A Hillel director at a large Hillel told me about the announcement he made to his board: “We are out of the programming business.”
Several Board members were aghast. “How can a Hillel not do events?” they wondered out loud.
“I am sure we will continue to do some events, but our goal is to grow student engagement,” he explained. “If an event is the best way to increase the number of students engaged and the quality of that engagement, we will do it. If not, we won’t.”
Years back, Hillel International changed its strategic paradigm from programming to student engagement. Prior to this shift, Hillels, like many other Jewish institutions, would automatically hold programs and judge them a success by the number of people who attended.
Hillel noted that the programs tended to reach some combination of the same 200 people they’ve always reached and failed to expand the total penetration into the student population. And they observed that the program model tended to hold events at Hillel, and thus failed to meet students where they were, such as at a cool hang out or the student union or a dorm room or the campus quad.
The student engagement model, on the other hand, allows for creative and varied approaches to reaching students with various levels of affiliation and patterns of association.
It’s time that the community relations field move from a program model to an engagement model. Programs are a perfectly useful tool in the engagement toolbox. But too often we just check a box–“our annual Latino dinner was a remarkable success!”–and move on. The engagement model forces us to ask: who are the Jews, Latinos, Asian Americans, African Americans, media, etc. we are trying to reach, and what’s the best way to reach them?