Reviving Synagogue Communities Using Smart Tech

September 29, 2022Allison Fine and Beth Kanter

Walk into any synagogue back office and you will find a frantic game of whack-a-mole in which volunteers, clergy, and staff's days are eaten up by answering endless emails and phone calls asking for help or information. Too often, the "real work" of building stronger relationships and problem solving is done after hours.

Email and other technologies are a huge factor in why employees feel like they're always on the clock. For instance, on average, workers check their email 74 times a day. This "always-on" culture accelerated while synagogues began facing declining membership before the pandemic and has only intensified since. Even if clergy or staff are cut, the work demands don't decrease. As a result, remaining clergy or staff or volunteers are even more overwhelmed and are burning out at alarming rates.

There is a solution to these problems, but the form it takes might surprise you: more technology. Before you throw your hands up in disgust at the idea of more tech promising to make our work lives better, let us explain.

In our new book, The Smart Nonprofit, we coined the phrase "smart tech" to describe the universe of technologies that includes Artificial Intelligence (AI), machine learning, and natural language processes. These technologies find patterns within data sets to make predictions about how people will act. The commercial availability of smart tech has skyrocketed, while computing power has increased and costs have decreased.

You may already be using smart tech personally. It is likely that you have already bumped into smart tech with voice-activated systems like Alexa. You may have already encountered a chat bot online when changing an airline reservation, buying a pair of shoes, or finding out more info about COVID-19. Or maybe, you have seen the Repentance Bot on Twitter.

Repentance Bot was created by Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg as a tie-in with her new book, "On Repentance and Repair: Making Amends in an Unapologetic World." The bot responds to "fauxpologies" with encouragement to do better using a framework that Rabbi Ruttenberg outlines in her book. Coupling the ancient ritual of repentance with smart tech might seem incompatible, but as Miriam Brousseau, one of Repentance Bot's designers said to us, "ancient wisdom has modern application, and now is the time to learn. So why not bring Torah into the age of AI?"

Chatbots are perhaps the most widely adopted smart tech used by nonprofit organizations because they are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, ready to help members and donors by answering questions and providing information. This can significantly increase your membership and donation rates.

Extra Life, Children's Miracle Network Hospitals' 24-hour gaming marathon, has many Canadian participants and donors, who had questions about how their donations would be processed. To quickly answer these questions, Extra Life added a chatbot to their donation page, configured to only show up for Canadian donors. This way, Canadian donors received the information they needed while everyone else's experience was unaffected.

Inexpensive commercial products powered by smart tech are available right now to screen resumes, answer routine questions from congregants, update budgets, organize meetings, find information in organizational archives, and more. Perhaps the most likely place to find the use of smart tech in our synagogues is fundraising. Many smart tech tools are available to make fundraisers more effective. These tools can find prospective donors, identify donors for re-engagement, suggest fundraising strategies, generate communication drafts, and more. A smart tech tool can analyze thousands of people in your database and find those most likely to make major gifts in minutes.

Incorporating smart tech into your organization is worthwhile because it can free clergy, staff, and volunteers from the time they currently spend on administrative tasks. In our book, we call this the "dividend of time," which can be used to build stronger relationships with members, share stories, and solve problems.

However, the dividend of time only becomes available to organizations that understand how to use the technology well. Otherwise, it will just be used to make you go even faster (if that's possible.) For instance, anyone can grab an AI-powered software product and start sending out fundraising emails with language customized to each donor, but it will just become spam filling up everyone's inbox. Using smart tech well is a leadership challenge, not a technical one. Synagogue leaders need to prepare to use smart tech now, before it becomes embedded in their efforts. You need to ensure that your use of smart tech is:

  • Human-centered: Leaders need to find the sweet spot between people and smart tech, while ensuring that people are always in charge of the technology.
  • Prepared: Leaders must actively reduce bias embedded in smart tech code and systems. A thoughtful, participatory process is required to select values-aligned systems, vendors, and consultants.
  • Knowledgeable and reflective: Leaders need to lean into what smart tech is and what it does. Once automated systems are in place, leaders need to be vigilant about whether the technology is performing as intended, or whether unintended consequences have arisen, and how end users feel about the new systems.

Synagogues understand that their fundamental purpose is to build community. To do this, we need to continue to build the path to a deeply relational way of being, where every member feels known, included, and appreciated. When used well, smart tech creates this opportunity. Let's lean into this next chapter to create a richer, more meaningful, and more sustainable synagogue life together.

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