Strategic Thinking

Among the many lessons I learned over the years from a variety of business experiences and from my volunteer work, one stands out: it is always better to take a long-term strategic view, assessing our community’s capabilities and the capacity of our leaders to act, to articulate a “big vision” and stick to it.

In 2005, I had the opportunity to put this strategic-thinking process to work as part of a small team led by visionary benefactors Paula and Jerry z”l Gottesman as well as long-time day school leaders Robin and Brad Klatt (both Paula and Brad are currently members of Prizmah’s  Board of Directors), and our professional partner, Kim Hirsh, who works for the Jewish Community Foundation of Greater MetroWest in New Jersey. Together, we designed a groundbreaking initiative aimed at making the three (now four) Jewish day schools in our community sustainable. From the start, it was clear that there was no single idea that could carve this path toward sustainability; there was no “silver bullet” that would accomplish our goal.

Developing a Strategic Plan

What was needed was a multidimensional strategy that 1) would take years to develop, 2) would require “all hands on deck”—professional and lay leaders from the schools, the Federation and Jewish Community Foundation, major donors and day school supporters from each school and from every generation, and 3) would transform the schools for decades to come. This is, in essence, the definition of strategic thinking. Setting a vision of sustainable Jewish day schools in our community was the easy part. The hard part was developing the breadth and depth of a strategic plan that could enable us to make that vision a reality. By keeping our focus on the overarching goal of sustainability, instead of a simpler goal, like increased enrollment, we were able to develop a set of comprehensive, adaptive and impactful initiatives that would serve all of our schools and community stakeholders. The vision and planning were all the more remarkable because our three schools had never previously communicated with each other, let alone cooperated on a project, despite a distinct lack of competition among them.

The MetroWest Day School Initiative was officially launched in 2007, with 12 major donors: 11 leading day school families and our Jewish Federation. The focus of the plan was on attaining long-term sustainability through increased affordability and enhanced academic excellence. Over the course of this initiative, our definitions of both affordability and excellence steadily and significantly broadened as we learned which programs worked and which didn’t.

Early in the process we figured out that adaptability was going to be another critical success factor. This manifested itself in our first attempt to create a single community fund for the benefit of all three schools. Over about a year of private donor meetings, individual and in small groups, we realized that the only financial support structure that had a chance of succeeding would have to include individual endowment funds for each school alongside a smaller, centrally controlled community fund for all schools. We learned that listening to the schools’ leadership, and very importantly, to their major donors (many of whom were current or former board members), was critical, as their perspectives—and their support—would shape this initiative and ensure its success. It is hard to overstate how important these discussions with donors were to the eventual success of the plan.

The other major lesson we learned early was the importance of good governance. Raising tens of millions of dollars and providing significant financial incentives to each of the schools for participation was great but insufficient. The schools needed oversight, guidance and feedback from a central, professionally coordinated group of passionate leaders who could see beyond “one school” to our whole community of day schools. This need led to the creation of the Greater MetroWest Day School Advisory Council, a volunteer-led group established under the Jewish Community Foundation to oversee all of the initiative’s programs and expenditures with significant ongoing support again from our federation and foundation staff.

Implementing the Strategic Plan

More than $13 million was raised at the initial launch, and some rather narrow initial objectives were established under the “affordability and excellence” umbrella. With an eye toward the goal of long-term financial sustainability of each school, we set our first fundraising target of $50 million in endowment assets and commitments to be raised in the first five years. Each of the three schools was in a very different situation, but all of them were willing participants spurred on by significant financial incentives, most notably, an incredibly generous multimillion dollar match from the Gottesman Family Foundation. One of the schools, the then-Hebrew Academy of Morris County, was already a national leader in addressing the critical middle-income family affordability conundrum: families choosing not to enroll because they made too much money to apply for financial aid (or perceived this) and didn’t make enough for them feel comfortable paying full tuition. Very quickly the other two schools, with their own funds raised, were able to implement similar programs that were customized for their own situations.

Achieving long-term financial sustainability through affordability was not the sole financial aspect of our strategic plan. An emphasis on building endowment funds was at the core of these efforts. The MetroWest Day School Council also developed a series of programs that encouraged increased annual campaign fundraising capacity and broader support from alumni. Annual goals were set and measured in the first 10 years, and significant improvements at all three schools were accomplished. Interestingly, each of the three schools has since expanded its fundraising capabilities to include major comprehensive capital and endowment campaigns. Overall, we have raised more than $80 million in endowment and supplemental long-term funds, and well in excess of $100 million when combined with capital gifts that have transformed day school buildings and campuses.

The objective of enhancing the academic excellence of the three schools was initially narrowly defined. In the first few years, funds from the community pot were used to pay for programs that ensured all three schools had the latest math, science and Hebrew language curricula. Programs that taught new pedagogical methodologies for differentiated learning were also funded centrally. Underlying all these efforts was an understanding that affordability alone was not a path to sustainability; we needed to provide affordable and excellent educations that would be valued by a growing list of families.

Eventually, our focus on academic excellence shifted into a higher gear with a new program, spearheaded once again by the Gottesman Family Foundation. The Quest for Teaching Excellence brought significant funding for professional development and an entire infrastructure of faculty oversight, evaluation and cooperation. This program touches every member of the faculty, staff and administration at each of our schools. On a biennial basis, we close all our schools so that hundreds of our teachers and staff can learn together and from each other. In total, Quest has led to thousands of additional hours of learning for our community’s teachers.

Strategic Assessment: Keeping Us on Track

As ambitious and multidimensional as our plan has been, establishing a strategic plan, and even implementing it over a decade, is not enough. Every plan needs to be regularly evaluated and modified, keeping the vision and long-term goals in mind.

In the eighth year of our initiative, Kim and I, along with Rebecca Hindin, director of the Greater MetroWest Day School Initiative, and Bob Lichtman, the chief learning officer of our federation, began a planned and lengthy assessment process to figure out which of our programs were valued, which were impactful and what areas we needed to address differently. The assessment process included a survey of a few hundred stakeholders. Most importantly, the process resulted in a renewed commitment to our Quest program and a major research effort into identifying new affordability initiatives beyond the middle-income programs now well entrenched at each school. A small group of us scoured the global Jewish day school world looking for affordability ideas that worked and could be adapted to our community. This group worked for nine months and implemented the Tuition Max program, which caps tuition at no more than 18% of income for middle income families. In developing Tuition Max, we recognized that not only was the actual cost of a day school education important, but the visibility and predictability of future tuition obligations was a key hurdle to overcome for many new families.

As our Day School Initiative has matured, we have also been able to work collectively to take advantage of programs that further our schools’ sustainability. These include two Prizmah programs: Atideinu, which inculcates best practices in the area of recruitment and retention, and Board Fitness, which builds capacity in governance. Additionally, we partnered on a pilot program run by PJ Library, aimed at exposing families that were receiving books from PJ Library to our schools.

Overall, the major lessons we have all learned in the past dozen years have been:

Create a big picture, a strategic vision, and stick with it.

There is no one “solution” to day school sustainability. A multidimensional approach that is flexible to adapt with changing circumstances or deepened engagement is required.

Day schools are much stronger working together, and in partnership with a central organizing entity than they are alone. We have found that having a central Community Day School Fund, and a central body, the Day School Council, to oversee it, has enabled our community to act quickly and efficiently to line up the necessary support, financial and otherwise, to take advantage of these national programs as they arise. We also have the benefit of having a forum to share lessons learned and best practices from these programs, deepening the impact. We share a website ( promoting all four schools, and we jointly attend gatherings outside our community with one voice.

Enrollment is not the only measure of sustainability. Certainly, a school that creates enough demand to fill its classes to capacity—none of our four schools can claim this yet—would be considered sustainable, but that probably takes too short-term a view of success. We are happy to report that this year will be our fifth year in a row of overall enrollment growth, albeit slow and uneven across the four schools.

Each school needed to move at its own speed. No two schools are likely to see the same level of success regardless of the unified programs or incentives. What is important is that all of the schools have been move been moving in the right direction toward achieving their own sustainability goals.

Update: Our community continues its strategic drive to push the envelope of day school affordability, with two new initiatives.

1. In the upcoming year, the Gottesman Academy is rolling out an even more aggressive approach to affordability, thanks to another grant from the Gottesman Family Foundation. The program lowers tuition for all students and provides a cap on the percentage of income a family will be obligated for tuition to no more than 10%—and it could be as low as 6.5% for families with only one child. The school was using a maximum cap of 15% of income, but it applied only to middle income families with earnings up to $270,000. This new cap has no limit on earnings.

2. The Joseph Kushner Academy rolled out a program that partners with area synagogues to offer combined discounts of up to $37,500 for families moving into Greater MetroWest that enroll in the school and join a synagogue. This program is one that was developed as part of the strategic plan but adapted specifically for Kushner’s Orthodox community.

Steve Levy
Leadership Dispositions
Knowledge Topics