Ensuring Sustainability

by Danielle Keats Berkowitz

For not the first time in my sixteen year career within the Jewish nonprofit sector, I have recently been witness to a once vital and vibrant Jewish communal institution on the verge of closing its doors. While the ensuing communal outcry is heartwarming – it is not only too little too late, but vastly upsetting as well. As I see the blame game going round I am flabbergasted by the anger, naiveté, and misinformation spreading. Is the close of a community institution really one person’s fault? Is it due to one catastrophic event? Or is it due to a series of missed opportunities, apathy, and false expectations?

Ethics of our Fathers states “It is not up to you to finish the work, but you are not free to avoid it.” We have all been involved in organizations where a minority of people manages a majority of the responsibilities. I argue that as a Jewish communal professional one of my most vital roles is to reach out to and engage others to not only understand our “cause” but actively participate in our mission through regular involvement and leadership roles. I also find that more often than not leadership – both lay and professional – may be so focused on the immediate needs of the institution, that groundwork for ensuring the future is not lain.

How does organizational leadership ensure financial sustainability within their institutions? I believe with a focus on ten important items, any organization will be in good standing.

10. Invest in young leadership. No – they don’t only want to party. They may not have deep pockets at this point, but if you engage them now (when everyone else is ignoring them) you will gain their loyalty and they will be around when they have more to give.

Young leaders are also mavens on getting the word out and bringing groups together. Empower them and use them.

9. Educate your leadership on the importance of creating, implementing and updating a strategic fundraising plan – 1 year, 3 years and 5 years. So many small organizations are struggling to meet daily needs, that they push off creating a strategic plan. This perpetuates their emergency status. By spending the time to create a proper plan with actionable goals and deadlines, you are providing yourself with a road map to follow and the ability to evaluate your success.

8. Train and retrain your lay leadership on the importance of fundraising, their roles and responsibilities in the fundraising arena. So many lay leaders shy away from fundraising – they are embarrassed to ask people for money, they feel it is too personal and intrusive.

Educate them – they need to understand that fundraising is not schnooring, but providing others the opportunity to be a part of something significant and special. Teach them how to cultivate and solicit – role play with them so they are comfortable with the language. Take the fear away. If you do not know how to do this, use the resources available online to lead you through.

7. Establish a volunteer network so the majority of actionable items are farmed out to various players. This way, should something come up to take a key player out of the game, all is not lost – only temporarily halted until someone can seamlessly replace them.

Building this framework also provides you with engagement opportunities for individuals at a variety of levels.

6. Constantly communicate with your audience – leadership, funders, individual donors, community members, etc. People need to know what you are doing, when you are doing it, and why you are doing it. While you are informing them of successes, needs or events, you are offering up yet another engagement opportunity.

5. Reach out to similar organizations, create partnerships, and leverage resources. No institution – social service, educational, or otherwise – is an island. Funders big and small like to see that their money is being used in an efficient manner. Innovation and partnerships are sexy and will pique interest more than an organization which has been doing things the same way for years.

4. Set expectations for your community, articulate those expectations and help achieve them together. Bring your community players together, let them know what you are doing, solicit their feedback – this will help garner their support.

3. Be digital! There is no excuse for a bad website and a lack of social media. The web provides you with a platform to share how amazing your institution is on a constant basis. It connects you to your clients, supporters, major funders, and potential “friends”.

2. Lose the ego. No one can do this alone. No one. A whole team of individuals is needed to ensure the success and viability of an organization. Staff, lay leadership, funders, friends, etc. all have a role to play and must be given the tools and support to get their “jobs” done.

1. Hire a development director. Yes, lay leaders are the cornerstone of our nonprofit institutions. Yet, without a dedicated professional at the helm to spearhead FRD efforts, maintain institutional history & proper protocols, and coordinate daily implementation of goals, all efforts extended on sustainability could crumble instantaneously. A FRD professional is essential in the sustainability of any and every non-profit institution.

I am not saying any of this is easy. Quite the contrary – this all takes a lot of effort. But what is the alternative? As I mentioned, I have witnessed Jewish communal institutions in different locations around the world close due to lack of planning – a historical society, a community center, and a school. The historical society full of Holocaust research and documentation was so focused on scholarship that it did not engage anyone outside of academia and closed it’s doors due to lack of funding. The community center failed due to lack of communication, strategic planning and partnerships. The school closed because of a lack of leadership, minimal parental involvement and communal apathy. Those organizations who are doing it right are the ones with a detailed strategic plan, comprehensive engagement of funders and friends – both personally and digitally, and a true partnership between its lay and professional arms. I urge you to evaluate yourselves now – the loss of a vital Jewish organization has far reaching consequences. Good luck!

Danielle Keats Berkowitz is co-founder of Reach3K an international consulting company to Jewish nonprofit organizations with branches in Israel and the US.

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Comments

  1. says

    Ms. Keats Berkowitz’ suggestions are useful, and most organizations would do well to adopt or adapt many or most of them. But they don’t address the more significant underlying questions: Why should that organization remain open? Why is it a loss – or has it outlived its role?

    As many of us have noted, and as history itself has demonstrated, organizations emerge to respond to and address needs. The successful ones understand, or at least intuit, the needs of the moment and of their stakeholders. When those needs or styles change, organizations either change or become less relevant. Maintaining them out of some sense of nostalgia or responsibility is hardly a good use of communal and voluntary time and money.

    Of course, there is a sadness and pain when something ends. Staff can become unemployed, long time board members and consumers miss their special relationship. Institutional memory may be communal history – certainly a value. But this institution may simply not be the one best equipped to deal with today or tomorrow’s needs.

    I am not suggesting that every institution should have a half-life. Some continue to grow, emerge, adapt, serve crucial roles in the community and deserve every effort to keep them vibrant.

    But all too often, institutional continuity has become a goal for its own sake. “We have existed for x years, help us continue in the future.” Maybe there are other, better, more effective, more compelling responses to communal needs. If that is the case, and an organization cannot make its case in the face of those changing needs, why not bring it to an honorable conclusion?

    We are at the end of an era and the beginning of a new one. Many fine and wonderful institutions were created and thrived during the last century. They deserve our admiration and respect. But that which allowed them to thrive may be long gone. If they hadn’t figured that out and how to thrive in a new era, let others do so. A vibrant and robust living community deserves no less.