One of my favorite lines regarding the urgency of Big Data adoption in the Jewish community comes from Gordon Hecker, Executive Director of the Columbus Jewish Federation and former SVP of Marketing at Nationwide Insurance: “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.” How right he is. Fortunately, Jewish organizations across the country are employing Big Data to solve some of their most pressing problems, including leaky pipelines. 

In one recent project, we worked within the Dallas Jewish community to run a community-needs and market research assessment.  Dallas’s Jewish population was optimistically estimated to hover around 50,000 individuals, though only about 20% were actively affiliated. To the surprise of many, our Big Data approach not only identified that the community holds at least 60,000 individuals—20% more than anticipated—but also found ways to identify and reach each of them. What tools were used to help find this hidden population?

It all began with a decision by leaders in the Dallas Jewish community to take a different path from traditional sampling methodology. We took a novel approach seeking out all the data in the community. Measuring Success aggregated the databases from 50 Jewish organizations in Dallas. The databases included names of currently active members or participants, plus people who had not been involved for years. After cleaning up the data, appending new data records, and accounting for error, we found more than 60,000 unique individuals who were alive and living in the geography of the Dallas Jewish community.  

What about the children of those who had not been involved in the community recently, you might be wondering? We were able, through data appending, to add the names and ages of children of uninvolved community members.  What about those Jews who were never involved? Using the principal of one-degree-of-separation, we used the Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter accounts of involved community members to reach out to peers who had never attended an organizational event.  In all, we identified far more Jews than the community ever dreamed they had.

Past studies show that only 20-25% of Jews are active in a Jewish organization at any given time. Yet this figure is very misleading, since another 60% are involved at some earlier point in their lives but are no longer active, and 15% have never been active.  We often bemoan the paucity of participation in Jewish life, but the real problem is our leaky pipeline. We are not doing a good job of engaging Jews in their Jewish journeys as their needs, interests, friends, life stage, and geography change. We remain program-centric, instead of customer-centric.

To understand the degree of overlap between the Dallas organizations, we examined the number of databases on which individuals appeared. Of the known constituents, 85% were on three or fewer community lists and 60% were in only one organizational database. On the opposite side of the spectrum, 4% of the population was in eight or more databases.  

In our communities, we spend a disproportionate percentage of our attention on the most active participants—the 4% leadership cadre noted above, or the 20-25% that seek out Jewish involvement. True, they are more receptive. Those tens of thousands who are no longer involved, we assume, are not interested.  But as we know from the Pew Study, this is not correct.  Their life circumstances have merely changed. Think about yourself, and how transformations in your life stage or geography have affected your community involvement. If we re-approach this population group with new messages targeted directly to their current phase of life, we can certainly win many back.   

The Obama campaign won the 2012 election, in large part, because of its investment in Big Data. The DNC invested years of time and tens of millions of dollars creating a voter file that was so robust that it could predict with great accuracy the issues that resonate with individual voters in key swing states. The capacity that the campaign used, which is the same that Netflix, Amazon, Google, and many other consumer companies employ, involves Data Aggregation, Predictive Analytics, Targeted Marketing, and Real-time Business Intelligence tools.  Unfortunately, our Jewish community lacks the implementation of these capacities. 

The Pew study has challenged our community to do some things differently if we want to move the needle. If Big Data has become instrumental to the DNC’s gaining votes for Obama’s election and selling books on Amazon, movies on Netflix, or ads on Google or Facebook, do we not believe our Jewish community’s future is as important?   We can engage our community using the same tools. The Dallas project, along with similar efforts through GrapeVine and other ventures we have been running in the communities of Los Angeles, New York, Columbus, Rhode Island, and Atlanta are but the tip of the iceberg.  But it will require a serious commitment of our community leadership in Big Data to see it come to full fruition.

Sacha Litman, a Wexner Graduate Fellowship Alum from Class 13, is the Founder and Managing Director of Measuring Success, a firm that combines quantitative tools, advanced analytics, and training to help mission-centric organizations make data-driven decisions and is also CEO of GrapeVine.  He holds his M.B.A. with highest distinction from Kellogg (Northwestern), an M.P.A. from Harvard's Kennedy School and a B.S. in applied mathematics, summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa, from Yale University. Sacha previously worked for McKinsey & Company and Credit Suisse First Boston, and was the Director of Strategy for Hillel.  Sacha lives in Washington DC and can be reached at