The following is a guest blog post by Dan Cohen, Board President of Oakland (California) Hebrew Day School; Debbie Bamberger, Board President of Tehiyah Day School; and Lisa Sadikman, Board Secretary of Contra Costa Jewish Day School.
Put 40 Jewish education leaders in a room and surround them with good food and a collaborative environment… What do you predict will happen? Will they engage in a six-hour debate about the phrase “sustainability”? Or perhaps begin to address some of the thorniest problems in the day school field?
Last week, three Bay Area day schools (Oakland Hebrew Day School, Tehiyah Day School, and Contra Costa Jewish Day School) decided to find out. We convened—with the assistance of Cheryl Alpert, PEJE’s Strategy Manager for Advocacy and Marketing—for a first-ever Joint Board Meeting, to look for sustainability solutions for our whole community.
The result was greater—much greater—than we had planned. In fact, the enthusiasm generated among our three workgroups was so overwhelming that we plan to continue shared efforts in the months ahead. The meeting was electric in feeling and charged with possibility. Please consider this to be our initial report to the day school world. We hope it can be useful to other schools/communities facing similar challenges.
1. Finance/Financial Sustainability Group
The Financial folks invested much time on three central ideas:
Building a community endowment to support financial aid. This idea has been built in communities across the country. We’d like to do the same. One interesting wrinkle we explored: a pre-tax feature that could enable lower tuition to fund (collectively) financial aid/scholarship. The question we asked ourselves, “Could we lower tuition and instead collect contributions to a charitable endowment collective?”
Exploring every cost-sharing option available. The participants warmed to this idea but found that there may be limited near-term savings. However, collaborating on joint marketing efforts at preschools and community-wide advocacy might yield enrollment, marketing, or development successes yet unidentified.
Finally, the burden on families today requires creativity beyond the resources of the individual schools. To that end, we wondered if an interest-free, or low-interest, tuition loan program might appeal to the general community.
2. Marketing/Community Advocacy Group
“How do Jewish day schools get on the short list for consideration by Jewish families looking at kindergarten?” the Marketing Advocacy group asked itself. Which led to a sub-question: “How do we get Jewish preschools and the rabbinate to advocate for Jewish day schools?”
The lack of obvious answers prompted Cheryl Alpert to say, “A lot of what we need to do needs inventing.”
We concurred. After much conversation, the group produced the following big ideas:
Leveraging Our “Finished” Product. Our most salient proof points for the value we offer are our graduates and our graduating students. We will explore ways to engage our 7th and 8th graders in community service/education efforts at Jewish preschools.
Make Choosing a Day School an Easier Decision. We talked about offering monetary credit for families who are about to enroll their first child in a day school. This program has been attempted in other communities and even by one of our schools, but we can’t sustain this on our own—it has to be a community commitment.
Take Digital Marketing Up a Few Notches. Each of the schools uses social and digital media for marketing. While we recognize face-to-face communication is crucial, having a strong on-line presence, especially as we reach out to prospective parents and donors, will be a crucial tie-breaker. We discussed creating a joint marketing effort, collaborating on Facebook/YouTube pages that aggregate our successes, and conducting interviews with former skeptics who have become our strongest advocates.
3. Development/Endowment Group
One of the schools, OHDS, has recently completed a successful launch of an endowment campaign with over $2 million raised. Another school, CCJDS, has been able to identify and make deep connections with donors with vast means, but no prior connection to day school. Tehiyah has recently added capacity on the professional and lay side to target leadership donors. Each of the schools also participated in a community-wide legacy giving effort sponsored by the Jewish Federation and Foundation of the East Bay.
Each school realizes that we must exhaust every opportunity to sustain our schools through endowment and legacy. However, there are many possible donors who have yet to connect with our shared mission and we recognize that only through joint efforts can we connect to them.
We talked through the notion that we have an “at-risk” Jewish population here in the East Bay. We felt we could work together to highlight day school as a crucial solution to the high risk of assimilation so prevalent here. Through this effort, we may be able to address our fundraising efforts to a wider circle of philanthropies and donors, especially to those who otherwise tend to give to local needs.
Many of the ideas that emerged from this workgroup echoed the Finance & Marketing group—not a huge surprise. Much of the discussion centered on creating a community endowment. However, what was noteworthy was the urgency and immediacy of the next steps this group felt. We brainstormed names of possible donors, foundations, and key connectors, and concluded: The fight for our shared future begins with contacts we make today.
Newly Opened Paths
Our East Bay effort is just taking its first steps, but we’re thrilled at the new paths that have opened for us. What gives us special hope is that we know we’re not the only ones walking this road: there are other areas around the country in which this sort of communal approach is moving forward.
If you’d like to know more about how our collaborative project turns out, keep an eye on this blog (you haven’t heard the last from us!); and if you’d like to share your own collaborative experiences, please respond them in the comments section below.
The more we share, the more we’ll learn—and the more financially sustainable we will ultimately become. We are excited about the possibilities!