LOS ANGELES (JTA) — Can Alzheimer’s research set the tone for the future of the Jewish community?
Gina Kolata’s lead article on the Aug. 13 number of The New York Times focused on an unprecedented breakthrough in research into Alzheimer’s. This breakthrough has led to long-awaited advancements in knowledge about a disease for which prevention and treatment have eluded the medical world for decades.
What was it? The sharing of data among Alzheimer’s institutions, organizations and researchers. The article described the struggle for this collaboration of information and effort among professionals and organizations as equal to the struggle for knowledge about the disease itself.
The key, according to Kolata, was the willingness "to share all the data, making every single finding public immediately, available to anyone with a computer anywhere in the world. No one would own the data.”
This story holds a huge lesson for the Jewish world and its organizations.
It is particularly pertinent now, at a time when the Giving Pledge, the initiative recently put forward by billionaires Warren Buffet and Bill Gates, has received the endorsement of 40 of the world’s wealthiest people, including 13 Jews. They are promising to give away half their wealth within their lifetime.
As Rob Eshman of the L.A. Jewish Journal noted, the biggest opportunity connected with this pledge is that the donors’ monies will then be leveraged, inspiring additional philanthropic investment in the community.
These 13 Jewish potential donors are very savvy business people. And once they discover how ridiculously protective Jewish organizations are about their data, resulting in an inability to share and to work together — an approach that kills the potential for any real advancements in the Jewish community – they may not be quick to give to Jewish charities.
The Jewish community could learn several lessons from the Alzheimer’s research sharing model. As a marketer of Jewish life, I have seen the inability of Jewish organizations to collaborate and share information, resources and intellectual capabilities.
Jewish organizations rarely share their internal data, except for research commissioned by Birthright Israel, Jewish camping and Jewish education. They almost certainly never share mailing lists. Even though they are public trusts, they hide their failures. And, in many cases, they don’t talk openly about their successes, lest their methodologies be stolen by the perceived competition or taken credit for by other people.
This inability to share and collaborate calls into question whether the goal is a successful Jewish community or simply the survival of the organization. Organizations and their leaders often lose sight of the greater goal. To do the real work, we need to collaborate, not compete.
About 14 years ago, I did a marketing campaign for a Jewish organization. The organization never shared the campaign results with me, no matter how many times I asked. Recently, several of those who led the organization at the time told me that the campaign had brought in $25 million. I could not help but think what a loss it was that the community had not had that information so that others could have used similar strategies to reach success.
Similarly, over my career, I have created campaigns that have failed. But the organizations didn’t want to report those failures to their boards, so the information about what not to do also was kept secret. I would see the mistakes I had made repeated by other organizations, resulting in the waste of untold sums. But I could not give them a verified case study that would have opened their eyes. So they often perceived my warnings as a veiled pitch for business.
In many cases, particularly when new organizations are just starting out and needing to reach prospective clients and donors, the quest to share a mailing list with an existing organization — particularly synagogues and Jewish federations — is always a struggle.
Rarely do the larger organizations see this sharing as something good that will build a stronger, more vibrant community and offer people more options and ways of involvement. Instead, they act in a provincial manner, fearful that their donors and participants will be hijacked.
The reluctance to share mailing lists is killing one of our greatest potentials for success. Today, with the Internet, collaboration and list sharing could be powerful and cost-effective. The best way to recruit new Jews is through the networking of already involved Jews. If the community were to share lists and create a force of hundreds of thousands of involved Jews strategically reaching out to their relatives, Jewish neighbors and friends, the result could be extraordinary numbers of newly involved Jews.
We also must learn how to mine, segment, analyze and maintain data in the Jewish world. Often, in countless organizations, even big ones, the best data I can find on donors is minimal — name, address, profession, amount of gift and a few other bits and pieces. Information about the message or issue that resonated with the donor and led to the gift is rarely available. Who are their friends? Who influences them? What time of year did they make their gift? How large is their family? As a marketer, I need data. And such data is rarely captured in a form for local, regional or national analysis that we, as a community, can act upon.
And how often do we see similar organizations working on similar issues and yet acting like competitors? Imagine if they pooled all that effort, brainpower, influence, money and labor, and put their egos and ownership of the issues aside.
Imagine if Jewish day schools were collaborators. Maybe we could find the donors to help lower the costs of a Jewish education.
Imagine if all the pro-Israel and Jewish defense organizations could collaborate. Imagine if synagogues and denominational institutions could collaborate. Imagine if Jewish federations stepped up to the plate and took the lead on a new road toward cooperation.
The model of the collaborative Alzheimer’s initiative is one of critical importance. We need to learn from its example. If I were one of those 13 wealthy Jews who endorsed the Giving Pledge, I’d sure be demanding that a collaborative model be tied to my investment.
(Gary Wexler is the owner of Passion Marketing, which consults with some of the largest nonprofits in the world, including many in Jewish life. He is a JTA board member.)