Benchmarks and Metrics: Using Data to Help Our Sacred Work

Data analysis is such a big part of decision making in business. Internet data is mined on a minute-by-minute basis.  “Clicks” and “hits” are words that we read about a lot. Sales, demographics, and costs dominate business pages and news analyses.

Are the decisions by synagogue leaders – board members in particular – often driven by data? In terms of budget preparation, we look at costs and how much was spent in the current year. But is that enough? Does this relate to the mission and vision for our synagogues? Are such costs appropriate based on our goals?

Lately, I have been reading a lot about metrics and benchmarking and how data can help synagogue leaders make better decisions.  Let’s look at financial data. Synagogue leaders most often have a very good handle on income and expenses.  We monitor printouts monthly that can track to the penny all of the income streams and every expense.

A big chunk of a synagogue’s budget is staff salaries, particularly those of clergy. Wouldn’t it be helpful if we were able to apply salary costs to program areas? How much time is the Cantor devoting to the Choir? To B’nai Mitzvah tutoring? How much time is the Rabbi devoting to Adult Education? To Pastoral Counseling?

12 synagogues in the New York City area spent a couple of years analyzing such data to help in budget preparation by activity area rather than by function. Their participation was partially funded by the UJA Federation of New York through its Synergy Department and a White Paper was recently published highlighting their findings.

“Activity-based Accounting” will help synagogue leaders in budget planning.  Such activities include:

-Religious School

-Nursery School

-Adult Education

-High Holidays


-Pastoral Counseling


-Social Action

-B’nai Mitzvah Tutoring

-Temple Youth Groups

-Older Adults

You might think of additional categories. Such an analysis can better inform synagogue leaders as to whether program expenses match up with program priorities.

Having the ability to compare your synagogue’s financial data to that of other synagogues of similar size and in a similar geographic area is also helpful. Reform synagogues can take advantage of a basic income and expense comparison through the Union for Reform Judaism’s Congregational Metrics Program. Being able to do such an analysis of “activity based” program expenses would take synagogue budget planning to the next level.

Financial information is only one stream of data that is useful. Several weeks ago, I wrote in a Blog Post about tracking program participation. In the business world, the market research people would suggest a Customer Satisfaction survey. Knowing how congregants feel about their synagogue, its programming and its leadership would be useful information, too!

The synagogue’s leadership may feel the B’nai Mitzvah program is the best of all of the synagogues in the area. A survey would help confirm that this is in fact true or if congregants have a totally different view.

In 2011, almost 50 Jewish Community Centers throughout North America participated in a Benchmarking program sponsored by The Jewish Community Center Association. It has four components: Financial Analysis, Program Participation Analysis, Member and User Feedback, and Staff Feedback.

The input of staff and staff feelings are so important. The effectiveness of the mutually supportive relationship between synagogue staff and board members and other volunteers is also critical to fulfilling the synagogue’s mission and vision. Synagogue staff feeling positive about many of the aspects of their work, and feeling good about the synagogue as a place to work is helpful in so many ways.

Being able to examine your synagogue’s metrics and how such data compares to that of other synagogues would be a great asset. While such sharing remains a current challenge, examining the data you have and engaging your congregants in surveys is something that you can do right now.


1 Comment on “Benchmarks and Metrics: Using Data to Help Our Sacred Work

  1. Your blog post was very helpful to me. I am a new Board member at a large Reform Congregation. At my second Board meeting the deficit in last year’s budget was discussed. The deficit is problematic as it was reported to be one figure and then further analysis revealed that the deficit was 50% larger than had been originally understood. How that happened is not clear to me. (We do have a substantial endowment). But I was distressed at that meeting. The discussion was dominated by business thinkers. Their solution was to present budgets to each department and let those departments live within with what they are given. Another proposal was to eliminate staff positions. My concern at the meeting was that the budget correction had nothing to do with the mission of the Congregation. If I had to describe very simply what I think that mission is, it would be to develop a community. And although it is counterintuitive, I think we are at a time when we need to invest in that purpose. I spoke to our Rabbi about my concerns…and lo and behold (welcome to Temple life) my comments became known to the Board President. She and I talked and I explained my point of view in many ways. Including talking about how we invest in things we care about so they can thrive, i.e. our kids. When they are struggling, do we starve them? Some people may think so, but I don’t. I stressed my belief that, as a Board, everything we do should reflect our mission. The Board President challenged me to do a presentation to the Board around this point of view. I’m a pretty phobic public speaker and this talk won’t make me popular as it seems to me that our Board will measure their success by having a balanced budget. I’m reaching out to you in the hopes that you can expand on your thoughts in the blog. I want to suggest another way of thinking about this, another metric, more thoughts on how to persuade others to consider moving off of the spread sheet to talk about this?

    I appreciate any thoughts you might have-

    Shana Tova,

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