Four Rules for Maturing Your Field: The Bootcamp Model for Foundations, Associations and Umbrella Orgs

We’re already a month into 2013, and for many, those New Year’s resolutions are becoming a little less resolute every day.  It’s a curious phenomenon we all see each year in gyms, classes and homes. Individuals have the will to make BIG improvements, but without some guidance, clear goals and even a few incentives to get them over the first few big hurdles, successful outcomes are rare.

The same is true for entire communities that are organized around an issue and the umbrella organizations that support them.

Foundations, associations and other umbrella organizations want to provide value to their constituents and mature the fields in which they work.  Their affiliate organizations need to learn new skills, by doing so they lift up the entire community.  Umbrella organizations are challenged to figure out what kinds of programs – Course learning? One-on-one coaching? Gamification? – will work for them. Over the past few years, both See3 Communications and Darim Online have been working with these organizations to implement year-long “Boot Camps” which provide training, coaching and compelling incentives to help their grantees/affiliates fearlessly try new things to advance their work, and the fields in general. We’ve got some insights to share.

In our training, coaching and consulting work over the past years, we’ve learned four important lessons about making organizational change:

1.  Theory alone isn’t enough. When learning a new skill and even more importantly learning how to work in a new landscape (welcome to the ‘connected age’!), you just have to jump in and do it.  It’s like learning how to ride a bike (you have the feel how to balance) or learning a foreign language (your textbook grammar won’t make you fluent on the streets).

This analogy applies to countless new skills and technologies. Take, for instance, online video.

With a recognition that online video is a critical currency for modern communications, The AVI CHAI Foundation wanted to catalyze more schools to use video in their communications, alumni engagement and fundraising efforts. To help them do this well, the Video Academy had to tackle both the “why” and the “how” of online video.

“The Video Academy started by exposing the participants to the scale and importance of video. We then tackled storytelling theory and techniques, production skills, and the art and science of editing video. Importantly, our curriculum concludes with information about distribution, because the best video serves no purpose if no one sees it,” said See3 CEO Michael Hoffman.

In the Jewish Day School Social Media Academy (also funded by The AVI CHAI Foundation), 20 schools are tackling 3 important projects this year:  a social media experiment, a social fundraising experiment, and the development (or revision) of a social media policy.  By the end of the year these schools won’t just be a little more savvy with Facebook and Twitter, they will have accomplished three major initiatives to mature their social media use, their operations and their culture as well.

2. Coaching amplifies everything.  We can only learn so much at once.  It’s impossible to absorb and integrate 100% of what even the best teacher offers, but little adjustments over time can make a huge difference.   The key is to shape a path of improvement, and take one step at a time. 

Sometimes organizations need help shaping the path, and then are fairly self sufficient in moving down the path. In other cases, staff needs someone to hold their hand as they progress to teach, inform, support and guide.  A coach who can help critique each organizations’ work can help them improve exponentially, by maximizing the quality at each step. In a fast moving social media world, the rate at which each team gets up to speed is important, and this 1:1 approach can ignite important change.

In the Union for Reform Judaism Social Media Boot Camp, we offered a widely accessible webinar series to the organization’s hundreds of affiliates, and then offered 10 slots for more intensive, private coaching.  The organizations which applied and received these services were able to improve their processes and product, and now serve as a model for others to emulate.

3. Incentives raise the bar.  With so many opportunities competing for our attention, we have found that incentives help participants focus, strive for quality and take social media seriously.  In each Boot Camp, offers of additional coaching, cash prizes, or matching grants have helped participants take their work to the next level.

“In the Video Academy, we wanted to see the organizations use their newly learned skills by actually making videos. The best way to do that was to hold a video contest. The contest had two tracks — judges to measure quality, and people’s choice to measure participant’s ability to mobilize their social network,” said Hoffman.

Creating a fun, game-like space for participants to apply their newly learned skills made all the difference. The steps-to-win can vary of course, but the end run incentives are critical. We’ve seen that hold true for other programs too. 

In the Jewish Day School Social Media Academy, The AVI CHAI Foundation is offering matching funds to help schools design and implement a social fundraising project.  More than the dollars that the school can earn, the matching funds create excitement around the project, and incentivize schools to take risks and try new things that otherwise would never make it to the top of the priority list.  Last year, the SAR Academy was so effective with their network strategy that they received over 1000 donations of $18 each through Facebook Causes. The Foundation matched $18,000 and they raised over $40,000 total.  It was so successful that a donor put up another matching gift if every alum donated to their annual campaign — even just $1.  It worked.

4.  Sharing with each other raises the field and creates capacity for ongoing learning long after the intensive experience has ended.  There is much to learn, and the participants in these Boot Camps are the ones on the ground making it happen, learning the tiny lessons that accumulate to real success.  Those receiving private coaching through the Boot Camp are developing models that others can learn from and emulate, and are encouraged to share their process, product and insights with the wider group through webinars, blog posts, Facebook groups and other channels.  Pulling the front of the bell curve forward shifts the middle of the curve too.

Each Boot Camp includes structures to promote knowledge sharing and conversation between and among the participants, and the field in general.  In the Jewish Day School Social Media Academy, we host “Sharefest!” webinars throughout the year, where 2 or 3 schools share something that they’ve been working on.  Rarely are these home-run success stories. More often they are mid-stage efforts with many lessons learned, and webinar participants can “workshop” the issues with the presenter as well as learn from them. 

In the URJ Boot Camp Facebook group, staff, board and committee members ask questions of each other, provide feedback, share links to great resources, offer peer critiques and provide moral support.  The group becomes a very functional space, where content expertise is valued, but “boots on the ground” experience is just as important too. 

Getting Started

If you’re thinking about creating a program to build assets, skills and capacity among your affiliates, remember our key takeaways:

•    Your affiliates and grantees need to immerse themselves in the tech and processes.  Create a simple curriculum and provide a pathway for them to get their hands dirty and learn by doing.
•    Provide some coaching and you’ll amplify your results in a huge way.  Your affiliates have the will, but zero knowledge to start them on the road to mastering new skills. By making simple coaching available to them, you can speed up their learning and quality and help them to blast through those little things that are trifles for experts but big scary barriers to novice learners.
•    Incentivize what you’re asking them to do. Things like grants, cash, and even small symbolic prizes really drive participation and quality.  Participants keep their head in the game and make thoughtful progress with a goal in mind.  Provide them with a game, or fun program with that prize at the end and you’ll maximize your results.
•    Make sure they’re talking to each other and sharing their struggles as well as their triumphs.  When your program takes on this workshop aspect, your participating affiliates themselves become coaches and a support system to each other.  What’re more: you create a more vital, networked group of professionals learning new skills simultaneously.

The Social Media Boot Camp can be adapted for local communities (like this one for Jewish orgs in Northern New Jersey funded by a Berrie Innovation Grant), or across fields such as the Jewish Day School or URJ programs.  It's an efficient model to catalyze growth and maturity, and to build the field as we go.

The Reform Movement Should Make the Most of this Moment

As far as Rabbi Eric Yoffie is concerned, Reform congregations need to get with the program, technologically speaking, and they need to do so now. At the recent URJ Biennial in Toronto, the movements head delivered his annual sermon and used the opportunity to encourage every congregation to think seriously about harnessing the power of the internet to enhance their communities:

[T]he web potentially at least empowers our members and democratizes our synagogues. The synagogue is the grassroots address of the Jewish world, and the web gives us an instrument to involve and include Jews as never before. Are our synagogues doing great things in this area? Absolutely. Are we making the most of this potential? Not even close.

Yoffies challenge to congregations is to be applauded. Too many synagogues and Jewish schools have an attitude towards tech thats generations (a relative term, I know) behind their congregants and students who all have Facebook accounts, use Twitter, and are never more than an arms length from their Blackberries and iPhones. But the movements approach to addressing this issue an organized program to train lay leaders to create and maintain congregational blogs is only a first step. The Reform movement has an incredible opportunity on its hands, a chance to take the next steps and to get a lot more serious about using technology to build and strengthen communities.

Four suggestions for maximizing this moment:

1. Congregations should form committees (or task forces) to develop thoughtful strategies for using technology to increase the efficacy of communication. Rabbi Yoffie is right that blogs are a great way for synagogue members to connect online. But there are lots of other technologies social networking, microblogging, podcasting, mass texting that also might be useful to synagogues. And there are those congregations for whom blogging might not be the best fit. Every synagogue should gather their most technologically savvy members (and some socially savvy connectors, if were going to take Malcolm Gladwells advice) to make these sort of decisions for the community. Should the temple have a Facebook page, and if so what kinds of things should be posted there? If the synagogue has a Twitter account, who should be charged with maintaining it? And how often should they tweet? The URJ could be indispensible in providing consultants and experts to help congregations get on this path.

2. Technology can help Reform congregations do an even better job of running organizations that live up to the highest values of the movement. Imagine if a synagogue lived up to its commitment to environmentalism by going totally paper-free. The synagogue staff uses Google Docs to collaborate on projects. Rabbis project Temple announcements (and other administrivia) up on a screen during services so that programs dont need to be printed every week. Instead of spending lots of paper and money on a newsletter, members receive a monthly email newsletter, as well as frequent updates on Facebook and Twitter. Lots of congregations are using all these technologies, and theyre preventing lots of paper waste in the process. The Union can support congregations new to these technologies by teaching professionals to use these tools, empowering congregants with tech skills to be leaders in their communities, and by pairing temples at the beginning of this journey with those whove already found success.

3. Technology is an important part of the future of Jewish education. Im not talking about educational video games. Im talking about using tools to help learners connect deeply to Jewish text, about helping schools better communicate with parents, about using inexpensive video conferencing to bring diverse teachers to isolated Jewish communities. Education is a central part of a synagogues mission, and we need to be asking new questions about how learning is changing. How can we utilize new technologies like Google Wave, Twitter, and YouTube to allow for collaborative (hevruta for the new generation!) learning? How can the internet help us engage (and empower!) parents and families in new ways? How can we use technology to open up the world of Jewish education to better integrate the arts, science, and communication?

Thirty years ago, innovative Jewish educators were using filmstrips, slideshows, and video to bring Torah to life. Now, equally innovative educators are using Flash animation, social media, and hypertextuality to accomplish those same goals. The URJ should nurture and support these sorts of projects and help to bring those tools to congregations and their learners.

4. Technology is an excellent opportunity for collaboration. In the few days before the URJ Biennial, a group of educators gathered for a pre-conference symposium on Jewish identity. One of the teachers at that gathering was Professor Ari Kelman who shared research that suggests that the current generation of young, involved Jews (many of whom are digital natives, if you dont mind sweeping generalizations) are redefining affiliation by resisting joining a single organization, and rather participating in lots of diverse parts of Jewish life. For these Jews, no single institution is the center of Jewish life.

Institutions that pay attention to thinkers like Kelman realize that successful Jewish organizations of the future will be marked by cooperation and collaboration. They also know that efficient and financially responsible Jewish organizations are the ones that dont insist on re-inventing the wheel but rather seek out partner organizations with different types of expertise. To truly move forward to empower member congregations to embrace a 21st-Century social-media-savvy technologically-engaged existence, the Union should seek out organizations, educators, clergy, innovators, experts, academics and thinkers who can help congregations do their best work.

Perfect example: Darim Online has lots of experience helping Jewish organizations effectively utilize social media technology (including blogs!), and that expertise could really help (and in fact already is helping) Reform congregations look at new ways of communicating. Instead of trying to invent their own wheel, the URJ should seek out partners whove already invented pretty good wheels.

Lets be clear: The Reform movement is taking unprecedented steps forward. Rabbi Yoffies sermon and the related URJ initiatives launched this week mark the first time a major movement is encouraging and supporting member congregations to take this trend seriously. This is an important moment, and it would be a shame to waste it.

Josh Mason-Barkin, director of school services at Torah Aura Productions, is a member of a Reform congregation and a graduate of HUC-JIR. He blogs at You can find his twitter feed at He frequently contributes to a conversation about Jewish Education in the 21st century on Twitter under the hashtag #jed21

Why I Feel Like Lucy

I’m in Toronto at the NATA conference, the Reform synagogue executive director’s preamble to the URJ Biennial which starts later this week. The participants approach our table and ask all sorts of great questions, from “how much time do I need to spend on this?” to “how are thoughts about privacy changing with all this social media use?”

“Our members are older and aren’t online so I don’t really need to worry about this, right?” The answer: Actually, you do. (Hint: if you’ve got an aging demographic, it’s all that much more important to be engaging younger members and prospects in meaningful and relevant ways, to show that you can serve their needs, and to make sure you still have a vibrant membership in the coming years and decades.)

psych-supp-peanutsMore than anything, I’m providing little tutorials here. “I need a Twictionary!” said one woman. So I pulled up Twitter and walked her through some basic vocabulary and why things like retweets (RT) and hashtags (#urjbiennial) are so useful and important. @joel_elliot said “I’m curious about Twitter, but I don’t know how to get started. So I turned around the laptop and got him signed up. It’s fun, it’s valuable, and it makes me feel a bit like Lucy. Except I’m not even charging 5 cents.

If you’ll be at the URJ Biennial in Toronto this week, stop by our booth (#320) for free advise, a tutorial, or just to borrow our internet if you need. And come to the Tweetup Thurs Nov 5 from 5:30-7:00 at the Intercontinental Hotel Bar — just a casual gathering of people who are using or curious about social media. I promise a fun bunch of “tweeples”. Add that to your twictionary!

Torah at the Center: Centering On Technology

Get “Centered” – URJs Torah at the Center, Spring 2009 is hot off the press! This must read edition focuses on technology and Jewish education. Articles include: The Digital Culture that Shapes our Educational Environment (Brian Amkraut); Professional Learning at Your Fingertips (Lisa Colton and Caren Levine); Podcasting for Smarties (Heidi Estrin); Tech-Kun Olam: Using Technology to Make a Difference (Deborah Stern Harris); Integrating Modern Technology Into Jewish Supplementary Schools (Eran Vaisben); Taking the Siddur Live (Rabbi Judd Kruger Livingston); Assistive Technology: Opening a World of Possibility for Individuals with Special Needs (Shana Erenberg); Youth Culture on Facebook (Scott G.Hertz); and lots of other tasty morsels for your learning pleasure!

Imagine the uses of the URJ’s “Chai Dictionary”

The URJ is promoting an online dictionary that’s part of their Chai Curriculum. While it’s pretty simple, and not terribly extensive (maybe I should say “there’s room to grow”), it’s a very useful tool for those learning Hebrew, or wanting to brush up before the High Holy Days or for any other reason.

Sample of the Chai Dictionary

Broken into 7 levels, words are listed in alphabetical order (in transliteration – which is exactly the way to do it for the intended audience). It offers the Hebrew spelling with vowels, the translation and… audio! Furthermore, there are notes in some entries about where the word or phrase is found, or contextually used, which is really helpful.

The one thing I wish they included was a search function. For users who have a word in mind but aren’t using this tool specifically with the Chai Curriculum materials, one might need to toggle through the seven levels to a) find the word, or b) determine that it’s not even on the list.

I’ve also found a number of Jewish organizations who employ non-Jews who need a Hebrew tutorial here and there, and interfaith couples where the non-Jewish (or not raised Jewish) spouse is seeking clarification of something. Not to mention the very-common (and exciting, I’ll add) moment when kids come home from Hebrew school knowing something their parents don’t! And I’m sure there are many other uses. How might you use this online audio dictionary? What do you think could make it even more useful?