This article originally appeared in The Jewish Week on 1/2/2013.
By Morlie Levin and Charles "Chip" Edelsberg
The Jewish community continually searches for pathways to achieve effective young adult engagement. The vast success of Birthright Israel — and the astounding number of young adults who have experienced those 10 days — has created a good problem: How do we, as a collective, effectively foster the Jewish living and learning journeys of hundreds of thousands of newly inspired young Jewish adults at this critical life stage?
There have been many programmatic successes, albeit on a relatively small scale. But as funder and grantee, respectively, we came to realize that what Birthright Israel offers is a chance to achieve systemic change and outcomes in a way that simply has not been reachable before. That realization resulted in a change of focus for NEXT: A Division of Birthright Israel Foundation, and a real test of the “rules of engagement” with one of NEXT’s founding funders, the Jim Joseph Foundation.
In 2008, when NEXT was founded, its vision was to establish local chapters that would seamlessly follow up with Birthright Israel alumni after their trips and offer them programming. This was a laudable and understandable goal if the focus were only on individual Jewish journeys. Yet, by 2011, there was agreement by both funder and grantee that this model was not scalable and not conducive to the building of partnerships with Jewish communities, a central ingredient in achieving systemic change. Once these two challenges were acknowledged, NEXT began the difficult operation of correcting course.
We had arrived at a crucial moment, allowing ourselves to acknowledge that we had taken our model as far as we could, and admitting that our initial convictions about the best way to carry out NEXT’s vision needed to evolve. We embraced an idea championed by the tech world: Fail fast in order to innovate. That mantra has fostered an industry that fails early, publicly, and often — and achieves significant outcomes.
In order for us to adopt and realize the value of this mentality, the word “failure” took on a different meaning. It did not mean that the concepts motivating NEXT were wrong. Nor did it mean that particular programmatic efforts were unsuccessful. Indeed, NEXT initiatives like the widely successful NEXT Shabbat program remain core activities and important models on which to build. But it did mean that the mode of delivery wasn’t as effective as it could be.
At that juncture in our work, our commitment to the collaborative nature of our funder-grantee relationship became critical. NEXT needed to seize the moment, prepare to take risks, experiment and candidly share both the successes and challenges with the Jim Joseph Foundation. In turn, the Foundation took on the role of a “thought-partner,” pushing NEXT to clarify ideas, focus efforts, and demonstrate impact. A strong partnership was necessary for an honest assessment of the old NEXT model to result in tangible lessons learned and a new course charted.
Now, NEXT has transitioned into a connector of trip alumni to both national and local Jewish communities; a catalyst for do-it-yourself Jewish experiences among alumni (including the NEXT Shabbat program); and a supporter, convener, and trainer of professionals engaging young Jewish adults.
A noteworthy outcome of this transition is NEXT’s renewed focus on developing partnerships with existing organizations and networks – including (among others) Moishe House, the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, Sharsheret, and Kevah – to help connect more Birthright Israel alumni and their peers to existing meaningful Jewish experiences. By fostering deep partnerships with effective organizational partners we put the focus squarely on participants to emphasize opportunity and choice.
In this vein, NEXT and the Jim Joseph Foundation recognized an opportunity to develop the field of young adult engagement, and now provide direct support to local organizations. We offer consultation and training to professionals engaging young
Jewish adults, leveraging what we have learned from NEXT’s previous local programmatic model. Just last year, NEXT convened, trained, and networked more than 150 professionals representing more than 75 organizations, which range from new, grassroots projects to longstanding, mainstream institutions. While conversations with evaluators and researchers about NEXT’s new model are in early stages, there already are positive and exciting outcomes.
The road that NEXT traveled (and will continue to traverse) underscores the difficulty in engaging these Jewish young adults. As our sector learns time and time again, funders and grantees must be true partners to absorb the impact of evaluation and examine seriously whether programs are scalable. Failing fast (and publicly) implies several challenges; on the grantee side, there is a sense of vulnerability and a concern that a funder might discontinue the grant. For the funder, it raises questions about funding strategy, policies, and procedures, as well as due diligence.
But recognizing that models may need to evolve to achieve success creates an environment most conducive to innovative thinking and experimentation. And while this mentality can be challenging for both parties, and changing course and taking leaps of faith is risky, these are essential elements to implement effective strategies.
Sharing this entire process publicly we believe serves to advance the communal conversation about this critical demographic. NEXT’s model is still a work-in-progress, but this evolution is already providing key insights about affecting systemic change in the field of Jewish young adult engagement. It is also beginning to have impact.
Morlie Levin is CEO of NEXT: A Division of Birthright Israel Foundation. Chip Edelsberg is executive director of the Jim Joseph Foundation.