Tips from the NEXTwork: How do I Engage the Totally Uninterested?

By Yoni Sarason

A couple of weeks ago, 50 young adult engagement professionals gathered in Long Beach, California for the first-ever NEXTwork Launch. In a day full of training, networking, and best practice-sharing, attendees had the unique opportunity to spread their wealth of knowledge in an asset mapping activity.

What does asset mapping look like? Check out the photo to the right. Each participant expressed an issue with which they are grappling in order to encourage their peers to lend their expertise. Rebecca Halpin, a former NEXT fellow currently working at IKAR, a spiritual community in Los Angeles, CA,  asked the question, “How do I engage the totally uninterested?” She clarified further: “Someone who would never step foot in a synagogue or go to a Jewish event.”

The question is a big one, and reaches to one of the core tensions of living in a country that provides us with so much freedom and so many options. To begin to answer her question, it is worth framing the reality that organizations, particularly Jewish non-profits, must decide who they want to reach in order to have the focus to achieve that reach. We must decide if we are trying to deepen experiences for those already bought into our mission, or organization, or if we are going to try to reach those who haven’t yet stepped through our doors.

If we follow the first path, then we should take the advice of the participant who responded to the question succinctly, “Don’t bother!”  To elaborate:  If you are doing something well, and the people who come really like it, don’t burn yourself out worrying about everyone else.

If we decide, however, that our goal is to connect to those not already a part of our initiative, we should probably stop using terms like unaffiliated, or unengaged.  Instead, we need to do something a bit different.  The first is to identify more specifically who we are trying to reach, and this is known as market segmentation.  Are you looking for recently transplanted individuals who don’t know where to turn, or might have tried something and were turned off?  Or are you after people who have created their own personal groups and communities and currently don’t find value in your offering?

One of the best places to start, as noted on the asset map, is to, “find out what they are interested in.”  Whether or not it turns out that individuals are interested in your particular offerings, this information is actionable.  It allows you to identify if you have an existing offering the individual simply doesn’t know about (suggesting a marketing issue), if you aren’t offering things individuals want (a content issue), or if your institution is simply on a different planet from the individual (a vision issue).

So how do you get this critical information?  NEXT believes one answer is one-on-one personal engagement. If you make yourself available as a contact for people who are new to your city or looking to learn more about the community, and take the time to hear their stories, you will learn a great deal.  Learn from insurance salespeople. Oftentimes, they also don’t know who to talk to, so they start with who they already know, and ask for referrals.  At the end of every conversation, ask, “Do you know anyone else who might have an interesting perspective on X,” or “Can you recommend a friend who is Jewish but doesn’t come to ‘Jewish’ events?”  As people hear that you are willing to actually sit down with them and hear their story, don’t be surprised if you start getting unsolicited calls.

Concurrently, another good piece of advice from the asset map is to “have regulars bring a friend.” Young adults often do things because it is where their current friends are, or where their potential friends may be.  Your current participants can be your greatest asset in promoting your events.  You just have to ask.

As an epilogue, a lot of the other responses to Rebecca’s question revolved around low-barrier programming, and most of the advice was to take the Jewish content out entirely.  While this may be a great starting place for organizations whose primary goal is to engage young adults, it may not be a great approach for an organization focused on spirituality and Jewish learning.  Instead,  I would advise that such organizations continue to do what they do best–create great Jewish spiritual experiences–and ask those who appreciate it to share it with their friends and networks.

Yoni Sarason is the Midwest Regional Director at NEXT: A Division of Birthright Israel Foundation