The Power of Big Data to Transform the Jewish Community

April 8, 2016

Schusterman Vice President Lisa Eisen presented as part of a plenary session at the 2016 Jewish Funders Network International Conference in San Diego. The session, entitled “Big Data and the Jewish Community" and co-led by Jake Porway of DataKind, touched on the role of data in the social good space and its potential to inform our work in the Jewish philanthropic sector. Here we share a transcript of her remarks.

Jake [Porway], thank you so much—you are a real visionary when it comes to data and social change.

We just heard Jake give an inspiring talk about the promise of data science. Now, my job—as a non-data scientist and someone in your seat—is to expand on the inspiration and take away the intimidation. My job is to help make this relevant and actionable for each of us and for the field of Jewish philanthropy.

As funders, we are used to having a bird’s eye view. Big data helps give us that. And, as my friend Darin McKeever of the Davidson Foundation notes, it’s less about big data and more about big wisdom: using data for better knowledge about the challenges we face, the solutions we’re applying, and the progress we’re making. Data in and of itself may seem dry and geeky, even scary—but combined with human insight, it can become “data art.”

So I want to talk to you about three things:

  • First, how and why this matters to us as funders.
  • Second, how we can use this to help our grantees.
  • And third, what this means to the Jewish world.

Before I do, let’s have a moment of honest reflection here. Raise your hand if you are freaked out by the thought of big data? Keep your hand up if you are freaked out even by small data?

Well, that was me too. When the term “big data” first started circulating, I thought it was only for people like Jake. I did not see how it was relevant to me or my work.

But then I came to realize its importance, and the best way I can explain it is this: In a time when Jewish life competes in the marketplace of ideas, our offerings have to be more attractive, more compelling, more cutting edge and, above all, more relevant.

Today, that means fully embracing technology. It means harnessing the power of data for the insight we need to make smarter decisions, accelerate our progress and point the way forward. 

So, one of my goals today is to urge you to get started. At Schusterman, all it took to get started was hiring an experienced consultant. He took us from Excel spreadsheets to a powerful Salesforce database that now undergirds all of our work. What if you’ve already started? I encourage you to take it to the next level.

And that leads me to a few words about what the next level might be. There is big data, there is small data, and—this may surprise you—there is medium data.

  • The best definition of big data I have heard is whatever amount it takes to provide new, actionable insight. 
  • Meanwhile, our grantees primarily collect small data.
  • That means that as funders and grantmakers, we sit in the middle. Our role is to aggregate what Jacob Harold, CEO of Guide Star, calls medium data. Think of it as better-structured information, or organized storytelling. As funders, it is our responsibility to be the bridges that support medium data and to become stepping stones to something larger.

Whatever the size, we need more—and better-quality—data. We need it for ourselves, for our grantees and for the entire Jewish community.

Let’s break it down. First, how is it relevant and useful to each of us as funders? For us at the Schusterman Foundation, we mostly use medium data. Here are three examples of how it helps us:

  • Medium data helps us describe performance. I imagine, like many of you, we are collecting a lot more data than we used to about our own work and about our grantees. This information helps us to better understand our reach and impact.
  • Medium data helps us predict what people want. We are collecting data from young adults in our network and will be using predictive intelligence tools to match them with curated opportunities from our grantees tailored to their interests. We are, of course, taking care to ensure their privacy.
  • Medium data also helps prescribe which choices will lead to our desired outcomes. For example, we have developed a survey called the Jewish Leadership Index. It tracks information about how young Jews see themselves as Jewish leaders. Over time, we will have detailed information about where they are, what kinds of support they need and which opportunities will best advance their Jewish leadership journeys.

These are just a few of the ways we use medium data as funders. And this work, it all takes time. Whatever your size, whatever your focus, start collecting more data; hire a tech consultant; purchase a database; make sure you are capturing quality data that can help you be more effective and efficient.

If data is useful for us as grantmakers, it is doubly so for our grantees. They are the ones on the front lines gathering small data in real time.

How can we help them?

  • We can fund technology infrastructure and expertise. That can include support for tools like Salesforce—which, by the way, non-profits can have for free for up to ten licenses—for trainings or for data scientists to help grantees ask the right questions and use data to find solutions.
  • We can incentivize and support creative data use.
  • And we can make bigger, better data a central part of our planning and evaluation.

We covered why this matters to us as grantmakers and how we can help our grantees. So now, that brings me to my third point: how can data advance our entire field of Jewish philanthropy?

Like many in the nonprofit sector, the Jewish community is lagging behind. But we don’t have to be. It’s within our power to make data a communal resource.

As funders, we are uniquely positioned to effect sector-wide change. We can bridge across the work of multiple organizations and help them leverage data for the collective good of our community.

The bottom line? It’s about sharing. It is about combining our data sets to be able to answer big questions and gain fresh insights that can drive communal decisions. We can progress to big data, but only if we share.

Imagine, for example, if we could combine Birthright’s data sets—and others which remain private—with program evaluations and data from different organizations, maybe even with Pew data. Imagine what we would learn about how to engage a generation and shape the Jewish future.

What if the Jewish community was known for being collaborative and transparent, accustomed to sharing our successes and our failures—and perhaps even our data?

What can we do specifically to move toward such a future?

  • We can provide data scientists to ongoing collective and field building efforts.
  • We can help standardize questions so grantees share information in common ways.
  • Most importantly, we can use our grant agreements. We can use them to ask that grantees open-source their data. We can require that they share all their information on GuideStar and share their research on Creative Commons.

In this way, we will help create bigger data to be used toward big wisdom.

There is a great example of this happening right now: the work being done by the Israel on Campus Coalition. They have been collecting enormous amounts of data about college campuses. They combine it with standardized data sets of all their partner organizations. They share it through a community portal, replete with mobile access and real time updates. As ICC director Jacob Baime said to me, “data is driving collaboration and collaboration is driving more data.” The whole field is working more strategically, acting more rapidly, building greater insight and trust, and making a bigger impact on campuses across the country.

In the end, data’s true power stems from its ability to tell a human story. Remember the tech consultant I mentioned earlier? He says that “data is the story of individuals and the story of civilizations—it tells us what is going on with each of us, and it tells us what is going on with all of us.” Data is one of the best storytellers out there; it is our modern day parable, revealing truths where we could not see them before. It is a Haggadah for the digital age—and that is an inspiring idea as we head into Passover!

In closing, what gets me up in the morning and keeps me up at night is the drive for us to be more excellent and more relevant for our young people so the Jewish community will thrive today and survive tomorrow. I hope you feel that drive, too. I know that, together, we can become better equipped to meet the needs of today and secure a vibrant future for ourselves, our children and our grandchildren. And data can help take us to that promised land.

Lisa Eisen Profile Image
Lisa Eisen

Co-President, Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Philanthropies