Over the past two months, I read one book and one article that made think about one of the most important, yet least-discussed, challenges facing Jewish organizations today. The article I read came from last week’s New York Times, where it described how instead of donating money to the Food Bank of New York City, Toyota chose to donate “efficiency” to this food bank that feeds over 1.5 million people every year. As their contribution, engineers and specialists from Toyota took time to help the staff at the Food Bank learn how to reduce waiting time for needy clients, and eliminate unnecessary use of resources. Toyota’s decision fit into a larger trend amongst for-profit businesses helping non-profit organizations develop better practices in order to cut costs, increase productivity, and improve efficiency.
The article about Toyota reminded me of a fascinating analysis of the non-profit sector in the United States by Ken Stern, former CEO of National Public Radio, in his book With Charity for All. Stern opines that in spite of the major role that non-profit organizations play in America society, providing everything from cultural life to hospitals to social services, “the public rarely demands measures of how effective charities are in implementing their services and meeting their service goals.” Stern argues that we must utilize a better set of metrics for monitoring the effectiveness and activities of non-profit organizations, and recognizing that an organization might have flashy advertising and impressive endorsements, but if it does not offer concrete evidence that they fulfill their core mission, then that organization may not be worthy of our funding or our dollars.
I could not read these two items without thinking about their applicability to the Jewish Community. Our community functions almost entirely due to the efforts of non-profit organizations, yet few resources are devoted to helping existing organizations learn how to insist upon the kind of efficiency found in the for-profit sector, and little research that compares and objectively analyzes the effectiveness of organizations. At the present time, we have a myriad of organizations who claim to offer the best approach to Israel engagement, social justice work, and Jewish outreach, to say nothing of the fact that we have hundreds of synagogues, day schools and social service organizations that offer similar products to the same communities. We will never be able to identify the single factor that determines what organizations are objectively successful, and which ones are objectively not, the growth of data-driven decision-making in American society at-large requires that we rethink how that trend can impact the Jewish Community. The sooner we do that, the sooner we might reap the benefits of thinking through our community’s challenges with a lens that is different and challenging, yet may also be the key to understanding how to advance our collective community goals.