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The Rebirth of BBYO: A Decade of Lessons Learned

by Lisa Eisen

This month, I had the pleasure of celebrating the tenth anniversary of a 90-year old organization. It was exactly 10 years ago that BBYO established itself as an independent organization, leaving its birthplace at B’nai B’rith International and starting a journey to reinvent itself into the thriving, energetic force that today is reaching and engaging more than 36,000 teens annually.

When our foundation got involved in 2000, BBYO had just over 12,000 teen members, and the numbers were dwindling precipitously. Morale was low, the organization had many staff vacancies, and it was in serious financial distress. The outlook was bleak, and many had written off BBYO as a failure of the organized Jewish community.

But where others saw failure, Charles and Lynn Schusterman recognized the potential that BBYO had to impact the lives of tens of thousands of Jewish teens. Charles had a penchant for risk-taking in his oil business and was not afraid to take a chance for the possibility of a big return, even if it meant a few failures, or dry wells, along the way. He brought that spirit to his philanthropy – and to BBYO – before his untimely death. It was left to Lynn, with the help of her professional team, to steward their shared vision. This was my first major grant as a newcomer to Jewish philanthropy and, especially as a BBYO alumna, I was inspired by, and filled with a tremendous sense of responsibility for, helping BBYO achieve independence, sustainability and revitalization.

A decade later, while much work remains to be done, it seems clear that BBYO’s turnaround is a philanthropic and organizational success story. BBYO can be held up as a shining example of an institution that has successfully transformed itself to meet the quickly evolving interests and needs of a new generation and transitioned into and embraced the digital age. The proof lies not just in the tripling of teen involvement numbers, but also in the results of a recent independent research study on BBYO teens and alumni, which confirmed empirically that BBYO makes a significant and enduring impact on Jewish teens.

This hard won accomplishment has come about through much dedication and hard work by the professional, volunteer and teen leadership of BBYO, as well as by its champions and supporters, including our Foundation. On this anniversary, it is appropriate to reflect on what has been accomplished through our collective efforts and also to share some of the key lessons we have learned along the way, lessons that we hope are applicable to other organizations seeking to re-imagine and recreate themselves in a way that ensures their long-term relevance and deepened impact.

Identify and invest in the right leadership. In order to change direction, an organization needs a leader who has vision, drive and the ability to implement new ideas. The right person will be entrepreneurial and willing to think differently about how to build on strengths and tackle challenges. The inspiring vision and outstanding abilities of Matt Grossman, the executive director of BBYO, have been instrumental to BBYO’s dramatic turnaround. He has built an excellent team and creating a pipeline of strong professional leadership was a key priority for the decade. A timely investment by the Jim Joseph Foundation established the Professional Development Institute (PDI), which enabled BBYO to attract new talent to the organization while retaining its high performers.

Cultivate committed, energized partners and stakeholders. Without the support of a devoted group of funders and lay leaders, a successful reinvention is simply not possible. Inspiring them with a bold vision, and identifying ways to energize them and involve them in the mission – in this case, helping to create an organization that will give a new generation of Jews meaningful, joyful Jewish experiences – is critical both to initial momentum and to long-term sustainability. With BBYO, we were able to attract partners invested in the enterprise early on, and their willingness to take on responsibilities and leadership roles has been critical to BBYO’s success. A dedicated board, led successively by board chairs Lynn Schusterman, Howard Wohl and Estee Portnoy, has helped steward the organization with intelligence and enthusiasm. Most importantly, BBYO’s teen and alumni leaders have been unleashed and encouraged to join in the rebuilding of the organization and the movement.

Be data-driven and measure your impact. With BBYO, one of the most important first steps was learning about the contemporary teen audience by compiling the best research available about teens in general, and Jewish teens in particular, to ensure the organization would adapt to meet their needs. Throughout the past decade, collecting and analyzing data about teens and what resonates most with them has helped drive BBYO’s rapid growth. The impact study released last year found that teens who participate in BBYO are more likely to remain involved in Jewish life, hold leadership roles in their community, invest time and money in Jewish causes, develop a strong Jewish network and give their children a Jewish education. This data is vital to assessing the value of our investment and to refining the program for even greater future impact.

Be willing to invest in and implement cutting-edge systems. BBYO has been able to progress as quickly and as effectively as it has because it invested time, thought and resources into upgrading its infrastructure and instituting cutting-edge technologies to undergird systemic change. From participant tracking to accounting, human resources and using outcome-based data and metrics to measure success, BBYO built a strong scaffolding to support growth and to enable it to run as effectively and efficiently as possible.

Have patience. Investing in organizational change requires patience and a willingness to take a long view, as well as the motivation to work aggressively in the short-term. Change will not come overnight, but a persistent, thoughtful and concerted effort will ultimately yield results. Ten years after we helped BBYO achieve its independence, we are truly beginning to feel the momentum of a blossoming movement of Jewish teens and alumni committed to Jewish leadership, community, service and Israel. The process has shown us that with a serious investment of time, money and “sweat equity,” it is possible to achieve successful transformation and serious impact.

Ten years from now, as BBYO is transitioning from its teenage years into young adulthood, I hope we will once again be celebrating many new successes and exponential growth. And, as we mark the next decade, I hope that we are surrounded by active, engaged Jewish young adults who came of age during BBYO’s rebirth and who are now taking on leadership roles and fostering a spirit of community for themselves and future generations. There will surely be some challenges, and undoubtedly BBYO will have to adapt in ways we cannot yet imagine, but with its strong leadership, data-driven strategies and cutting-edge systems, it is an organization that is resilient, nimble and positioned to have an even greater impact in the decade ahead.

Lisa Eisen is the National Director of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation.

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