18,000 – That’s this year’s membership target for BBYO. May not sound like much until you consider the Jewish teen population in the U.S. is estimated at between 200 and 250 thousand. Reaching 7% of that number would certainly be an impressive accomplishment. But is it enough?
Or specifically – is it enough to satisfy the community leaders, foundations and donors who provide BBYO with its financial support? Certainly not.
You all know that even with the increase in membership fees, BBYO comes nowhere close to being supported by those fees, right? So BBYO must satisfy those donors.
That means an increase in membership is necessary.
How can this be accomplished?

Increase Chapter Membership?
Recruitment is the first answer that you’ll hear, but it’s the wrong answer. The reason can be found in last week’s article “How Big is Too Big.” The largest chapters won’t grow. Many of the medium size chapters won’t want to grow. And the smallest chapters have the hardest time growing, and even if they were all successful can’t by themselves grow the organization sufficiently.
Starting new chapters is the next answer, but if you’ve been around for a while you know that creating chapters is very, very hard. Not impossible mind you, but very hard and very uncertain. Most regions are lucky if they can create enough chapters to replace those that are folding.
So what do you do?
Redefining Success
The answer is simple – you redefine success. Since you know you can’t increase membership fast enough, you instead pursue something called “engagement”. You create opportunities for Jewish youth to be part of BBYO without necessarily being members of chapters. B-Linked is a perfect example of this. Regional sponsorship of regional programs that are open to all Jewish youth and not just BBYO members are another example.
Now before you become overwhelmed by traditionalism and decry this as the “end of BBYO” please take a deep breath.
“Engagement” is a good thing. How do I know this? Simple: measure it against the guiding principles in my very first post “Why are we here.”
Anything that gets more Jewish youth involved in the Jewish community is a good thing. And if BBYO takes the leadership in this area, so much the better.
But that doesn’t mean there is no cause for concern.
The Risks of Engagement
As BBYO focuses more of its limited attention and recourses on engagement, there’s a chance that fewer resources will be available to support the existing chapter-centric system. And as the vision of BBYO’s leadership moves from developing leaders to just keeping in touch with Jewish teens, the leadership aspects of the program will tend to fade.
You won’t hear this from anyone in BBYO. On the contrary – you’ll hear about their commitment to chapters and leadership training, and you’ll hear how outreach tools such as B-Linked will help recruit people into chapters.
And you know what – I believe them. I absolutely believe that those who tell you that are sincere. But today’s BBYO staff won’t all be around in 5 or 10 years, and in the long run if you want to find out where an organization is going, you have to follow the money. Today the money is looking for numbers, and if the easiest way to get numbers is through engagement outside of the traditional chapter structure, you can be absolutely certain that that’s where the money is going to flow and where the organization’s attention will be focused. It won’t happen today. It won’t happen suddenly. But give it a decade or two, and you’ll see.
Is the traditional chapter-based BBYO doomed? Not necessarily. There are things that can be done – that you can do in the years to come to the core values of BBYO (youth leadership, chapters, etc.) even as the organization changes. But those must wait until a future column. For now, I encourage you to think about it – and drop me a line if you have any suggestions you’d like to share.