Archive for the ‘Strategy’ Category

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The Jewish Agency’s Strategic Plan: Now For the Hard Part…

November 2, 2010

“At a time when the Jewish Agency should be looking ahead to improving its role at the nexus of the emerging world Jewish polity… the Agency must complete putting its own house in order in whatever way it chooses to do so before it can truly play the leading role that it must on the world Jewish scene.” Daniel J. Elazar  z”l The Jewish Agency: Historic Role and Current Crisis (1992)

Last week in Jerusalem the Board of Governors of the Jewish Agency approved its new strategic plan, one that The Jerusalem Post called “the most significant redefinition of the Jewish Agency’s purpose since the declaration of the state.”  Without question, the Agency has set off on a path that, while uncharted, is also grounded in the belief that the fundamental challenges of the Jewish future require fundamental changes in the strategic direction of the Jewish Agency.  If the past 81 years of the Jewish Agency has been about helping the development of a state, the new direction of the Agency squarely focuses on helping the development of a people that, in turn, can continue to help build a nation. In sum, just as the history of Israel and the Jewish Agency are testaments to the power of nation-building by aliyah, the new strategic plan is an experiment of nation-building 2.0 by identity.

This experiment has a substantial amount of risk, especially since it proposes to not only transform the Agency, but also to transform the nature of Israel-Diaspora relations. By staking its future on the engines of Israel experience that impact Jewish identity and deepen the relationship between the Jewries of the Diaspora and Israel, the Jewish Agency has chosen not just to refocus its efforts, but to redesign its very purpose. It is a bold move by an organization with a history of bold moves.

But in truth, the Agency is also an entity that has struggled with organizational shortcomings, ranging from bureaucracy, inefficiency, misdirection and missed opportunities. Notwithstanding its historic success, it suffers from an organizational design that needs substantial reimagination and a governance structure that requires a significant updating. Equally, the Agency needs to quickly begin implementation while facing the challenges of managing internal politics, external relations and, of course, a need for increased resource development.  Alone each of those challenges requires outstanding execution, together they demand the highest level of administrative excellence. With that in mind, a few suggestions:

  1. Reorganization. Without question, the new strategic plan requires a redesign of the administrative and programmatic structure of the Agency. The reorganization is not just needed to align functional responsibilities, but also to create a structure that is adaptable to change. If the past of the Agency has been one of silos, the future must be one of transparency and integrated execution. The leadership must not only have core capabilities, but also must have clear confidence in the future of the plan; this is not a time for half-measures or half-heartedness.
  2. Governance. There is no question that the Agency’s leadership is deeply and passionately earnest about the present and the future of the agency. Equally, there is no question that the very same leadership is keenly aware of the need or substantial changes to its governance structure.  The Jewish Agency can and should maintain its unique forum for Jewish leadership to interact, but it must take substantial measures to redefine who that leadership is and how they interact. A board structure that is representative of the partnerships that comprise the historic relationships of the Jewish Agency can exist while also bringing new leadership that also reflects the future foci of the Agency; the key is to develop new pathways to leadership and reduce barriers to participation. There is room for WiseGen and NextGen at the future governance table of the Agency, but first that table needs to be set by existing leadership.
  3. Partnerships. The strategic plan calls for new tactics to achieve new goals, including deepening a sense of social activism by under-35 Israelis and Jews in the Diaspora. But these goals cannot be achieved solely be looking inside the organization, they can only be realized by engaging new partners with relevant experience in new ways. There are far to many organizations that have either a skeptical or critical (or both) view of partnering with the Agency; one of the key tasks of the Agency is to create new confidence that partnering with the Jewish Agency will be an experience of excellence.
  4. Resource Development. Last, but by no means least, funding the new strategic plan will require a fundamental reorientation of the way the Jewish Agency partners with Keren Hayesod and the Federation system in North America. Equally, it will require a level of engagement with foundations and individual donors that has eluded the Agency in the past. This is a complicated strategy – the future of the Jewish Agency depends on energizing new resources to support new endeavors, while also realigning existing financial resources to meet changing goals. Redeploying existing funds will not be enough to achieve critical success, but waiting for new sources to fund new initiatives will be equally unsuccessful.

The Jewish Agency’s new plan is a reminder of an old fact: nothing worth achieving is easy. The coming weeks and months will be a clear reminder that making a shift of historic proportions requires an effort that is equally historic. During its great history, the Jewish Agency has helped bring more faces to Israel and now it is endeavoring to change the collective face of the nation and people of Israel. But first it must change itself –

and with that, the hard part begins.

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Dispatches from Jerusalem: The Jewish Agency and the Myth of Collective Bargaining

June 21, 2010

In recent days, as I have shared with my communally-engaged friends that I would be in Jerusalem for this week’s Jewish Agency meetings, the response has been consistent and all too predictable. First the person expresses jealousy that I get to spend some time in Israel (even in the heat of the summer) and second, they express complete confusion and condolences regarding my involvement in, as they call it, the quicksand that is the modern Jewish Agency. Others also wonder why I (or they) should care about an organization that is purportedly a relic, an instrument of a Jewish time long past. They ask, tongue firmly planted in cheek – isn’t the Jewish Agency something that the leadership of big organizations like Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) should be addressing on behalf of all of us?

The truth of the matter is this: my friends are right to be jealous of my time in Jerusalem, underestimating the possibilities embodied by a reinvigorated Jewish Agency, and dangerously wrong regarding the abdication of their own personal involvement in the Agency’s future.  In fact, I firmly believe many of my friends and many others make two false assumptions: (1) that we, as communities, individuals, local organizations, donors and foundations, don’t have a stake in the future, and (2) that organizations such as  JFNA have the true ability to represent the overall Federation system (much less North American Jewry as a whole) in shaping the future of the Agency.

Having spent time in the leadership of the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta, including as chair of its Allocations Committee, I know this first hand. Several years ago Atlanta and St. Louis started engaging the Jewish Agency directly with respect to outcome based funding for respect to programs in Israel and Minsk, Belarus. In the intervening years, more and more communities like Atlanta are structuring independent relationships with the Jewish Agency, and based on the success of initiatives like Partnership 2000, local leaders have been able to interact with Jewish Agency professionals and programs on a more individualized basis. The more they disintermediate JFNA with respect to their overseas funding, the more these communities become direct (as opposed to indirect) funders, and accordingly their voices must be heard in direct, not just indirect, ways.  In this spirit, the Jewish Agency’s future is not some theoretical issue to be debated in the halls of Jerusalem hotels by JFNA leadership, but is an issue of vital interest to individual Federations and throughout North America.

And that leads us to the myth of collective bargaining vis a vis the Jewish Federations of North America and the Jewish Agency.

One of the first lessons taught to attorneys in contract law is the limits of agency and due authorization – the rule that a person representing an interest must have actual, or at least implied, authority to represent the interests of others. Many years ago, JFNA (then known as UJC) had the apparent authority to represent the interests of the Federation movement in the Jewish Agency, and in most cases had actual authority. Now, the nature of local Federations funding strategies has diminished the ability of JFNA to collectively bargain with the Jewish Agency on behalf of those local Federations – becoming more of a myth than a matter of fact.  Make no mistake, JFNA is still a vital voice at the table, but the table isn’t the same shape it once was, and the guest list has changed.  Yes, JFNA expresses the voice of the Federation movement in North America, but only so much as that voice is in harmony, which it is increasingly is not. So we must recognize this diminished ability of JFNA has left us not only with significant issues (whose voice to listen to) but also an opportunity: inspiring increasing numbers and types of people to invest their time and efforts in the Agency. Of course this can’t be done unless the Agency develops new ways of engaging those individuals in the future work of the Jewish people – this is, and must be, its imperative.

As we will see and undoubtedly read this week, the Jewish Agency is on the cusp of its most significant and necessary redefinition in decades. But the future of the Agency will not be changed if we all rely on the myth of collective bargaining, it will only be truly reimagined if we increase and inspire a mix of people who feel they have a vital interest in its possibilities – a mix that can transform the quicksand of the present into the concrete of the future.

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Will We Let This School Fail?

March 10, 2010

Rarely a day passes without hearing from one of my friends in the Jewish world about a new project in which they have become engaged or an organization for which they are fundraising.  The conversation that ensues is often one about shared interests and common concerns. Sometimes the conversations result in my renewed optimism and other times they cause me to have sobering realizations; but never have they made me sick to my stomach.

Until last week.

An unexpected call from a former colleague who  left Atlanta to move to Asheville, North Carolina started out with the usual pleasantries – work, family, memories of old times. But quickly the conversation turned to the matter that was obviously on my friend’s mind – the state of affairs of the nascent community Jewish Day School in Asheville where his children attend and of which he is president. His story started out inspiring enough, nineteen families had come together in 2006 to create a fully integrated core/Jewish curriculum day school for their twenty-one children, with plans to increase the school size by the incremental addition of students and grades. In the middle of North Carolina, where so much of the Jewish community had migrated away from to lager population centers like Charlotte and Atlanta, the small but resilient Jewish community of Asheville was not going to yield to demography. Grounded in a community with religious diversity and a small but strong JCC, the school would be an extension of the Jewish community’s efforts to create a rich Jewish experience for their children. At least that was the intention.

Now, like every school (and other community organization) in the country that is facing the hardships of the Great Recession, the Maccabi Academy of Asheville is in financial crisis. Its $40,0000 deficit is too big, its community is too small; it is literally on the edge of going from a school that could be much more to a school that might be nothing more than a memory. It made growth decisions that anticipated financial security and now must revisit those decision with deep cost-cutting measures.  It must ask more from each family, and has already received more than most families can afford.   Looking beyond its small community it has reached out to friends throughout the Southeast that might have connections to Asheville or North Carolina in the hope they might find an angel or an unexpected benefactor from afar. But one decision my friend, his board, and his fellow parents are loathe to consider, but nonetheless must – without the needed funds, will it be possible to continue this Jewish day school experience for those nineteen families?

As a Jewish people we say that education is one of the most important elements of sustaining ourselves. As a North American community we insist that day school education is one of the most critical means to provide our children an immersive educational and communal experience (often at the expense of investing too little in congregational education). We encourage families to send their children to day schools; we cajole parents to give more of their resources to make those schools strong. We know that education is expensive and we say to one another that we face an affordability crisis that threatens our ability to provide the education we know is needed. Yet say every child matters, so we mustn’t fail in providing that education, no matter the cost. We say all of these things.

There are nineteen Jewish children in Asheville, North Carolina, far from the Jewish centers of life in New York, Los Angeles, Boston and Atlanta. These children are getting a daily dose of Jewish education, culture and language, and they are sharing experiences that will help cement their identities for years to come.  They may go elsewhere in life, far from Asheville – perhaps even to our own communities. We know this.

So with all we know, let me ask this – will we, the Jewish people, let this school fail?  And if we do, what does it mean about what we say?

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Technology, Innovation and Entrepreneurship: A Horrible Combination to Waste

November 29, 2009

“Inventing is a combination of brains and materials. The more brains you use, the less material you need.” –  Charles. F. Kettering

At no time in history has mankind been presented with greater opportunity for the global interaction of innovation and imagination, unbounded by time or geography.  The advancement of technology has created communication networks that allow global challenges to be addressed by international networks of problem solvers using instantaneous communications and unlimited perspectives. The enormity of this opportunity, however, is met by an equally great number of challenges. Throughout the word billions of men, women and children live in need – need of a more sustainable life, more sustainable communities, and a more sustainable world.  Indeed, in an era where global opportunity is almost blinding, we can’t lose sight of those who may live in our collective blindspots.

Given the way that technology has become a fundamental aspect of contemporary problem-solving, it has become easy to casually assume that any human challenge can be met easily by the application of existing or advancing technology.  But that isn’t always the case; some problems require custom technologies that deviate from existing technology pathways that might otherwise go unexamined. Also, the casual observer often assumes that simply providing technological tools to communities is a satisfactory substitute for the systemic integration of entrepreneurship and technology in communal development.  Rather, it this systemic integration that does more than respond to a need, it helps stimulate communal (and collective) imagination and innovation.

With this in mind, perhaps one of the best examples of this integration is the work of Jack Sim, a social entrepreneur, Ashoka Fellow and founder of the World Toilet Organization (WTO).

Now truth be told, I learned of Jack’s work by accident.  My birthday was November 19th and unbeknownst to me (until a friend duly pointed it out), that date is World Toilet Day. Putting aside my friends chiding (insert your own birthday/toilet joke here), I was genuinely curious and even more genuinely amazed by what I learned about that day.  For over a decade, Jack and the WTO have been vital voices in developing global improvements in sanitation that provide millions of individuals the opportunity to live healthy and dignified lives in communities with sustainable sanitation programs. Seeing a need, Jack helped shape and pursue a vision of a world where sanitation is not an aspiration, but rather an actualization of a community’s ability to care for itself.

But identifying a need, sharing a vision and having an entrepreneurial spirit wasn’t enough; something more was needed.

Jack’s success wouldn’t be possible without technology and innovation as well. There has been a steady progression of improvement in sanitation technology including the recent development of compost toilets for public use. Just as importantly, there has been innovation in the ways communities are educated about sanitation needs, innovation in the way funds are raised and allocated for the enhancement of global sanitation, and imagination in the way communications technology can be leveraged to create global awareness of the fact that over 2.5 billion people worldwide don’t have access to sanitation.

And that is the lesson – because of Jacks’ entrepreneurial spirit, the accompanying technological developments and systemic innovation, the WTO and organizations in 57 countries across the world are now focused on an issue that for far to long has been in the outhouse of global awareness. Proving once again that the combination of entrepreneurship, technology and social innovation are a terrible thing to waste  – literally and figuratively.

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Strange Love of National Organizations (or how I learned to stop worrying and love my local community)

November 18, 2009

Do not separate yourself from community – Hillel (Avos 2:5)

All politics is local – Thomas ‘Tip’ O’Neill

Quite simply, the GA is a reminder of the gravitational force of national Jewish organizations and the important role they play in connecting us to one another. We often exhort one another to ‘not recreate the wheel’ in our respective community efforts, but if it wasn’t for networked cadres of national leadership and large conferences like the GA there wouldn’t be opportunities for the mass in-person sharing of new ideas and lessons learned in order to avoid such redundant efforts. Certainly technology has given us all the ability to communicate more quickly (even instantly) and has removed geography as a barrier to the exchange of ideas. But nevertheless, there is no substitute for harnessing the collective power of diverse and distributed Jewish leadership so that together, under the umbrella of a national organizational endeavor, they can meet challenges and seize opportunities that are continental and even global in scope.

And having watched some of my friends ‘go national’ I also know the seductiveness (and impact) of being engaged in community discussions that transcend ones own local community. Whether it is the national young leadership cabinet of The Jewish Federations of North America in which many of my friends participate, or the boards of continental endeavors like Joshua Venture Group (in which I am involved), the involvement in initiatives that have a scope beyond one’s city limits are often perceived as a form of ‘graduated’ leadership. For others, however, ‘going national’ is a matter of necessity – to effect the level of transformative change they seek to achieve, local communities (especially small ones) may be too limiting. Whatever the reason one decides to expand his or her role in more national endeavors, there can be no question that it can be extremely educational and enriching.

But it can also be distracting.

There are a few reasons why involvement in national organizations and initiatives can present both challenges and opportunities related to the success of Jewish leaders. First – the challenges. “Going national” is a substantial commitment to individual resources and time commitments, and requires a high level of patience with long-distance communication, collaboration, and politics. While not always the case, the exhaustion from national involvement often limits activists from greater engagement in their own local communities. But there is another issue of greater significance (and often related to the first issue) – often national endeavors can feel a bit disconnected from local needs and issues. While solving issues on a national scale may involve a level of grand planning and implementation, it ultimately is often excellent local execution that make those solutions achieve their intended results. In sum, while passions may be national, needs are still local.

But on the other hand, the positive impacts of national involvement are clear. Engagement in national (or international) activities often give scale and scope to the imaginations of local activists. Connecting and sharing with peers is one of the best ways to meaningful exchange ideas and experiences, and the ability to connect with different people with different perspectives is a true benefit of national involvement. Also, as one of my friends reminded me at the GA, often in small communities the opportunity to become more engaged in the Jewish community is limited and becoming involved in national endeavors is the most meaningful way to provide engaged Jewish activists a way to make a Jewish impact. Lastly, understanding that there is a large community of which we all are a part (and that requires some of our attention and effort) is a key benefit of exposure to national initiatives – the more we feel a part of something bigger than ourselves, the more we are empowered to view ourselves as vital instruments of empowerment and change.

But with all that being said, I think that one can’t lose sight of the fact that community starts at home; first in our own home and then in our home communities. Sure, the lure of the faraway is great – its often feels more significant and less limited. But the ability to invest in our own communities is great as well, and there is no lack of need to impact the communities around us in the smallest and most significant ways. While we may worry about issues that transcend just our individual cities and towns, the love of our local communities – the communities that care for us – must remain great. Whether it is innovation, connection with Israel, Jewish arts and culture or otherwise – if there is a national need, that means there is a local need. And if there are local needs, we need local activists just as much as we need national ones.

So with that in mind, and the GA in our rearview mirror, lets make sure we all think communally, learn and interact nationally, but not forget to act locally. It makes a difference – a difference that can change a nation of Jews one community at a time.

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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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Defining the Mission, Vision, and Values of the Next Jewish Century

October 25, 2009

Words matter. For the People of the Book, there is almost no greater truism; we are a people inspired by a covenant and guided by the words of five books. We are a people that have revived a dead language and created words to express modern experiences, and we have no lack of artists that illuminate those words into a beautiful tapestry of Jewish memory and storytelling. But we are also a people that struggle with the meaning of certain terms and how we define them. We guard words so that they singularly reflect certain Jewish experiences (Holocaust) and we empower words so that the serve as a reminder of our collective Jewish future (Peoplehood).   But even though we are a people that love language, we still struggle and debate the meaning of certain words and how we define them for use in our Jewish communities.

This struggle became clear to me as I recently sat in a conference room with Jewish community leaders from around the world and from a range of Jewish experiences. There was no doubt that each person in the room loved the people, the faith, and the state of the Jewish People; however even in a short conversation it was clear that we were all struggling with how we define our mission and vision in the next Jewish century. On one hand there was talk of the mission and vision for the Jewish People, and on the other hand there were questions about how we express Jewish values when engaging people in the pursuit of realizing that vision. Of course some would say all of that is semantic, but the more thoughtful would realize that like the other words of the Jewish People, mission, vision, and values need to have meaning and need to be used in their proper context and with serious emphasis on the possibilities they encompass.

Some notable scholars in the Jewish community such as Dr. Jonathan Sarna have called for a new mission for the Jewish people. While I disagree that we need a new mission, I do believe we need to frame the mission of our People clearly in the context of the faith that guides our People. Our mission is our essential purpose statement and our reason for being, and it is found in our texts and in our belief system. The mission of the Jewish People is unwavering and unrelenting, and as a light in this world it must be unflickering. A vision however, can and does evolve over time because the times in which we pursue our mission change. The vision is what the future looks like, what will be tomorrow if we advance our mission today. It is what we strive for and rely upon to give us the endurance to move forward into the bold future of our imagination. Lastly, there are our values. They are the bedrock of our actions and they are the guideposts of our journeys. The Jewish People have a value system that is incredibly strong but often under-defined. For example, while we understand and respect the value of kavod for example, we often don’t always invest the energy in extrapolating how that value must be expressed in our Jewish endeavors.

As many of our contemporary Jewish leaders have begun to openly discuss, we need to be more open, expressive and thoughtful in the way we craft the vision of the Jewish people for the 21st Century and beyond. We need to boldly imagine what the future could look like and the ways in which our mission and values intersect with that vision. We need to unharness ourselves from the language of hesitation and gird ourselves with the language of optimism. But we also need to make sure we are mindful of defining the values that will help us advance towards the future we envision and the ways in which those values strengthen our ability to make that vision a reality.  And most of all we need to make sure that while we may all speak in different tongues, we nevertheless use the same concepts to guide our future endeavors.

We stand on the edge of a bridge of Jewish tomorrows that is unfolding in front of us, from one beach of history to the other beach of the future.  The bridge crosses a sea of opportunity and challenge, and it is slippery and sometimes hard to see. But if we use the mission, vision and values of the Jewish people to serve as our guide rail, we will surely get to the other side.