Theory of Change and Synagogue Innovation

Over the past few decades, many synagogues have worked hard to define their unique and compelling mission. Others have created vision statements of bold directions for their communities. These statements come from a self-reflective process of strategic planning and community conversation. But something is missing. We have a “what.” We lack a “why” and a “how.”

We live in an age when the purpose of the synagogue is not self-evident. Baby Boomers and the generations that follow demonstrate daily that they will not join congregations unless they feel a compelling reason to do so. If we are going to attract these skeptics, we need a much more solid understanding of what synagogues are and how they work on the world. As part of this effort, every synagogue should develop a Theory of Change (ToC).

A Theory of Change is a roadmap to your vision. It draws a picture of what success looks like and then works backwards, filling in all the steps that an organization will take to achieve its vision. It makes explicit all the implicit assumptions built into a mission/vision statement, connecting all the dots to create a recognizable picture. A good ToC is not a short, broad statement like the mission, but rather a thorough and specific guidebook that takes the generalities of the mission and makes them actionable. According to the Stanford Social Innovation Review (SSIR), “Theory of Change explains how the organization’s intended impact will actually happen, the cause-and-effect logic by which organizational and financial resources will be converted into the desired social results.” Essentially, a Theory of Change explains how your work works.

What would it look like if every synagogue had such a guidebook – a document that the congregation created that said explicitly why it exists and how it believes that its members’ lives will be transformed as a result of its work? This would transform synagogues. For too long we have been told by synagogue experts that the best synagogues refer back to their mission statements when making program decisions. But this is easy to say and hard to do. How do we translate that bold but general statement into action? If a synagogue’s mission is “to be a center for spiritual transformation; to foster the creation of sacred relationships; and to give people the tools and resources to be God’s partner in healing the world,” a ToC articulates how that happens. Sure, this mission looks great on a website or brochure, but if you want to use it in a board meeting, you’ll need a ToC to make it useful. What are the steps that link the synagogue’s programming to peoples’ “spiritual transformation?” What do “sacred relationships” look like, how does the synagogue build them, and what impact do they have? Without those answers, a mission statement can feel disconnected from the daily work of a synagogue.

Theory of Change is not abstract. It is a practical tool. It clarifies what “success” looks like in the short- and medium-term and it creates a “coherent framework for making tradeoffs” between the strategic priorities of a synagogue and the constraints of its bottom line so that it can be truly strategic in it decision making.

Unlike a mission statement, which speaks only about your organization, a Theory of Change can also address how the synagogue fits into a larger network of organizations serving the Jewish future. If your vision is “to build a brighter Jewish future” for the Jews in your area, the synagogue cannot create this alone. A ToC explains how your organization expects to work with other partners to build this future. You write mission statements as if the organization operates in a vacuum, but a ToC can acknowledge how it fits into a larger constellation of organizations that all impact the way Jews experience Judaism.

Though the process of making the implicit explicit, a Theory of Change might help a synagogue answer potential congregants urgent questions like, “Why be Jewish?” and “Why should I belong here?” It would help board members to answer the question “Does this program accomplish our mission?” It would help clergy to answer the questions “What is the type of sermon our community most needs to hear?” or “What is the melody that will set the proper tone for this service?” A ToC would help all of us be more thoughtful in our planning and strategic in our execution.

Theory of Change forces us to ask difficult questions about what synagogues are and why they matter, and our answers help us focus our work. To this end, SSIR recommends that a ToC answer these six questions:

  • Who are you seeking to influence or benefit (target population)?
  • What benefits are you seeking to achieve (results)?
  • When will you achieve them (time period)?
  • How will you and others make this happen (activities, strategies, resources, etc.)?
  • Where and under what circumstances will you do your work (context)?
  • Why do you believe your theory will bear out (assumptions)?

While most synagogues’ websites now proudly display a mission statement, I have yet to find any that offers a Theory of Change. How might our communities be transformed if enhanced these powerful statements of what we do by with a clear and empowering sense of why we do it?

Roundup of Theory of Change Resources:

Josh Fixler is a fifth-year rabbinical student at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and a non-profit management certificate student at the New York University’s Wagner Graduate School of Public Service.