Big data can help us build flourishing Jewish communities

When Eric Fingerhut asked me to join his leadership team at JFNA [The Jewish Federations of North America] his message was clear: we should bring more private sector practice into the federation community, and we need to partner with local communities to achieve this. After spending many years working at a Fortune 50 company, I had brought innovation including health technology into local markets across the country; I had worked closely with engineers and data scientists on big data that was foundational for market growth and was excited about the opportunity to bring my experience to the Jewish community. When I joined JFNA as chief impact and growth officer at the end of 2020, I was warned that I faced an uphill battle: individual communities might be hesitant to work together on data and this is an area where success has been hard to come by. However, I found a different reality: a group of Federation executives who were eager to partner to use data, learn from its insights and energized by a multi city partnership that could advance work locally.   

We started with a Data Coalition (Project Kinneret) that is a POC, proof of concept, and is a national/local partnership. As we gather deidentified data from Boston, Atlanta, Memphis, Buffalo and Houston we are building a denominator, using data that represents more than a half-million Jews and more than $100 million in philanthropy. We are looking at changes in donors, gift sizes, transformation of donors over time, and we are mapping connections to programs so we can better understand and engage individual market customers. The federation executives are co-designing this work – helping to identify trends in our communities that perhaps not surprisingly exist in communities of different sizes and in different areas. We are aggregating this together in technology with an excellent user experience that will enable local markets to both enhance their own data story and understand it in the context of a broader community. All of this is with a goal to drive action – enable local communities to better perform their work and enhance how they serve their local customer base.

And this is the beginning … there are so many questions to answer – How do we use data to better engage our customers? How should we shift business practice from the data we are seeing? What are the data points for a flourishing community?  

Three learnings from our POC:

Leaders enable transformation: The first cohort of the data coalition (Project Kinneret) includes an outstanding group of thoughtful innovators – Marc Baker (Boston), Rob Goldberg (Buffalo), Laura Linder (Memphis), Eric Robbins (Atlanta) and Kari Saratovsky (Houston). This professional leadership is accompanied by an outstanding lay group (Impact and Growth Council), led by Neil Wallack, whose deep expertise in the business and tech world and background as both a local Boston leader and national Jewish leader is shaping this work.

JFNA is uniquely positioned to take on the project: We have the ability to: (a) collect data from a broad variety of communities; (b) aggregate that information in a large data lake (Kinneret!); (c) organize and normalize that data; (d) derive insights through AI-driven analysis, and (e) share those insights back into the system.

We need to build our tech talent and capabilities: We have started hiring from the tech community, but as we build more products to serve the Jewish community we need to expand our professional skills to include more data science, engineering and product management. We have introduced new technology for this project but we need to modernize our digital strategy and tech platforms to build this work. And if you have expertise in this area and want to join us on this transformative journey, please contact me, ruth.raskas@jewishfederations.org).  

Big Data is a big project, but it’s a path through which we can better know our community to improve how we serve it. As the use of technology and data grows across industries, we have a significant opportunity to expand how we use these tools. And, the trends we are learning about living, engaging and giving will help us as we create community in the 21st Century.

Ruth Raskas is chief impact and growth officer of The Jewish Federations of North America.

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