by Rabbi Sara Luria
In 7th grade drama class, our teacher asked us to come up with adjectives that described our personalities, starting with the first letter of our first names. I chose “Sensitive Sara,” which was true, although not as much fun to say as “Jocular Jeremiah,” who, from what I can tell from our Facebook relationship, remains as jocular as ever.
Much more recently, at a lovely birthday dinner attended by some of my closest friends, I was affectionately dubbed, “radically sensitive.” Plus ça change, my friends know me well. Along with being radically sensitive, I’m also the founder of ImmerseNYC, a nonprofit start-up in the New York Jewish community. In my experience, founders are often told to have a “thick skin” and not “take things personally.” Ha.
I thought it might be helpful to share 7 lessons I have learned on the job in my first year as a full-time founder/executive director. I believe that there is not one characteristic that defines a great leader; in fact, I think the best we can do is learn how to harness our strengths and personality traits for good, so that we can be authentically ourselves as leaders, and work to create strong organizations from that rooted authenticity.
1. ImmerseNYC’s volunteer leaders are our heroines and heroes; our organization exists and thrives because of them. We have 24 active mikveh guides who do incredible things, like hire a babysitter on a weeknight, in order to facilitate immersions. Our 9 advisory board members work hard because they care deeply about reclaiming this Jewish ritual and about inclusivity in our Jewish community. And then there are the facilitators and hosts of our salons who are so invested in building community that they pay for refreshments, open their homes, have countless calls and meetings with me to prep, and on, and on. I can truly never thank our leaders enough.
2. Measuring quantitative organizational impact, such as how many people have visited the mikveh with our guides or participated in one of our salons, is an important aspect of our work. However, for ImmerseNYC in our first year, we have chosen to focus primarily on the quality of the ImmerseNYC experience. We want every person who calls our office, emails our staff, interacts with a mikveh guide, attends a salon, or volunteers with us to feel cared for, listened to, and truly welcomed. That takes a lot of time and energy, and it certainly can’t be quantified. But it’s how we live out our organizational values every day, and I believe it’s one of the reasons why our ImmerseNYC community feels spiritually nourishing for our participants, and how we cultivate and retain such dedicated volunteer leaders.
3. I was able to create ImmerseNYC because one foundation was willing to invest in me, as a leader, and ImmerseNYC, as a project. Every time we receive a testimonial from someone who has had a powerful, transformative immersion, or who has connected to community through our salons, much of the credit is due to that foundation. The money they invest in us may not be a lot for them but it means the whole world to us, and everyone impacted by our work.
4. Everything I do in my job is about developing relationships and building trust. That applies to supervising staff, meeting with stakeholders, and engaging individual donors. In my experience, it takes time to build a relationship strong enough to make an “ask” for a financial gift. Which is, again, one of the reasons that the grants from the aforementioned foundation are so crucial to our work, since their funds “buy us time” to be able to cultivate the donor relationships that are so important to the long-term sustainability of ImmerseNYC.
5. Fundraising can be hard! I have heard many “no’s” this year, and often, I don’t even get in the door because we are deemed “outside of the foundation’s strategic priorities.” It seems to me that this is just the reality of the philanthropic field. But, almost every “no” is accompanied by a “try again next year.” So we will; and then, the next year, if we have to. I do believe that the more we establish ourselves in the New York Jewish community, the more likely it is that foundations will recognize that the significant value and impact of our high-quality work.
6. I have experienced that many women, in general, and me, in particular, have a hard time asking for what we need. But since I’m running a small nonprofit organization, I need other people’s help for almost everything. This year, I had to practice asking for what I and ImmerseNYC needed – donations, advice, and mentorship. These “asks” have taken a lot of courage for me, and I am continuing to try to develop that courage for my own personal and professional growth, and because I am deeply invested in the health of our organization.
7. We created a mission and a vision statement in January 2013. Then we did the work of running our organization and realized that we needed to rewrite it. What I have learned is that our mission statement is not a static document; it has unfolded (and continues to unfold) as our work in the community becomes more focused, and we are clearer about our priorities and our dreams as an organization.
How do these 7 lessons resonate for you? I’m looking forward to an ongoing conversation – please reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Rabbi Sara Luria is founder/executive director of ImmerseNYC.