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Too Big to Fail: Large Jewish Organizations and the Imperative of Success

November 2, 2009

Unless you have been in a cave for the past year, you have no doubt heard the debate about how certain financial institutions are too big to be allowed to fail (therefore necessitating government intervention/support). And unless you are totally unengaged from the organized Jewish world, you have no doubt heard debate about whether certain Jewish organizations are too big to survive. Local Federations (and the national Federation system) as well large multi-national organizations such as the Jewish Agency for Israel are the subject of ample criticism (sometimes much deserved) for being too big, too slow to change, and possessing leadership that is too entrenched and myopic to successfully transition to a new era of Jewish communal life.  It is said these large organizations and others like them are at the doorsteps of obsolescence and they are outdated infrastructure for a time that has passed.

I believe, however, these organizations are too big to fail and that the support they need is not from the government, but from all of us.

Now to be clear, these organizations suffer from deficiencies that need prompt remediation. But like the financial systems that are essential to the endurance of an efficient economy, these Jewish organizations serve important roles in the maintenance and endurance of strong Jewish communities.  Their history alone does not require their continued existence, but the legacy of their successes should give us pause before we cast these organizations off to the bookshelves of Jewish history.  Billions of dollars raised by Federations and millions of olim assisted by the Jewish Agency have helped transform Jewish life in Israel and in communities around North America in a magnitude that cannot be quantified.  Also, we often say that if these organizations did not exist, we would need to recreate them, subtly recognizing that their shortcomings should not override the merit of their continued existence.

But just as status does not equal merit, existence does not equal success. While these organizations may be too big for us to allow them to fail, disputing and denying their shortcomings will not help in renewing them for the next Jewish century. The missions encompassed by their initial development may still be sound –  but the environments in which they pursue their vision have changed. With respect to Federations, while the amount of communal need has not diminished the impact of communal giving, the demand for philanthropic choice has increased the need for organizational flexibility. And with respect to the Jewish Agency, core aspects of the role it must fill have changed; Aliyah has become an evolutionary project not just an existential one and the need for the development the social capacity of the Jewish people should now be on par with its other historic roles.  Yes, they may be too big too fail, but they cannot be to small-minded in redefining what success looks like.

In their influential study on the lifecycle of organizations, Danny Miller and Peter Friesen categorized troubled organizations with similar characteristics. While our large Jewish organizations might have aspects of all of the archetypes, perhaps the most fitting  for some large Jewish organizations is the ‘Stagnant Bureaucracy’ category.  In that case, the organization has ossified to a point where it is neither receptive nor responsive to changing dynamics around it and where the weight of its own organizational infrastructure make it less likely to adequately adapt.  These characteristics do not mean the essential purpose of the organization is outdated, but they do make a clear case that the strategic and tactical approaches taken by the organization must be updated.  Organizations, however, cannot update themselves. The success of their ability to change requires committed and visionary leadership as well as the prodding and patient constituents; in other words, it requires all of us.

So as we embark on this next great chapter of Jewish organizational life, we should remember there are Jewish communal organizations that are too big to fail. It is not the size of their payrolls that make them so, but it is the size of the ideas they embody.  And in a world where the smallest and most instantaneous message can often be the most impactful, we should not underestimate the potential impact of the renewal of our largest and most enduring organizations on the success of our collective Jewish future; a future that is also too big to fail.

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