesn’t mean that we’ll eliminate the committee system altogether. We need to understand who our constituencies are and recognize that different generations will govern in different ways.
Engagement is personal. Look at technology. We understand that grandma has a house phone and the 25-year-old communicates by text only. We don’t put a value judgment on that; we understand that they are both communicating, just differently. Same is true for Jewish engagement. We can’t pitch to a millennial what it means to be Jewish, to be a leader or a philanthropist in the same way as his or her grandparents.
Beth: Keep going. What are the other assumptions you think we need to undo with Federations?
Miryam: The first one is the division between Jewish organizations. Our brand isn’t Federation. It’s Jewish. So let’s stop making a distinction between who is in and who is out of the Federation turf. Instead, let’s utilize our centralized model as a convener and connector of community.
The second assumption relates to quality of engagement: While we always tout our tremendous services for those in need, when it comes to engagement, there is a “good enough for nonprofit” attitude. We tend to consider it an extravagance to spend community dollars for the benefit connectivity. And so we miss the mark sometimes.
One of our key ideas is that our competition isn’t AIPAC/the arts/other fundraising organizations, it’s Netflix. Our competition is entertainment, staying at home, hanging out with friends, a thousand options out there. When we look at our competition as all kinds of social and personal experiences, our level of service has to at least compelling enough to keep people engaged and coming back. Hitting home runs has to be our goal. When people hear about engagement, they ask for tactics not strategies. What program worked? Let me do it in my community!
Fact: There’s no magic program. Which program brought people in? Every region is different. I like to use the pizza example. Everyone agrees pizza is delicious. Which style of pizza is best? New York versus Chicago versus St. Louis? Deep dish versus thin crust (for the record, the answer is thin crust!). We know that the actual answer depends on where you grew up and what you prefer.
The same is true about Jewish communities. We have Jewish communities that are traditional, Midwestern. We have Sunbelt communities. We have Western communities. We get stuck when we want to focus on the strategy of engaging people through relevant programming but get lost on regional tactics. When we try to apply a Midwestern tactic to a Western community, we will probably fail. We have to stop and say, “What’s the actual strategy?” The strategy is, “What works for this individual? Where is that person at this time?”
Beth: So how do you know what to do?
Miryam: First, identify your community’s unique challenges and see how we can solve them. In Detroit, one of our greatest challenges was and, to some extent, continues to be attracting and retaining young people. Federation’s response was a concerted effort to connect programming with the revitalization of the city: bringing NEXTGeners into the city for events and ex-pat Detroiters back home became part of our mission. And to do that we created incentives and business networking events that started to create a buzz. And the buzz started to bring more people to the party. Furthermore, we created a fund to subsidize living downtown in the Moishe House model and we built that model on the platform of “Jewish in Detroit” programming.
Every city has its own unique set of challenges. San Francisco doesn’t have an attraction to the region problem but has other challenges such as affordable housing. That Federation isn’t going to use Detroit tactics to attract young Jewish millennials to the area but will use uniquely regional tactics to connect Jewishly.
There is a caveat. Bold tactics will be successful only if you have the ability to try something so out of the box that you might fail. And fail big.
Beth: How come?
Miryam: We are very risk averse in the Jewish community because we’re using donor dollars. We don’t have an R&D budget and we have the mindset that we dare not ask a donor to sponsor an event that isn’t an outright success. But, if we don’t take big risks, we won’t get big rewards.
I’ll end with one thing — I’m no longer the director of NEXTGen. And we just hired a new director and her mission is different from mine. Mine was Detroit in 2011 and ‘12 — how do we create a vibrant Jewish young hub? Her task is now six years later. We have so many Jewish organizations that existed before NEXTGen and are now growing, and so many incredible engaging Jewish initiatives that replace the need for NEXTGen to be the service provider for all things young and Jewish. So what does it mean to be a Jewish hub in this new reality? I raise this because relevant engagement is ongoing. It’s not something you figure out and then re-examine 30 years later. You have to keep evaluating and let the next generation lead. We need to get out of the way.
Beth: Miryam, thank you. I learn from you all the time.
Miryam: I’m so happy that this is a national conversation!