Last week I posted a blog where I argued that we should view ourselves as stakeholders as opposed to customers with respect to our shuls and Yeshiva day schools. I wrote that, “To my mind, shul members and yeshiva day school parents who adopt the stakeholder model ask at least two questions under these circumstances: (1) How can I best support my institution? (2) How can I best supplement my spiritual growth which may have been curtailed due to lost synagogue or Yeshiva day school opportunities because of COVID?” I received a lot of thoughtful public and private comments to my blog which helped me refine my thinking on this topic and I would like to share those thoughts here.
In a world with one community school and one community shul, everyone sends their children to the same school and attends the same shul. It seems easier, then, for every member to be a stakeholder of the community school and shul. However, if there are multiple schools or shuls from which to choose, then it seems that what draws an individual to a particular school or shul is the services provided by that institution to the individual. It was suggested to me that this dynamic might lead one toward a more customer-oriented model. However, while I understand that families might be “customers” as they “shop around” and select the school or shul that fits them best, I would argue that once we select a shul or school then we should adopt the stakeholder model. In other words, once we select the communal institutions that we will entrust with our family’s spiritual growth, we should be invested in their success. Rather than view ourselves as mere consumers, we should seek to act as good partners, working to sustain and improve the institutions we value.
It was suggested that the advantage of viewing shul or school members as customers is that the shul or school will be held more accountable to make the institution appealing to the members or students, as the case may be, so that it doesn’t lose them as members or students. Viewing the members or students as stakeholders seems to remove the burden from the institution to ensure that it is always providing superior services to its members or students if the institution believes that they will stick with the institution even in difficult times.
However, the advantage of viewing shul or school members as stakeholders means greater loyalty to the institution through thick and thin. When an institution is struggling financially like during COVID, stakeholders who can afford to do so will step up to financially support the institution. In a customer model, a member or school parent may not wish to contribute if they don’t feel that they are getting serviced when the institution is struggling. A stakeholder is also a partner to help shape the institution so the stakeholders, whether they are shul members, school parents, or prominent community members who identify with the institution, can provide their finances and expertise to help institutions with which they identify. Finally, stakeholders tend to speak positively about their institutions, give their institutions the benefit of the doubt regarding questionable policies and extend themselves to volunteer more often than do customers.
It seems to me that for the stakeholder model to work, institutions need to ensure that two things happen: (1) Smart goals are created by the institutions’ stakeholders to ensure that the institution is always working to improve what they have to offer to their community and (2) Institutions must truly value the contributions of their stakeholders besides their financial contributions.
Regarding the first point, it seems to me that institutions, be it shuls or schools, tend to be fearful of creating smart goals in case they don’t achieve those goals and they will look bad in the eyes of their constituents. Goals for shuls other than membership and fundraising could be youth minyan attendance or membership engagement in Torah study, daily minyan or chesed activities. Rabbis and lay leaders could jointly arrive at measurable goals to ensure that shuls are constantly trying to improve the spiritual lives of their communities. Similarly, goals for schools other than enrollment and fundraising could be Regents scores, SAT scores, percentage of graduates spending a gap year studying in Israel and percentage of graduates attending top-tier Yeshivot and/or colleges. Measurable goals could also be created to measure student participation in extracurricular activities and feeling of connection to God during tefillah. Creating these measurable goals provides accountability for institutions even in a stakeholder and not just a customer model.
Additionally, shul and school professionals who want to achieve a stakeholder model must truly value their stakeholders’ contributions besides their financial contributions. As an example, school administrators who do not value parent-teacher conferences because they believe that parents have no clue about education and therefore have nothing to contribute about the education of their child are missing the point. School administrators must view parents as partners with teachers in educating their children. It is understandable that educators often see parents as a hindrance to their children’s education because some parents with no educational background often assume that they know more about education than they actually do. That being said, with a lot of hard work and appropriate communication with parents, schools will benefit tremendously from parents who can often provide a different perspective than educators in the education of their children. Similarly, shuls must work hard to cultivate leaders who will not only provide necessary funding to support the shul, but who will also help partner with the Rabbi to engage community members to learn more Torah, feel more spiritually connected with God and engage in more acts of chesed.
Shuls and schools often do quite well in using the customer model and they often are not equipped or are truly uninterested in creating a successful stakeholder model because either that do not wish to create measurable goals or they do not want to engage their stakeholders. However, I believe that the stakeholder model is worth the effort because the result, if done well, is greater loyalty, greater assistance and greater engagement in the success of these institutions.