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Scaling A 93-Year-Old Start-Up

by Adam Lehman |Nov 08, 2016|Comments

This piece originally ran November 7 in eJewish Philanthropy.

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The nonprofit world has enthusiastically embraced the idea that social enterprises can benefit from adopting a “start-up culture,” and Jewish communal institutions are no exception to this trend.  Although this cultural shift is an important first step, it’s neither sufficient nor productive to simply adopt a higher tolerance for risk, experimentation and failure. At best, this change in mindset alone may generate new possibilities, but without the capacity to implement those opportunities worth pursuing. At worst, this higher risk tolerance can just become an excuse for sloppy and inadequate planning and execution.

Before joining Hillel International as its chief operating officer a year ago, I spent 15 years creating, scaling and advising new ventures. Along the way, I learned very quickly that tolerance for risk and failure are just a pre-condition to success in the start-up world. Entrepreneurs and investors who consistently generate outsized returns in high-risk environments rarely do so by sheer luck; instead, they apply proven methods and models which give them a sustainable advantage over less-disciplined competitors. In the same spirit, to succeed in launching and growing a new social enterprise or in re-setting the trajectory of an existing one, the leadership of the organization needs to adopt and apply a host of increasingly refined and proven practices and models.

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At Hillel International, we are committed to making the transition from conceptual embrace of a start-up ethos to disciplined application of the practices which produce success in scaling innovation. Below are three key practices we are adopting at Hillel International, as we work to fulfill our vision of a world where every Jewish student is inspired to make an enduring commitment to Jewish life, learning and Israel.

Enable Customer Success: Following the dot.com bubble, Silicon Valley made a critical transition from a self-centered fascination with technology and innovation for its own sake to an equally intense and far more effective focus on customer experience and success. In both consumer businesses (think of Steve Jobs’ obsession with customer experience) and enterprise software and service ventures, start-ups are maturing into speed-ups and then major enterprises through this focus on ensuring successful adoption of the new products and services they offer. At Hillel International, we are utilizing this same customer-centric focus in how we organize and operate. It starts with clearly defining our customers: the nearly 1,000 Hillel professionals working on campuses in North America and around the world, and the hundreds of thousands of students they and we ultimately serve. With that clarity, we have developed a new customer database (our “Campus CRM”) which provides us an integrated view of all campus Hillels and real time updates regarding our interactions with them. With this enhanced visibility, we are now implementing a structured Campus Success program to partner with campus Hillels around tailored plans that match their needs with the growing array of grants, programs, shared services and other supports we’re offering through Hillel International.

Drive with Data: Silicon Valley has long understood that data is the mother’s milk of 21st century innovation and growth. To that end, Hillel International has taken major strides in recent years toward becoming a data-driven social enterprise. As a fundamental part of our “Drive to Excellence” strategic implementation plan, we have developed “Measuring Excellence,” a data analytics program through which we collect, analyze and contextualize comprehensive data on both student engagement and organizational performance at a campus level. We have rapidly expanded this program from 20 local Hillels two years ago to 80 this year, with commitments from more than 100 campuses to participate next year. “Measuring Excellence” represents one of the largest ongoing data analytics programs in the organized Jewish world, and is providing us invaluable insights into what works when it comes to engaging students, positively influencing Jewish identity formation, and operating an excellent Hillel. We are now embarking on the next phase of our evolution as a data-driven enterprise – by creating new programmatic ways to activate the best insights we’re uncovering, such as through our new “Excellence Accelerator” which will help a dozen Hillels improve their governance, fundraising, financial management and measurement capacities.

Build to Scale: Hillel serves a market of more than 400,000 Jewish students each year. We need to innovate and execute in a way that matches this scale. Hillel International has a track record of building-to-scale. During the past 10 years, our Engagement Internship Program has trained more than 3,000 student interns in our relationship-based engagement methodology, who have in turn engaged more than 125,000 of their unengaged Jewish peers. As we launch new programs (such as our Springboard Fellowship), we remain very mindful of scalability in programmatic, organizational and business model design.

With the above approaches, and other practices and programs promoting scalable innovation described elsewhere – including being social-by-designdeploying design-thinking approaches to student engagement and our recently announced Eleanor Meyerhoff Katz Jewish Innovation Endowment – we will strive to make Hillel the leading model within the Jewish institutional world and beyond of the innovative, efficient and high-impact 21st century social enterprise.

Adam Lehman is chief operating officer of Hillel International.


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  • eJewish Philanthropy
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