How investing in talent is investing in students

In 2016, with the support of the Marcus Foundation, Hillel set out to become a leader in talent development and management throughout the Jewish and nonprofit world. Since then, we’ve engaged 33% more Jewish students in campus Jewish life—and that is only the beginning.  

In the five years since the Marcus Foundation put its support behind our talent work, we’ve increased our annual employee retention rate from 50% to 90% by investing in hiring, growing and supporting our professionals. Today, more than half of Hillel directors and mid-level professionals are hired internally. This has put us in a much stronger position to establish stable, thriving Jewish communities on campuses around the world.

Our first move was to invest in our current professionals by offering grants to ensure local Hillels were paying them sustainably, by supporting them in their work, and by helping grow their careers within our movement. We built best-in-class professional development and education classes and made them available to every Hillel professional through Hillel U. And, we added a new role called campus support director to ensure a member of our team wakes up every single day thinking about the wellbeing of a set of local Hillels and their talent. 

Here’s an example of how the Marcus Foundation grant has enabled us to make a difference in the lives of Hillel professionals: Jessica Lemons was in her third year as development coordinator at Syracuse Hillel when the ground suddenly shifted beneath her feet. Her Hillel faced a leadership crisis, and almost overnight, Jessica was named interim co-executive director, requiring her to manage the board, university relations, fundraising, and programming for Syracuse’s 2,500 Jewish students. 

Stories like this are familiar throughout the nonprofit sector, and frequently end with dedicated but under-supported, overworked, and underpaid professionals burning out and moving on. When that happened at a Hillel, students suffered. These types of unhappy endings once played out for Hillel professionals far too often—with annual turnover rates near 50 percent, a figure many thought was immovable. But we have spent the last five years helping our movement write a different kind of story—one where we invest in talent development, retention, and acquisition, and in doing so, cultivate better outcomes for the Jewish students Hillel serves.

Guided by our talent strategy, we invested in Lemons in her interim role, and provided her with the services of a campus support director while helping Syracuse Hillel get the long-term staffing it needed. She grew Syracuse Hillel’s budget and engaged hundreds of new students in campus Jewish life. Now, with a new director in place at Syracuse, Lemons is starting a new chapter in her Hillel journey as executive director at Stony Brook Hillel with the skills and experience to engage more students at a new campus. 

Our focus on talent also means helping local Hillels attract a diversity of top candidates who they might not otherwise afford. We’ve seen that getting the right people in place, especially at the leadership level, is transformative. When a Hillel at a major state university with a Jewish undergrad population of over 3,000 students fell on tough times, we helped them make payroll and provided the funds that helped them recruit a new, dynamic executive director. That investment in staff prepared the Hillel to become financially self-sustaining and engage 20 percent more Jewish students each year. Ultimately, our short-term support created a long-term success story. 

Strategic talent investments made all the difference for Rachel Nilson Ralston, who in March of 2020 became San Francisco Hillel’s executive director after a nine-year Hillel journey—an achievement she says was made possible in large part by the “transformative investments” Hillel made in her and her career over time. These investments ranged from funds to retain and promote her to access to high-level leadership development programs. By making it possible for her Hillel to nurture her leadership potential at a critical point in her career, Ralston says the talent grants program was the key to her emerging as a leader within the movement, rather than needing to leave it to grow. Now, the leadership experience and skills Ralston built with support from Hillel’s talent grants are benefiting Hillel students across San Francisco. At the campuses she oversees, program innovation has led to a major improvement in identity growth for student participants, a key marker of success in Hillel’s work with college-aged Jews. 

Investing in people also means ensuring that we can retain them through hard times. At the start of the pandemic, we helped local Hillels retain more than 80 student-facing professionals who would have otherwise been laid off or furloughed. This meant experienced Jewish educators and engagers were able to connect with and impact more students during a singularly dark year. Campus rabbis and Jewish educators provided pastoral care to grieving students who lost grandparents to COVID-19, and Hillel program professionals pivoted to front-line mental health support as their students grappled with remote learning, isolation, and economic crisis. These talent stimulus grants prevented many thousands of students from losing out on Jewish life during the pandemic and demonstrated to these professionals that we continued to believe in the importance of our talent. 

Success stories like these and their impact on hundreds of thousands of Jewish students are why the Marcus Foundation has recently decided to reinvest in Hillel’s talent strategy, committing an additional $38 million to helping us grow this work over the next five years. We’re so grateful for this gift and many others that continue to support our belief in the importance of our talent, and its ability to drive incredible student outcomes at Hillel. Our aim now is to continue and build on our success with talent in ways that will exponentially grow Hillel’s student outcomes today and in the future. 

During this next phase of our partnership with the Marcus Foundation, we will focus our talent investments on ensurinng every local Hillel has the professional leadership required to engage, inspire, and support all Jewish students on their campuses. We’re also committed to creating a more seamless transition for Jewish students from high school to Hillel. A series of new Hillel Bridge initiatives will prepare incoming Jewish students for their college experience and connect them with their campus Hillels, in part through our growing partnership with Root One and other teen organizations. 

We also know that our long-term ability to serve Jewish students will depend on improving the sustainability of local Hillels. To that end, we’ll be investing in local fundraising capacity, movement-wide development services and campaigns, and strengthening local lay leadership. 

We’ve made the talent at local Hillels our priority over the last five years, and it is transforming the experience for Jewish students on campus. Now, we’ll build on this foundation to lift up all Hillels, reach even more students, and create long-term impact for this next generation in the years to come. 

Adam Lehman is the president and CEO of Hillel International. Mimi Kravez is Hillel International’s chief experience officer. 

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