I was in Israel when Rabbi Wernick presented his webinar on the strategic plan but took the time last night to watch all of it and review the associated documents. If you have not done so I would highly recommend it even if you have it on in the background as you do some other work as it is very long (over 1hr and 40 minutes). You can find the webinar and related materials at http://www.uscj.org/index1.html . It would be useful if going forward if more frequent webinars or plan updates were put out so people can feel more informed about the plan and its progress.
Whether or not you agree or disagree with all or part of the strategic plan Rabbi Wernick and his senior management colleagues should be commended for nicely responding to our requests for more information on the implementation of the strategic plan in a time manner. The Webinar clearly shed some additional light on the implementation of the plan and clarified what some of the changes that will be made in how USCJ operates. It is somewhat clear that many parts of the plan are still under development and the implementation time and cost is somewhat uncertain. There are many different variables in this plan which have no proven track record and hence as with any project the increase in the number of unknown variables increases the risk that the plan will not be implemented on time and within budget. What was lacking from the presentation was any real concrete time based milestones that added much direct value to the synagogues.
The following are the goals listed for the end of this calendar year:
Hire a human resources professional who specializes in
turnarounds, directing and managing internal cultural changes, and
• Re-imagine Koach.
• Begin pilot programs for young adults.
• Establish a high-level commission to examine and oversee the
integration of educational programs.
• Establish a new governance model, including new bylaws and a
The only other specific time boxed goal in the presentation material was to have $925,000 in fundraising in this fiscal year (not sure if this is an annual amount or over several years) and have that it increase to $3-4 million by 2015.
What this essentially means is that synagogues will be seed funding this plan for at least 3 years in the hope that they will be getting increased value sometime during this three year period to justify their investment. The issue of course is that many financially struggling synagogues are not venture capital firms that have excess money to seed investments especially with the uncertainty that the investment will yield them profitable value at the end of the day in a business model that is somewhat untested with a number of uncertain key variables. It is also somewhat unclear whether a one size fits all model will work in all regions of USC J or whether the model may be need to be modified to a certain extent for specific characteristics of a particular region (The METNY region with a high concentration of synagogues in close proximity is one example of a region that I believe needs a modified approach while adhering to the main components of the plan).
The value of what USCJ will offer your synagogue really will depend on a few items:
a) How good are the KRMs in your region? Question here will be is what is being recruited for and the associated salary good enough to attract the right type of talent for this role that will not have high staff turnover and that are not too junior so as not to be able to make an appropriate impact. You can see the job posting for this position here https://www.jewishjobs.com/cgi-bin/index.cgi?action=uvj&job_id=16928
b) Will their workload of 40 – 50 synagogues allow them enough time to really get to know the congregations and be able to fulfill their roles properly? This is an admitted unknown in the webinar and there is a reliance on volunteers to assist them as well.
c) The KRMs are essentially acting as concierges trying to understand the needs of the customer synagogues and match those needs with either resources that United Synagogue is providing directly, resources that USCJ is providing through an outside vendor or to connect the synagogue with a USCJ vetted outside vendor. It is still somewhat unclear whether resources that a congregation will need will be part of their dues from USCJ or a separate expense for the congregation of a combination of both. My feeling is the latter based on the Webinar where USCJ will be offering certain programs and tools to congregations as part of their dues and referring congregations to outside resources that in some cases will charge fees for their services. It should be noted that the use of the KRMs in this concierge capacity will likely mean that region wide locally initiated programs i will no longer occur and that regional boards will really have no substantive meaning if they exist at all since no resources or budget is being allocated for this. The model clearly is one where the synagogues are being served directly and regions simply become service areas. USCJ might hold region wide programs or events but that will be part of their overall service offering controlled by the national office.
d) The question will then arise how much value do the KRMs really add to a synagogue as a person who can identify and connect your synagogue to these services (aka do you need a concierge or can you identify your own needs, do your own due diligence and get the services you need on your own). That will vary by synagogue.
e) The other three questions that arise are i) how good are the services being offered (only time will tell) ii) can you get comparable services less expensively when you factor in what you are paying for dues and iii) are the services being offered ones that your congregation really needs to justify its dues payment. Again this will all vary by congregation.
All of this is not to say the model does not have merit as it is achieving the useful goals of creating closer and tighter relationships with our synagogues through KRMs, providing a centralized service offering to synagogues that has been vetting using both internal and external resources and potentially lowering dues which many synagogues desire. In this respect it is somewhat similar to the Chabad franchise model which has had much success but is a fee for service model and not a dues based model (hence how dues will be determined going forward will be somewhat important for the success of the model). The core issues as I have noted on many previous occasions is whether this model will show sufficient value to the synagogues to justify their dues levels, are the synagogues willing to seed fund this model for several years and most importantly in my view can this model be executed in a transparent and reasonable time frame with USCJ leadership being held accountable for its execution (since after all even VC firms do not fund things forever without seeing benchmark goals and objective being met that crease value and if they do not see it they either get rid of the investment or change management).
I do believe the model has potential if executed well on a timely basis and priced correctly (different dues levels vs. fee for service charges) and if it allows for modifications on a regional basis where appropriate to take advantage of regional needs, synergies and cost efficiencies. However the execution risk in my view on certain aspects of the model is fairly high for a variety of reasons and unless real value can be shown in a shorter time frame than three years as I question whether synagogues will be willing to spend the funds to seed it for very long.
Steven Katz, IPP
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