During the past few months, one can rarely avoid a discussion of the impact of the ongoing economic challenges facing many Americans. Avoiding such conversations is even more rare in the hallways of nonprofit organizations that depend on the generosity of their donors to provide critical financial resources to address a variety of compelling needs. These organizations that often struggle for funds even when times are good now find themselves in a time of dramatically increased need even while many of their supporters are more hesitant about their individual ability to give generously. Notwithstanding data that indicates that generosity does not diminish (and often increases) in times of great need, it is nevertheless clear that in these belt-tightening days that many people, when reconciling the numbers of diminishing 401(k) returns and increasing 501(c)(3) appeals, just can’t make the math work.
So these are long days and nights for fundraising campaigns – calls to donors are as much about friend-raising as they are fundraising, for just as there are many individuals who may offer a bit more financial help, there are those who reveal that they are in a bit more financial need. And along with the greater demands to find financial resources to help those in that seek it, there will soon be challenges to be faced in ways that we haven faced domestically in perhaps generations. How our communities meet those challenges, and how we allocate the resources necessary to help overcome them will be defining questions for community leaders in the months and perhaps years ahead.
So it might seem odd that I would suggest that at this time of immense challenge that we focus on an immense opportunity to commence a new type of national Jewish communal campaign – a capital campaign of sorts, a human capital campaign.
Yes, we must continue and expand important financial appeals in our Jewish communities to serve local, national and overseas needs (we should not forget that the crippling effects of the global slowdown that impacts us at home has tremendous impact on the needs of vulnerable and at-need Jews in places like the former Soviet Union). But we need to expect that for many individuals who are struggling to cope with their own personal financial challenges, engaging in acts of Jewish philanthropy may be an option that, for the time-being, must be left untaken. Whether helping shore up their parents’ financial needs, struggling with their own limited ability to maintain synagogue memberships, day school fees or JCC dues, many Jews who would nonetheless like to remain engaged in the community may feel financially shut out. In the face of these economic limitations, they may feel like what they have to offer the community is diminished, and therefore their engagement in the community should diminish as well.
Nothing could be farther from the truth. And the leaders of the organized Jewish community need to make sure that not only does the false perception of these individuals manifest themselves in our communities, but that we proactively take measures to seize the opportunity offered by those who want to find alternative ways to give back to their community.
Now is the time for us to engage in discussions with those who want to give time rather than money and capture their energies in ways that help us collectively face the challenges that confront us. Sure, many of our most vaunted professional leaders and long-time volunteers may be able to put the current challenges into perspective, but the emerging viewpoints and ideas of new volunteers and leadership will help us define pathways to future achievement. Individuals who long invested in the community by writing checks may now find that being engaged in a volunteer leadership role is equally fulfilling. And then as economic times improve and they can more generously give once again, our communities will benefit from both time and money.
Therefore, I think right now is the time, an important time, to engage in a discussion of how we embark on the great Jewish human capital campaign. A campaign with realizable goals locally and nationally for engaging new volunteers, and new volunteer leadership. A campaign that does not diminish the value of giving financially to philanthropic endeavors, but one that reinforces the value of investing personal time in the organizations that pursue those endeavors.
Now this campaign would not be without its challenges. Like any great effort that brings in new individuals to organizations and movements there are always questions of ability to integrate the new volunteers leaders into existing roles, to create new roles and opportunities for personal investment and to provide volunteers/leaders high quality experiences that reinforce their desire to give their time to the community. These volunteers and leaders must be powerfully engaged, educated and empowered to effect change in our communities and help create new avenues of Jewish experience. And they should have some fun.
Equal to the systemic challenges with respect to the new volunteers/leaders we need to anticipate challenges for our professionals. Many of our senior professional leadership have grown up in systems (most notably the federation system) that have not achieved much-needed and dramatic reengineering of core strategies related to volunteer engagement. Figuring out new ways to engage leaders and new ways to synthesize their strengths into existing organizations is no small task. And as many have realized, Jewish communal organizations are not necessarily bastions of adaptability – recruiting substantial numbers of new volunteers/leaders will require many organizations (and their professionals) to be responsive to the new ideas, approaches, and technologies – each which may be at odds with decades of organizational experience/tradition.
This human capital campaign needs to start at the bottom and at the top. We need new faces at our most basic committee levels in our local communities, and as I have suggested previously, we need new ideas at the top of our local and national organizations. The human capital campaign is not narrowly focused or easily satisfied. It requires fundamental changes in the way we recruit engaged Jews and the way we govern organizations that are led by them. We need to challenge old assumptions and embrace new visions. Even those visions that require resources we might not be able to collect in the coming days, months and perhaps even years. Because by encouraging and allowing those visions to take root, we will be harnessing the passions of visionaries who create them. And when the financial resources are there to transform those visions into realities, the human capital campaign will infuse new life into these financial campaigns as well.
Yes, we face challenging times. And yes, in these challenging times we tend to monitor our campaigns closely – aspiring, stretching and achieving those goals we must achieve to address the needs we face. But lets not be too cautious lest we lose this opportunity to engage in a great new capital campaign – a human capital campaign that seeks to benefit from the greatest resource of all – the hearts and minds of the Jewish people.
Seth Cohen is an alumnus of the Atlanta ‘07 class of the Wexner Heritage Program and an engaged member of the Atlanta Jewish community. Seth regularly shares his thoughts on where we are going as a Jewish community on his blog, Boundless Drama of Creation.