Harnessing the Power of Vision-Driven Teen Work

Recent philanthropic investment in teens has provided a series of inspiring and informative pieces that can drive our work in teen engagement. The Jim Joseph Foundation’s research Effective Strategies for Educating and Engaging Jewish Teens launched a philanthropic cooperative, The Jewish Teen Education & Engagement Funder Collaborative, and pilot projects with teens in ten communities across North America. The Collaborative provides a platform for learning and collaboration among federations, foundations and professionals making significant investments in community based Jewish teen and education and engagement initiatives. 


Each project in the ten communities is also worth learning about. Today, Taylor Epstein, director of design strategy at UpStart—​an organization that partners with innovators to redesign the experience and expression of Jewish lifeshares with us one aspect of the work being done to support teen engagement in Los Angeles. Although this model is working well in Los Angeles we recognize that every community is unique and has varying needs and access to resources. We hope this piece gets you thinking about how to support teen professionals in your community. Who are the key players and informants that should be around a collaborative table? What professionalizes or elevates the teen field in your community?


The LA Jewish Teen Initiative is co-funded by the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and the Jim Joseph Foundation, with seed funding provided by the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles. The community-wide initiative was designed to use empathy and design thinking to enhance the Jewish teen landscape in LA by providing them with more meaningful and compelling opportunities for engagement in Jewish life.


Email Taylor or call 650-264-7323.


“When one person takes one step ahead, it is personal. When a million people take one step ahead, then the earth shakes.” 
-Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz


The work of a teen program professional is demanding, with a job description that is equal parts event planner, educator, and therapist. You are the one making forty calls in the evening to make sure teens are showing up the next day. You are the one at Costco trying to figure out how to feed fifty kids with a budget of $100. You are there with tissues and empathy when two best friends are fighting. And, it can feel thankless. 


For ten years, I was a Jewish teen program professional, serving middle school and high school students in the Greater Bay Area. If I were to do the math, over the course of a decade, I acted as an event planner, educator, and therapist for over 1,000 adolescents. Still, it was hard to understand the impact of my work - teens themselves didn’t always realize the impact of their participation until later in life. 


When I reflect back on that time I often wonder, how could my supervisors have supported me in envisioning our larger impact? In business terms, could I have seen my return on investment (ROI) in a different way? And how might we help teen professionals see the ROI on their efforts? In doing so, how might we empower them to drive better ROI for their organizations and funders? 


Los Angeles: Embracing a “Vision-Driven” Approach
For the past year, UpStart has worked closely with the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles to tackle this challenge. In 2014, the Federation launched the LA Jewish Teen Initiative (LAJTI), co-funded by the Jim Joseph Foundation with seed funding from the LA Jewish Community Foundation. The initiative is driven by the central challenge of dramatically increasing the number of post-b’nai mitzvah Jewish teens throughout Los Angeles engaging in effective and compelling Jewish experiences. The LAJTI has a three-pronged strategy to expand and create high-quality programs; nurture the teen ecosystem, build community commitment, and nurture educators of Jewish teens. The Federation recognized that this strategy needed to go beyond just allocating critical funds to new Jewish experiences, but also to investing in the professionals charged with designing them. And that investment needed to be geared towards developing sharper strategic skills so that their new programs did, in fact, result in the intended ROI - an increased number of Jewish teens engaging in compelling Jewish experiences.


The result is the Los Angeles Federation Teen Program Accelerator, a partnership between UpStart and the Federation co-designed to provide ongoing, specialized training for teams of teen program professionals from eight Los Angeles Jewish organizations. The Accelerator focuses on leveraging the best tools from the business, entrepreneurship, and Jewish non-profit worlds to help these program professionals identify and drive better ROI for their program and organization. 


ROI & Embracing a “Vision-Driven” Approach
Acting as event planner, educator, and therapist — worrying about snacks and supplies and hurt feelings—can lead teen professionals to feel disconnected and overworked, often resulting in burnout and high turnover. The Accelerator focuses on giving these professionals the tools and resources needed to go beyond the day-to-day of high-volume “mission-driven” work and to take a larger visionary step. By teaching them to drive the design of their programs towards the most aspirational goals of their organization, it empowers them to become more vision-driven, not just mission-driven.


The LA Teen Program Accelerator embraces this “vision-centered” approach by providing quarterly workshops and one-to-one coaching on key content areas outside of those traditionally offered to program staff. These areas include Product Market Fit (developing a program that the teen “customer” actually wants), marketing and branding, financial sustainability, and partnership development, among others to maximize resources to engage more teens. Simultaneously, the Accelerator provides the tools needed to better understand the teens they serve (or hope to serve), encouraging them to take a more “customer-centered” approach. 


Teams of 2-4 representatives from each organization - usually a cross-section of both program staff and managers - attend the workshops and participate in coaching together.  Workshops provide them with hands-on experience, where their own program is their case study, learning how to apply new concepts and approaches to all aspects of their organization. In between workshops, an UpStart coach supports the team members in setting and accomplishing goals for integrating these concepts into the design of their program. The Accelerator’s other key partners supplement the learning. American Jewish University's ETZAH Program deepens Jewish content through curriculum coaching, and BJE Impact provides resources for strengthening service learning and social action. We’ve found that these tools and mindsets - learned and practiced in a community of peers - help teen professionals better drive three forms of ROI for their organization: 1) efficient use of resources; 2) beneficial partnerships; and 3) greater programmatic impact. 


The impact of the Accelerator was evident in the team of professionals representing LA’s Westside JCC. The organization’s newest program, the Maccabi Clash, is a one-day athletic competition designed to strengthen teens’ spiritual and physical wellness. The team hoped to attract new students to the program, which required them to think more holistically - how should they orient their brand to reach a larger swath of the community? Through the in-depth process taught in the Accelerator, the team was not only able to craft a more refined brand, but to connect both their program and marketing goals with their larger organizational vision. Ari Cohen, the JCC’s Director of Experiential Learning, reflected, “We meticulously looked at our customer segments, while also exploring the strengths of our own organization. This helped us design a program specifically catered to our organization, our customers, and our potential customers.”  The result - a diverse group of teens attended both the first and second Clash events, and they were able to reach beyond their typical audience. 


Fostering a Vision-Driven Mindset
How can you empower teen program professionals to become more vision and ROI driven at your organization?


  • If you supervise a teen program professional, invite them to participate in larger visioning sessions with your team and board. Professionals will learn how their programs fit into the larger strategy, and can actively contribute to the conversation. And senior staff will gain valuable perspective on their programs from the people in most direct contact with the teens they serve. 
  • Revisit and rewrite job descriptions to include vision-focused deliverables, rather than just programmatic outputs. Staff will see vision-driven design and evaluation of their programs as core to their responsibilities and how they are valued in the organization.
  • Encourage and support teen program professionals to engage in communities of practice, like the Accelerator or UpStart’s community innovation workshops, These experiential learning opportunities provide a natural space for tackling challenges, building partnerships, and developing concrete tools to bring back to your organization. 


Rabbi Steinsaltz urged us to see the collective power of vision-driven work. We can harness this power by investing in what is most valuable to us - the hard-working, multi-tasking, passionate professionals dedicating their lives to Jewish teens. There is no question that this would yield a monumental Return on Investment for our entire community.


For reflection and discussion


  • How are you supporting teen professionals in your community? Who are the key players and informants that should be around a collaborative table?
  • What professionalizes or elevates the teen field in your community?
  • In what ways can Federation or one of its partner agencies serve as a convener to foster collaboration among teen professionals and enhance their professional capacity?
  • How can this model be adapted to your community? Is this the right model to explore or are there others you’ve heard of that you would like to explore? Are you already doing something successful in this space?


For further exploration