That Noise Is ‘Big Data’ Knocking
Tue, 11/13/2012
Special To The Jewish Week
Sacha Litman: Trying to prevent Jews from leaking out of the pipeline.
Sacha Litman: Trying to prevent Jews from leaking out of the pipeline.

Think about the average Jewish organization’s database of contacts for a moment. What percent are either one-time participants or one-time donors? Seventy percent? Eighty percent? More? In most of the 800 nonprofit organizations we’ve worked with, these individuals who have dropped off radar screen constitute the vast majority of names in their database.

So what happened to these people?

Let’s take, say, Jen Schwartz as an example. Did Jen dislike this Jewish organization? Is she lost to the Jewish community forever? No. Our research suggests instead that Jen’s needs, interests, life stage, or geography changed. And because the organization did not have the time get to know Jen, it was unable to adapt to keep her engaged. Jen still may receive its weekly one-size-fits-all e-mail in her inbox, but like 87 percent of the other recipients, she deletes the e-mail without reading it because she assumes (correctly or not) that it does not offer something that meets her needs and interests. Or perhaps, like many organizations, its data on Jen is out of date and it does not have correct contact information for her. Or Jen attended an event where someone forgot the sign-in sheet. 

The bottom line is that even most federations tend to have very incomplete information in their databases. And because Jewish organizations operate their databases in silos, with each guarding it from the other, we force every organization to keep starting from scratch. For example, every fall, tens of thousands of Jewish students arrive on college campuses. Ninety percent of them have done something Jewish before — synagogue, camp, youth group, early childhood program, etc. But do Jewish organizations on campus like Hillel get the benefit of that knowledge? No. Then the same thing happens again when they graduate, because Hillels aren’t connected to organizations that target young adults.

The Jewish community spends more than a billion dollars a year on Jewish identity programs, yet more Jews leak out of the pipeline than stay connected and involved from cradle to grave. This is why almost every demographic study shows that at any given point in time only about 20 percent of Jews are active in Jewish life despite all the investment, even though about 85 percent of Jews interact with a Jewish program at some point in their lives.

Yet as Home Depot founder and philanthropist Bernie Marcus has stated, “The Jewish community is the only franchise I know that actively tries to lose its participants half a dozen times and spends its money trying to find them again.” The culprit? Weak databases and no data sharing between organizations. 

As every business student learns, customer retention is far cheaper than customer acquisition. GrapeVine is a new organization working to help the Jewish world retain Jen Schwartz and majority of Jewish individuals and families labeled “uninvolved.” An independent entity, GrapeVine aims to become the Jewish world’s Amazon, Netflix or Pandora by using hard numbers instead of anecdotes and assumptions. We’re active in New York, Toronto, Columbus, Ohio, and Rhode Island and funded by community federations, several private foundations including the Jewish New Media Fund, the Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life and partners like Council of Young Jewish Presidents. We enable organizations large and small to attract more participants, better engage those who participate infrequently and keep them all in the Jewish pipeline.

“Database marketing, now known as ‘Big Data’ is the way all large businesses are going. The Jewish community can hop on this train now or get left in the dust,” said Gordon Hecker, executive director at the Columbus Jewish Federation and senior vice president of Corporate Marketing at Nationwide Insurance, one of the nation’s largest insurance companies.

GrapeVine puts the individual Jew at the center and focuses on retaining him or her in Jewish life. Working with participating organizations in each community, we send Jewish opportunities, such as events, articles, blogs and informal gatherings via multiple communication mobile apps, Facebook and e-mail. The communications are individually targeted for every Jew in the community according to his or her needs, interests, life stage and geography. Recipients control what organizations can see their data, and are free to opt out at any time.

Like Amazon’s, our algorithm improves over time, tracking all interactions and feedback, to provide individuals opportunities that are a better fit, even as their needs change. And in this way, GrapeVine itself is gradually building that high-quality, shared database.

All this translates to smarter, more efficient fundraising on the part of organizations, and a greater sense of connection on the part of individuals, who will be more eager to support the Jewish organizations they remain in touch with as their lives change.

The big ideas right now in the nonprofit world are “big data” and “collective impact.” Organizations working toward the same goal, as we are, need to collaborate and leverage their information. And all Jewish organizations, their participants and supporters deserve good data.

Sacha Litman is founder of Grapevine and managing director of its sister organization Measuring Success. A Wexner Graduate Fellow, he holds degrees from Kellogg, Harvard, and Yale, and worked for McKinsey & Company. Reach him at sacha@measuring-success.com