Changing Organizational Cultures and Behavior

The first strategic approach is a matter of “policy” in the broadest sense. Jewish organizations are often their own worst enemies when it comes to encouraging participation. Generally, this is not a product of design, but of lack of awareness. Many organizations simply have not thought deeply about how to compete effectively for involvement and support from Jews who have manifold options concerning where, when and how they will use their time and resources. Most Jewish institutions are handicapped, mildly or substantially, by organizational “cultures” – the often implicit values, norms and assumptions that underlie the manifest behavior of institutions, their leaders and their members – and practices that do not encourage, and may actually discourage, participation. As a result, they fail to attract as many potential members or supporters as they should, and fail to keep a significant proportion of those whom they do attract involved and committed.

Changing organizational behavior involves altering both underlying attitudes and specific practices. One key starting point for change is to adopt a “marketing” perspective. “Marketing” is a term often associated with “selling,” “advertising” and “public relations.” Many Jewish institutions could benefit from doing more of these – especially since studies have shown that a major reason for non-participation in programs and non-utilization of services is that the intended beneficiaries were simply unaware of their existence. But, at its heart, marketing defines an approach to developing and maintaining relationships built around the concept of exchange of value. Effective marketing demands that an organization ask a series of questions:

Who are our “customers” or “clients?”
What are they seeking?
What do we have to offer that responds to their needs and desires?
How do we let them know that we are worth their attention?
How do we ensure that the exchange that occurs between our organization and our “customers” is mutually satisfying and beneficial?

These are questions that Jewish organizations need to ask, whether their “product” is spiritual inspiration, Jewish knowledge or a chance to do good. Adopting a marketing mind set can be liberating, allowing organizations to think about themselves, their work and their relationships in entirely new, often productive, ways. But, it is also demanding, requiring that every aspect of institutional life be subjected to review in light of the governing concern for how well an organization meets the needs of its clients. Most Jewish organizations have noble purposes and honorable histories. In these circumstances, it is too easy to give priority, consciously or unconsciously, to organizational needs and interests in setting policies and shaping practices. Institutions, like individuals, can develop a sense of “entitlement” that expresses itself in expectations of support just because of the worthiness of one’s mission, and, even worse, resentment of those who do not provide this support. However much we may agree that Jews should involve themselves in communal life as a matter of principle, in practice this mindset is almost inevitably self-defeating.

Several years ago, the sociologist Steven M. Cohen asserted that Jewish organizations must learn to speak a language of “resource,” not “reproach.” Telling individuals that they are not good Jews unless they come to synagogue, make a contribution or join a particular organization simply will not work. (The tone of some recent advertisements for UJA-Federation campaigns comes dangerously close to this attitude.) Individuals who come to an organization seeking a specific service, a sense of belonging or a setting in which to grow as a Jew and as a person are already giving the institution something of enormous value: a chance to win their loyalty and appreciation. To capitalize on this opportunity, organizations must deliver quality, and do so in a way that tells the individual that the organization recognizes and values her or his decision to participate.

There is nothing wrong with organizational self-promotion. Indeed, in a competitive environment, Jewish institutions collectively must do a much better job of letting Jews know what they can and do offer. Likewise, they should not feel constrained from telling members and potential members that there are expectations as well as rewards attached to their participation. Nevertheless, falling prey to a culture of entitlement or complacency is almost a guarantee of organizational decline, no matter how many ads are run or proud speeches made.

Changing an organization’s culture is often a lengthy process that will involve a fundamental rethinking of mission, governance and operations. It also means, however, fostering a heightened concern for the small details of daily life that frequently determine how the organization will be perceived and how effective it will be in engaging potential participants. To whom does a prospective member speak, and what are the content and tone of the conversation likely to be? How are visitors or first-time participants met and greeted? Does anyone follow up on an initial contact? Are activities scheduled at times and places that allow the full range of potential participants to take part? Is the language used by leaders and current activists welcoming and non-judgmental, or does it convey a sense of superiority and exclusiveness? Answering these and countless other similar questions well is often far more important to an organization’s success than its mission statement or official policies regarding dues and memberships.

Policies, though, do matter. Take, for example, the issue of requiring individuals to take out memberships or purchase tickets to participate in High Holy Day Services. For some individuals – students and young adults, single parents, the elderly – cost itself may be a problem, although fees are often reduced or waived for those who ask. From an organizational cultural perspective, the issue is a different one: What is the message we send when we say that Jews need to pay in order to pray? Yes, there are real budgetary issues involved for many synagogues. But, do the congregations (and the community) really gain more in the long run by introducing even the hint of “extortion” into the relationship they are seeking to establish with prospective congregants, as opposed to using High Holy Day services as an occasion for displaying their openness to all who may wish to participate (and might well be prepared, in gratitude, to provide voluntary support)? It would be presumptuous to suggest that the latter course is always or unambiguously correct, but it is vital that the question be asked and not dismissed as irrelevant or irreverent.

Throughout Jewish organizational life there are other policies that in one fashion or another may undermine the sincere desire on the part of institutions to foster increased participation. There are policies that reserve honors to those who make the largest financial contributions. There are policies that make families with young children unwelcome at events that demand decorum. There are policies that ask adolescents to segregate themselves from other Jewish youth in accordance with distinctions (e.g., denominational affiliation) relevant largely to adults. Again, these policies and the culture and climate they create are not necessarily “evil,” or even “wrong.” It is vital, however, that organizations and leaders not accept such policies as inevitable, but rather examine them and their impact with a fresh vision.

Ultimately, a focus on organizational change as a vehicle for expanding and deepening participation asks that institutions and their leaders make explicit the connections between the goals and values they espouse and the physical, social and psychological environments that they create. If an organization truly wants to broaden its base of participation, whether in general or from a specific population segment, it must look at itself from the prospective participant’s perspective. Everything from where people sit (do the same people always sit together, forming an impenetrable group?) to the way the telephone is answered sends a message. “Accessibility” is as much a psychological concept as a physical one.

Becoming a genuinely welcoming, nurturing, user-friendly organization is a daunting task, and one that will be approached on different levels depending upon the organization’s raison d’être and functions. We should not expect that a federation fund-raising campaign will look or feel like a synagogue. But at bottom, both will need to respond to the same mandates – for quality performance, openness and respect for the participant – if they are to succeed.

What can be done to further the work of changing organizational cultures and behavior?

First, leaders at all levels can highlight the issues and the need for organizational change. Many Jewish organizations are not so much resistant to the call to become more responsive, welcoming and client-centered as they are ignorant of the need to do so.

Second, since change is difficult under the best of circumstances, we should provide both incentives and instruction to those organizations willing to embark on the process. Leadership education, technical assistance, sharing of knowledge and modest financial support for change can make a critical difference as to whether these efforts gain momentum or flounder. Existing local and national endeavors that aim to foster institutional change, including “continuity” initiatives in communities such as Boston, New York and Minneapolis, and synagogue transformation projects like the Experiment in Congregational Education and Synagogue 2000, provide models for how change can be “seeded” and supported from without.

Third, we can help organizations undertake change by monitoring and publicizing the results of these efforts. Change is a risk, and without reason to believe that one will be better off for having taken the risk, it is unlikely that many organizations (or individuals) will do so. Although the kinds of changes suggested above may seem both minimal and common-sensical, there will be real costs to attempting them. We hope that the results will justify the risks, but we should not affirm this forever on faith alone. The gains need to be demonstrated – and if they fail to materialize, we must try to understand why and what must be done differently.

Organizational change of the type outlined above is not a panacea for all of the problems Jewish institutions are experiencing today in expanding and deepening participation. But the copernican shift involved in looking at institutional life from the perspective of the client has enormous and far-reaching implications. Of all of the steps we might take to make Jewish life more attractive, accessible and affordable, this is probably the most important because it gets to the heart of what the Jewish community must be about on the threshold of a new millennium.