• Looking Onward: Summer ’19 – Bigger & Better - 10/01/2019

    Beware of Spoilers

    In the previous issue of Looking Onward, I was proud to update regarding the growth in applicants and participants in 2019- the seventh consecutive year of such expansion. Certainly making the Onward Israel opportunity available to growing numbers of eligible young people is one of our chief strategic objectives. It is not alone however: we also strive to improve the program each year, to use participant feedback to make needed changes and to maintain or even improve our overall quality scores.  During the summer we ask all participants to fill out a mid and end program survey, and use those numbers to score the programs in four key areas: logistics, internships, education and staff.  Some initial  patterns are clear. 1) The overall quality of the experience has improved since last year; 2) Participants continue to recommend the program to their peers at a very high level; and 3) programs improved from the mid-program assessment and intervention to the end of program evaluation. All three of these quality improvements have been achieved while adding more than two hundred additional participants this summer and more than three hundred all together in 2019.

    The Importance of Choice

    Onward Israel’s educational approach stems from the field of adult education- emphasizing the autonomy of the learner and their ability to choose their subjects of inquiry. This is not always easy to implement for 2400 participants over the course of a summer. Our participants of course vary in their maturity, motivation to learn and prior knowledge of Israel- all factors which influence their interaction with educational opportunities. As we think about how best to build out this menu of opportunities we consider also the optimal mixture of choice and pre-determined programming. The Israel Now days- the three days of organized group travel- are pre-determined: local partners and organizers shape the content but participants receive a pre-built three day menu. On the other hand, three other educational components- The Breakout Shabbatonim, the Chugim and the Shishi Tours (weekend retreats, mid-week workshops and Friday touring opportunities)- are all built on participants’ choosing what they want to learn from a menu of options.  With participant choice also comes participant responsibility for that choice: more than 90% of participants successfully completed immersion in the breakout Shabbaton or chug content they chose. The Shishi tours, a new element this year, was heavily subscribed as well, and we look forward to expanding that option next year to additional participants. It is also interesting to note that participants on the whole give higher evaluation scores to choice elements. For 2020, we are beginning to think about how we can use participant preferences to influence the Israel Now days as well. Not an easy one to pull off, but worth thinking of.

    And then your Onward Israel program ends

    Every year near the end of the summer, our Israel based staff spends much of its time visiting Onward Israel groups to help them begin to summarize and process their experience. We try first to get a sense, in the participants’ own words, about the pros and cons of their program. Then we focus on two key questions: what do you feel like you are taking away from the experience and what changes would you suggest we make in next year’s program? The first question, while challenging at first, quickly leads to profound insights about personal growth, professional gains, new connections with Israel, the importance of friends, social capital and networks, and commitment to continuing Jewish journeys. There is nothing more rewarding than hearing an Onward participant talk openly and honestly about the impact of the experience on their emerging sense of self. The second question, especially when similar ideas are mentioned by participants across programs, often leads to changes in our guidelines and to the birth of new program components, like this year’s shishi tours, inspired by comments from 2017 and 2018. The final piece of these sessions is to let participants (soon to be alumni) about opportunities after their Onward Israel program: trips, conferences, fellowships and jobs. We continue to make these resources available through bi-weekly emails and on our web site, and will begin to do so through a regional lenses starting in 2019-20. We also promote our Share Some Friends app to promote the program to peers and friends and also plant the seeds for a new idea for 2019: an alumni council. The idea of the alumni council is to gather a select and recommended group of Onward Israel alumni, across all cohorts and globally, to serve as advisors to our professional staff as we continue to develop and grow in areas such as fundraising, program design, recruitment and alumni engagement. We are very excited about the initial alumni council group- which will have periodic web conferences and gather once a year in person as well. 

    Value for Interns, Value for Supervisors

    The majority of Onward Israel participants are motivated chiefly by the perceived value of a global internship in Israel. Onward Israel has been successful over the years in fulfilling this expectation. This year, when asked to rank from 1-10 the resume building value of their internship, participants scored this element at a high level: 8.19 (the same item was scored at 7.95 in 2018).  Impressive levels of participant evaluation of the internship is half the story; the other half is the perceived value that the intern supervisors (employers) derive from hosting interns. Our employer survey sheds light on this issue. 87% of supervisors reported they derived a high degree of benefit from their intern (compared to 83% last year) and 93% (similar to last year) expressed their willingness to host interns next year as well. The retention of current companies is critical for the continued growth of Onward Israel’s ability to absorb more participants. The inclusion of new companies (this year more than 400 new supervisors joined the network of participating companies) is also of great importance. More details about our employer survey will be presented at the Fall Network meeting. In the meantime, we are working with one of our most important partners, the Tamid Group, to raise the profile of the summer internship within Israel society through expanded media coverage and additional advocacy efforts.  We have been granted, along with Tamid, a generous grant by the Israel Business Pipeline through the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation and the Paul E. Singer Foundation to launch a P.R. strategy to expand summer internships. I believe that this effort can also benefit from related efforts, after last year’s job fair, to build the FutureIL platform to ease the connection between young people from around the world and Israeli businesses, in Israel and around the world. 

    Finally, I would also like to share that our efforts to raise more funds to fuel the future growth of Onward Israel are accelerating. We recently held a parlor meeting for interested parties in New York and will hold another parlor meeting in San Francisco on September 19. We are also putting the final touches on the platform which will allow participants at the end of their programs to donate their security deposit to Onward Israel- paying forward to allow others to enjoy the experience in the future. This is a great example of Onward Israel truly leading Onward J.

    Looking Onward,

    Ilan  Wagner