Learning Opportunity: Closing the Gap between Good Intentions and Bad Results



This fall, the URJ’s Leadership Institute is offering a series of three sessions about key concepts that we hope will inspire sacred action within congregations. In this post, Allison Fine discusses values alignment and “matterness.” To learn more, listen to the recording of her session “Making People Matter – More than Just Something We Say.”

By Allison Fine

Nearly every synagogue faces enormous pressure to recruit and retain members. Yet, when Big Tent Judaism conducted its signature research project (the Environmental Community Outreach Scan) in northern Westchester county last year to test, among other things, how “warm and welcoming” synagogues were, an overwhelming number of synagogues failed to respond to emails and calls from prospective members. While there were nuances, the bottom line is that synagogues are not as responsive as they think we are.

These failures reflect the enormous gap between the good intentions of people running synagogues and the actual experiences of new or existing members. People have lots of choices about where and how to spend their time and money, and increasingly, they reject institutions that use a secret language, make them feel anonymous and unimportant, talk at them rather than with them, and only seem to need them when their dues are late.

This behavior confounds the synagogue leaders who are working so hard to keep people engaged and informed. “We’re busy every day!” they say – answering calls, sending out letters and bills, getting kids ready for their b’nai mitzvah. Yet it is exactly this internal busy-ness, the fear of losing control and the obsession with efficiency, that pushes people farther away.

There is an alternative to this way of thinking and working that I call “matterness.”

Matterness means refocusing efforts to make sure people feel known, acknowledged, and powerful. It happens everywhere – online and on land, in the hallways, in boardrooms, and in living rooms.

Matterness means asking more than telling, putting aside the old management mantras that staff are supposed to have all of the answers and that working fast is the same as working smart.

Here are a few steps congregations can take to increase matterness and begin to close the gap between the values synagogues espouse and the experience of potential and existing members:

1. Check your default settings.

The culture of an institution reflects the values and assumptions of its leaders. If leaders are afraid to let go – if they assume that the answers are all inside and never outside – then the default settings, automatic responses, and processes become closed rather than open. The result is that synagogues become fortresses in which it is difficult for prospective members to know what goes on inside, much less get in to see for themselves. It is the reason so much time is spent in meetings discussing what could possibly go wrong – if the likelihood of that happening is very small.

These defaults need to be questioned to figure out what is powering the to-do list. Questions can include:

  • What are we doing to encourage or discourage new ideas and experiments?
  • To whom do we talk regularly? If it’s the same people over and over again, how can we break this pattern?
  • Do we create new programs behind closed doors rather than talk to our congregants about developing new ones together? Do we even need new programs, or could we just get together and socialize without agendas and curricula and speakers?

2. Work with your people, not at them.

Too often, annual programming becomes a cycle of doing the same thing as last year, with few changes. Time to wake up from business-as-usual!Figuring out what’s going to happen next year shouldn’t just happen behind closed doors, especially when there’s a wealth of latent capital sitting untapped in your congregation.

Ask congregants for their reaction to programming ideas online before they’re set in stone. You can even run a Sunday afternoon programming day where congregants can participate in developing programs that interest them and that they spearhead. Your congregants have skills, passions, creativity, and connections that will be unleashed only when you start co-creating programs with rather than at.

3. Measure matterness.

Synagogues often measure outputs: how many people show up to events, how many new members join, how much was donated to our annual fund. These are useful proxies for satisfaction, but they aren’t enough.

Congregations need to know whether and how they are making people feel known, cared for, and empowered. The questions have to be asked explicitly: “How do we make you feel?” Do you feel like you are known and appreciated here? “When and how do we make you feel like an ATM?” And, of course, “How could we make you feel like you matter more to us?”

Synagogues are vitally important in communities, but before you create one more program or have one more staff meeting that focuses on what could possibly go wrong, stop and ask yourself this question: How would working this way make you feel if you were on the outside looking in?

Allison Fine’s online scholar session, “Making People Matter – More than Just Something We Say,” took place on September 30, 2015. Listen to it online now. 

Allison Fine is among the preeminent guides to the social media revolution. She is author of Matterness: Fearless Leadership for a Social World. In addition, she is the author of the award-winning Momentum: Igniting Social Change in the Connected Age, co-author of the bestselling The Networked Nonprofit.  She is a member of the faculty of the Union for Reform Judaism and serves on the boards of Civic Hall, NARAL, and The Sunlight Foundation

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One Response to “Learning Opportunity: Closing the Gap between Good Intentions and Bad Results”

  1. avatar

    Right on! At Peninsula Temple Sholom in Burlingame, we have recently articulate our values and will be looking at everything we do to find or fix alignment. We’re trying to change the dialogue and the language we use. I’ll definitely add matterness to my repertoire.

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