Money Can’t Buy Love… and Neither Can, um, Compulsory Professional Development Seminars

money can't buy loveby Ken Gordon

The Jewish world underwent a communal plotz recently, as a person named Mark S. Young, proposed – on this website – something he called the $54,000 Strategy. In the piece, Young suggested the (sadly) radical idea that Jewish orgs should actually invest in their employees, and that they become “employers of choice.”

Yes! we said as one… and then hoped that someone forwarded the piece to our executive directors, who would promptly bump up all our salaries.

Today I have another thought, and it goes like this: Young’s proposal, which I find very appealing, is just too weak on explaining how to transform an org into an employer of choice.

But I think we might actually get somewhere when Young talks about “compensating beyond the dollar.” Well, we might if we ignore Young’s interpretation of beyond-the-dollar compensation, which is well meaning but kind of absurd. “Require all employees to attend seminars or courses to improve professional skill sets on a quarterly or bimonthly basis (at no cost to the employee!), demonstrating that we value their professional growth and development of their talents,” he writes. “This will increase current performance and yield a noticeable return on investment.”

No employee will ever love their job because they are required to attend a seminar – and if they do they’re not using their Yiddishe Kop. But then how do you create a nonprofit job people will love?

You look to the MIT Media Lab, which is, to my mind – and some of the sharpest minds in The Jewish communal world – the best place in the world to work. I know this because I’ve read Frank Moss’ The Sorcerers and Their Apprentices: How the Digital Magicians of the MIT Media Lab Are Creating the Innovative Technologies That Will Transform Our Lives, and if you run, or work at, a Jewish nonprofit, you should too.

The Media Lab model is built on a modest number of principles which, if imported properly into the communal world, would make the people who work there much more innovative – and, I believe, happier.

The Power of Passion. The work done at the Media Lab begins with the personal passions of the researchers on hand. Imagine asking prospective employees, “What are you passionate about and how would you integrate this into your job?” An employer of choice would find a way to align employee interests and skills with organizational goals. Creating such a work plan should be a new hire’s first task.

Note: This doesn’t mean letting people do what they want; it means asking them what truly motivates them and finding a way to make this work for your org’s mission. For you risk-averse executive directors who fear freedom, this passion-based professionalism can be relegated to a fraction of one’s job: Google’s 80-20 rule is perhaps a good way to try this out.

Disappearing Disciplines. The Media Lab strives to mix together a heterogeneous group of specialists, thereby creating a space in which everyone is encouraged to ask questions and that failure is merely a weigh station on the way to success. Every org is composed by people with various kinds of expertise; why not ensure that the ideas your employees think up get a fair hearing? Why not let their proposals benefit from the wisdom from every corner of your professional environment? Surely receiving – and heeding – constructive criticism from, say, the development, marketing, and even IT departments will make for better ideas.

Hard Fun. You will find no mechitza between work and play at the Media Lab: that’s because the passion-driven research is designed to blur the two. They call this having “hard fun.” When you’ve properly engaged your Jewish professionals, you’ll see the positive effects of such a culture. An employer of choice works hard to give employees the chance to partake in hard fun.

Serendipity by Design. The Media Lab makes it possible for all kinds of people to get connected in the course of their research. A strong Jewish nonprofit will do the same. Don’t hold secret meetings of senior management; bring in your smart new hires. Don’t keep visiting board members apart from junior staffers – invite them to sit in on brainstorming meetings.

Yes, Young’s right on the money about money: more would be great – but an investment in creating an exciting, meaningful, passion-based work culture: that’s a sustainable idea. Let’s see what we can do about both…

Ken Gordon edits the PEJE Blog. He invites you to join the conversation at the JEDLAB discussion group, where we talk (at great length) about how the Media Lab’s philosophy can improve Jewish education.

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  1. says

    Thanks, Ken, for writing this. As a coach and speaker in the field, I meet too many Jewish professionals who remember the passion they had to make an impact when they started, but no longer can tap into those feelings. These are the folks who take their talents and leave the field — or maybe worse — quit emotionally but keep showing up for work every day anyway, devoid of energy and passion.

    As Dan Pink writes in Drive, each of us needs Purpose, Mastery and Autonomy in our work to feel truly satisfied. How far off is the field? Pretty far for too many, I’m afraid.

    I’m going to pick up the book Ken referenced and then, Ken and Mark Young, I’m calling you both to see what we might do about bringing more fun, passion, meaning and commitment (back) to the field.

    Deborah Grayson Riegel

  2. Lesley Litman says

    Ken – Yishar koakh on a great piece. I, too, have always been dazzled by the MIT Media Lab and would LOVE to see it’s principles at play in Jewish education and in the Jewish communal world in general.

    I would add one more nuance that might be a bridge to what I think Mark was trying to point to: professional learning can be both inspiring and motivating to employees. However, I have found that the some of the most effective professional learning and growth happens ‘in situ’ – in the context of the workplace, as an organic and ongoing component of the work and with colleagues who are partners in the endeavor. This aligns with the cultural norms that you describe where people feel continually challenged and excited to discover and explore new ideas and ways of doing things.

    Sending people out to courses or seminars, as Mark suggests, while exciting and perhaps inspiring in the moment can often make employees feel like fish out of water when they return. We don’t put enough thought into the re-entry of the employee back into the workplace following such experiences so, even if they wanted to utilize their new learning, they often hit roadblocks.

    In short, professional learning, I believe, has been shown to be a real motivator in the workplace. However, the framework and manner in which it is carried out is as important as the content of the learning.

    Lesley Litman

  3. says

    The Jewish communal ecosystem is made of fundraisers, educators, and service providers. Each of these is almost a different industry, and frankly, the lessons we can learn from MIT or Google are fairly limited. A ‘Friends of’ fundraising org isn’t packed with brilliant young engineers trying to revinvent the world. The local JFS isn’t swimming in hundreds of million of dollars of free cash to invest dozens of crazy ideas in hopes that one becomes the next Gmail. Schools are among the most regulated organizations on the face of the planet. Comparing them to no-rules tech incubators isn’t constructive.

    Investing more in training and so forth is a great thing. So is hiring personnel with the appropriate skill-sets for the work your organization is engaged in. Transparency, flatter hierarchies, and more board/staff engagement are also terrific. But those lessons could come from highly-functioning non-profits, without fetishizing a tech world that has so little in common with Jewish nonprofits (I know, I work in both).

  4. Shuki Taylor says

    Hi Ken,

    As a Jewish educator / community professional, I find your article insulting – especially in context of Mark Young’s piece.

    Mark addressed a very significant challenge: Jewish educators and community professionals are under paid. They feel that they are undervalued. That they are not appreciated. That they don’t matter. They work hard, have a serious contribution to make, service a significant market – and they are not compensated accordingly.

    Mark suggested what you might call a simple solution – and yes, it’s as simple as it sounds. Pay more. Invest in these professionals, and they will stick around.

    As I understand your article – your suggestion to the same problem goes like this: in order to feel valued and appreciated; in order to feel invested in, in order to get them to stick around, here is what Jewish professionals need: passion, collaboration, connection and fun.

    This sounds nice, but its also insulting. Here’s why:

    1. In their current practice, most Jewish professionals work extremely hard to collaborate, connect and have fun. And its great. But to think that this will get professionals to stick around is delusional. Moreover, the suggestion that passion and fun serves as appropriate reward for hard work is probably one of the greatest illnesses of our field. How many times have Jewish educators and professionals heard from their supervisors that their reward is their satisfaction…

    2. I’m sure that MIT and google to a great job in implementing all of your suggestions. So do many Jewish professionals. The difference is that the former have money to do it, the latter don’t. Jewish professional don’t work in cutting edge labs. They don’t have game centers, gyms and pools in their offices. They don’t go on fancy retreats to fancy conference centers. They don’t have shiny board rooms where they get to collaborate. Do these professionals have passion and fun? Yes. Do they collaborate and connect? Yes. Maybe not to the extent that MIT and Google do. Maybe because they don’t have the same resources.

    3. Your suggestion is insulting because Mark Young took the plunge and said it as it is: invest in Jewish professionals, and they will stay and produce more and better. Your suggestion (yet again) covered the problem up, coated it with bestseller-book style advice, and told told Jewish professionals yet again: if you have fun and passion and collaboration – it will all be ok.

    It won’t.

    We should stop ducking the question and start answering it.

    (And thank you Mark!)

    Shuki Taylor
    Director, Experiential Jewish Education
    YU Center for the Jewish Future.

  5. says

    Thanks, Deb, for your thoughtful response. I love that you made the connection to “Drive.” I have to say that my Jewish organization, PEJE, allows me plenty of autonomy, has allowed me to develop my own sense of mastery, and has, in the process, allowed me to feel an authentic sense of purpose.

    As for next steps… I like that you want to contact Mark Young and myself to talk. But let’s amplify that idea: Maybe we can set up a G+ Hangout with you, me, Mark Young, Dan Pink, and Frank Moss (author of “The Sorcerers and Their Apprentices’). Not an unthinkable event…



  6. says

    Hey, Lesley:

    Thanks for pointing out that “the most effective professional learning and growth happens ‘in situ’ – in the context of the workplace, as an organic and ongoing component of the work and with colleagues who are partners in the endeavor.” I completely agree. We should make our nonprofit offices places of *continual* learning. If would be very inspirational to say to new hire (and mean it), “Our office is a place where the learning never stops; where everyone in every office and every cubicle is always trying to figure out how to do better, how to learn more.”

    Of course, it’s one thing to promise an atmosphere of non-stop learning–it’s another to make it happen. Still, I suspect that there enough people out there who think like you do to make this a reality.

    Best wishes,


  7. Ken Gordon says

    Hi, Issac:

    Thanks for the thoughtful comment. Yes, the lessons of the Media Lab can be gathered from all sorts of places–but “The Sorcerers and Their Apprentices,” and what can be learned about the Media Lab, has got me (and a *number* of smart and creative Jewish ed people) very excited. If we were in a classroom, a good teacher would tap into that passion, and would work to transform it into something illuminating and useful. The Media Lab approach surely isn’t for everyone… but I don’t think that the it should be limited to “brilliant young engineers trying to revinvent the world.”

    The fact is, our Jewish world is desperate for some new thinking, and I suspect that a break from doing business as usual might initiate a seismic idea or two.

    In any case: I was happy to have add you to our JEDLAB group, and truly look forward to getting your insights there.


    Ken G.

  8. Ken Gordon says

    Dear Shuki,

    I am sorry to have offended you. In fact, I agree with you–and Mark–in talking about compensating nonprofit workers.

    I believe Jewish orgs–and by extension, the Jewish community–should invest heavily in the people who work there. I believe we (I’m a Jewish communal worker, too) should be paid more money, but I also believe we should also be working in places that value and promote, as Deb and Dan Pink point out, purpose, mastery, and autonomy.

    Best wishes,


  9. Anonymous says

    Thank you Ken (and Mark) for your wonderful input. You’ve managed to tap into my own frustrations with my position in a Jewish arts organization, as well as my envy for my spouse who works in a startup modeled after the MIT Media Lab. However, whether or not the Media Lab / Google / etc. model is the right fit, the question of creating incubators seems to point us in the right direction. But it’s not the only thing.

    I recently found myself on a panel where I was essentially the representative for the new generation of staff. I was presenting on an informal survey of everyday work life for staff in Jewish museum’s and similar institutions in North America. My findings were not inspiring, to say the least. Mark touched on most of the central issues in his article: lack of mentorship, lack of opportunities for advancement, insufficient resources to complete assigned tasks, and little regard from supervisors and executive leaders for skills and career development. The result was that a substantial number of younger staff saw no future for themselves in their institutions and the field – in contrast to older staff and executives. While these issues are surely endemic to non-profit and other arts organizations, many of these museums and synagogues function on models similar to other institutions in the Jewish community.

    Indeed I was speaking as much for myself as I was for my cohort. I arrived to my position with intense enthusiasm, and a doggedness that saw me through substantial layoffs and stultifying budget cuts. I donated my free time (and yes, this is how I and many of my cohort see it), my personal resources (computer, software, tools) to ensuring the quality of my work and my institution’s projects. Colleagues in other institutions have congratulated me on my work, and I’ve been told that these investments in my time and effort should pay off professionally.

    However, the realities of everyday work life, in addition to the broader context wherein there is little professional support for staff lead me to doubt this encouragement. After a few years, thank yous, pats on the back and apologies because I should not expect any increase in pay again, let alone the necessary tools for me to complete my job, leaves me quite burnt out. I – like the rest of my colleagues – have received no sustained mentorship, scant subventioned opportunities for professional development and networking in the form of conferences and seminars, which would in turn benefit my institution. These were feelings and experiences that respondents to my survey echoed. I absolutely understand the dire constraints on our organizations and I’m thankful that the buck doesn’t stop with me when it comes to the problem of simply keeping the lights on.

    All of this said, I have enjoyed a tremendous amount of latitude and space for creativity — a la the media lab / incubator model, though without the same types of resources. This has been born of necessity indeed since we haven’t had the staff to oversee every single project. I’ve been allowed to try out new ideas in the name of my institution, succeed at some, fail at some, and, by and large, I have received support for these efforts. That space to experiment has sustained my institution in recent years, and it has provided incentive for me to stay in my position. But that incentive, like my energy, seems to be nearing its expiration date.

    My spouse too has spent time in one or another non-profit and some Jewish institutions. Yet, the very same issues that I touch on above led my spouse to leave for the for-profit sector. Part of the reason was surely remuneration. However, it was not the primary reason; the work conditions and the absence of any opportunity for advancement and professional development were the primary reasons. Now my spouse works for a company that works on the Media-Lab model, often in spite of fiscal challenges. The company’s leadership places a premium on fostering a creative space for their staff, provides them with modest financial incentives (when they can), and asks how the company can support each staff member’s professional development–hopefully, but not always to the benefit of the company.

    Certainly, I would not be surprised to receive criticism that my spouse and I are evident of the impatient and entitled new generation. Well, yes, we do feel entitled. We’re entitled to receiving meaningful support for developing our professional skills, having the necessary resources to complete our daily tasks, and, yes, fair compensation for our efforts. We’re not asking for offices, executive washrooms, business class air faire, or any other unreasonable perks. Rather, I (and I can speak for my cohort, we) expect to work in institutions that will invest in us. We certainly invest our time and effort in them.

    I’m personally overjoyed to see this conversation happening — Kudos to you Mark for getting it started, and well done Ken for your valuable input. I hope that our institutions’ leadership starts to understand the value of investing in their staff before they indeed lose a new generation of potential leaders.

  10. says


    I think this is a “yes, and…” situation. We (Jewish communal professionals) need to be better compensated. AND we need work environments that offer autonomy, mastery, and purpose. One without the other is simply not enough.

    The one point I would add to refine the Media Lab/80-20 idea is to fit that work within the context of your organization’s mission. Innovation guided by vision is how healthy not-for-profits evolve; experimentation without purpose is how not-for-profits lose focus. If we can fit that laboratory mindset within our mission, we can transform the Jewish communal landscape – think the Foundation for Jewish Camp’s One Happy Camper, PEJE’s own Generations program, Moving Traditions’ suite of gender-specific activities.

  11. says

    A couple of month’s ago, the journal Sh’ma focused its sharp lens on the environment, the culture, and the policies of the Jewish workplace. We examined how the Jewish workplace could align the values of an organization—Jewish values—with the treatment of its workers. It’s a packed & illuminating 16-page read, and you can find the digital edition at

  12. says

    The idea — and the comments here — are fascinating. What both Mark and Ken’s articles point to for me is the difference between a culture of scarcity, vs one of abundance. The budget is the budget, but these CULTURES go past the balance sheet and impact all of us individually, organizationally, and as a community much more broadly. The roots of a culture of scarcity run very deep in our history, and are not easy to uproot. Both of you are pointing to a kind of shift — in budgets, time, energy, creativity, freedom, management, etc — that are about operating from a place of abundance. How does changing that mindset and organizational culture trickle down — into our productivity, job satisfaction, feelings about Jewish life, and engagement of next gen Jews in Jewish life as well? I have a feeling it would have a profound effect.

  13. Ken Gordon says

    Hey, Anonymous:

    Thanks so much for taking the time to tell your story. I feel like executive directors all across North America need to hear precisely what’s going on with their employees (and what’s going on with you). You sound like an idea nonprofit worker, and I hope that you find a way to make the Jewish communal world your home for many more years.

    Keep up the good work,


  14. Ken Gordon says


    I love this: “Innovation guided by vision is how healthy not-for-profits evolve; experimentation without purpose is how not-for-profits lose focus.”

    So let’s be purposeful!


  15. Ken Gordon says

    Hi, Susan:

    Good to hear from you!

    I will be certain to share Sh’ma’s issue on the Jewish workplace with JEDLAB. Any chance you might join us there? The URL is:

    In the meantime, there’s something about the Media Lab approach to Jewish learning that puts me in mind of 90 Oak Street–which was a kind of non-profit kibbutz that house a number of orgs (including Sh’ma and, the Jewish-books website I used to edit). See this story in the Jewish Daily Forward:

    Be well,


  16. says


    You’re onto something big with the idea that we’re moving–or need to move–from a culture of scarcity to one of abundance. It’s not easy to make such a big pivot, but the Jewish world must (a) become conscious of the need to change, and then (b) will to happen. You yourself have done many things to inaugurate this shift, and for that I say Todah.


  17. says

    I love how this article opens. I guess here in Israel we’re a little more “forward” in our approach and I passed it on myself. (hehe) Ok, so compulsory isn’t good…but learning certainly is and various methods should be offered based on the employees’ learning styles. If the non-profit’s budget is too tight, there are even plenty of free webinars out there or retired professionals who mentor just for the joy and interaction–but if staff is told “we don’t have time for that, we have work to do” then it limits the growth and abilities of our team members. This is especially true of anyone working with technology (which is, or at least should be, most of us).

  18. says

    You’ve got the right idea, Shayna. Nonprofits should be innovative and creative–above all, active–in pursuing professional development for their employees. Let’s make learning on the job a *central* element of nonprofit work culture. –K.

  19. Andrea Kasper says

    Great article and great comments.

    An issue Ken has raised here that is incredibly important is the professionalizing of our fields (mark? article deals with this as well). There has been a real push for better training and education for many in the Jewish professional world. I am an Ed.D. candidate in Jewish educational leadership (as a case in point). However, while there has been a push for more education of the individuals I am not sure that our institutions are allowing the autonomy that all this education and training help develop. Our institutions are stuck in not allowing the bright, passionate and well educated professionals do their work to the best of their abilities.

    While I sympathize with the comments about the lack of funds we have as compared to the media lab or google, this is NOT only about money, it? about attitude and organizational culture change.

    I am truly excited about adopting many of the values espoused by the media lab in our day schools


  20. says

    I really appreciate how you connect professional growth, compensation and innovation. Like Lisa, I believe there is a trickle down effect that impacts how we engage as professionals in our Jewish communities and how we shape future opportunities for the next generation of leaders and Jews. And of course we must professionalize the field, compensate our leaders and provide meaningful growth opportunities.

    Above Isaac says, “Schools are among the most regulated organizations on the face of the planet. Comparing them to no-rules tech incubators isn’t constructive.” I think this is exactly the whole point of framing innovation in Jewish education around the MIT Media Lab model. We must break this “old school” model and transform how learning happens. We are living in a digital age and educating our students for a factory era (not all schools, but in generalization the model of school today). It is time to be bold and leverage the power of digital tools that provide anytime, anywhere learning. In fact, we must transform the education landscape. Every other industry on the planet is being significantly impacted by technology and the Internet — education is not going to escape the impact, not without leaving our kids behind, unprepared to lead the future.

    I don’t think Ken is suggesting we create “no-rules tech incubators,” but rather take the best elements of the MIT Lab model and consider how this can transform the Jewish education landscape and prepare our children for tomorrow. Learning always happens within a context — cultural, social, political, etc. Let’s consider helping schools re-frame Jewish education in this integrated context: innovation, connected learning (digital), pedagogy, and content knowledge (Jewish, values, spiritual, secular studies). That would make one heck of a Jewish learning landscape, don’t you think?

  21. Mark S. Young says


    I enjoyed your piece and appreciate you advancing the conversation. Not sure why you referred to me as “a person named Mark S. Young,” my brief bio was at the end of the piece. Perhaps this is just your unique writing style.

    I have contemplated the ideas you and others have put forth over the past few days and am working on a follow-up piece. For now let me say this:

    1. It’s not about love, it’s about value – The MIT MEDIA lab ideas are great and I too would love to see them implemented in the Jewish communal world. But your piece misses my central point (that Jewish pros. are as a whole undervalued). I wasn’t suggesting at all that Jewish communal professionals don’t love and aren’t motivated to do their jobs well. Most I’ve met do, but they feel torn between a love for their work and being valued properly. One may love their job, and the MIT MEDIA lab model may increase that, but if one is getting paid an unreasonably low wage, is not supervised properly, and is not provided opportunities for growth, the lack-of-value can outweigh the love one has for the work, and would be compelled to leave the role or the field entirely. Thus, the MIT MEDIA lab ideas don’t address the central issue. How then do we create an “employer of choice?” this starts from the leadership of an organization, which my piece was directed to, not to suggest that every worker should forward my piece and rashly ask for more money.

    2. Professional Development – you seem to infer in the title of your piece that requiring employees to attend professional development is a futile exercise, that they might resent it and that it isn’t a magic cure of work ills. Again, I think you missed the point. I’ve had the pleasure to work in HR and Training for ten years, and every time I’ve seen an employee given the opportunity to work on their own skills, in a seminar where they can learn, network, and not always be worrying about their daily-tasks, they are thrilled, appreciative of the opportunity, and return to work motivated to apply their learning. True, there needs to be support from the top to allow them to apply their learning, and the professional development should be aligned with the employee’s interests and work role, AND shouldn’t be treated like a silly requirement, rather a recognition that leadership cares about their growth and thus are providing them an opportunity to learn, enjoy, and grow. Ken, I think you passed off this important value and culture-change piece without giving it its proper due.

    3. Money can’t buy love, but it can show respect and demonstrate value – You infer at the end of your piece that more money for employees is not a sustainable idea. The whole point of my piece is, WHY NOT? Creating an employer of choice organization will take a lot of work, and implementing the MIT MEDIA lab models are a great framework to get us there. BUT, it all means nothing in my view if there isn’t proper compensation, strong management practices, and meaningful professional development provided to all entry-level and mid-level management employees (which places like Google have by the way). If these factors are missing in an organization, then I think the MIT MEDIA lab principles would be received as a half-hearted and inauthentic means to change culture.

    Yes, let’s align with employees passions and motivations, and let’s get them involved in all levels of decision making. But let’s not dance around the core issue. Let’s talk about what our employee deserve and properly valuing them to make our organizations stronger and productive. Let’s talk about how we can re-frame our organizational structures, principles and balance sheets so providing strong value to all of workers is possible, sustainable, and the norm.

    Let’s keep talking about compensation and employee-growth of all kinds and not be afraid dodge or minimize this important issue.

    Thank you Ken, let’s keep this going.

    -Mark S. Young

  22. says


    I loved your piece, and I totally agree with the $54,000 strategy. Let’s work together to change the way Jewish communal employees are valued (in every sense of the word). Thanks for starting this conversation… now let’s see about taking it offline.

    Best wishes,


  23. says

    An interesting discussion. However, the days of IT Departments being the “and evens” of the organization are long past (as in “Surely receiving – and heeding – constructive criticism from, say, the development, marketing, and even IT departments will make for better ideas”). Instead, they are often the drivers of many of the suggestions Mark and Ken have proposed…