A Forum for the Expression of Ideas: A Jewish Response

Given the wealth of knowledge and experience we have in the field of Jewish communal service, it is a shame that more of us do not write up our thoughts and create a culture of a learning community.

by Stephen G. Donshik

The recent firing of a Jewish communal professional for her eJewish Philanthropy blog post criticizing communal priorities has generated an important discussion on the appropriate vehicle for staff members to raise questions about Jewish communal organizations and their priorities. Most of the comments were around the right of professionals to criticize agencies in the Jewish community. One of the ways that the Jewish community as a whole or an individual organization can deal with the desire of staff members to share their thinking openly is to take the risk of creating an open forum.

The purpose of a forum would be to establish a nonthreatening environment for the exchange of ideas without the fear that the participants are going to be graded or evaluated. It would be a “safe space” where creative thinking would be encouraged and supported by the sponsoring body. Both its form and content would encourage the participants to develop a sense of ownership of the community’s programs and services. In smaller Jewish communities, a community-wide forum could be established to enable the CEOs and staff members to explore issues, raise questions, and engage in discussions to formulate together an approach to meet present and emerging needs in the community. In larger communities several forums, each with a different focus, could be created that would seek to involve people and develop a sense of ownership of the community’s programs and services.

Central to the creation of this type of body is facilitating an experience that empowers the participants to share their thinking. Such a forum should not just be a place to discuss policies that have already been decided; if participants are being told to implement decision that have already been made, then it defeats the purposes of the forum process. The participants should set the agenda of the meetings and the style of the program, whether they be presentations, panel discussions, or guest speakers. There should be a culture of peer learning where all the participants eventually take responsibility for designing the format for a forum meeting.

The CEO and senior staff play a crucial role in the success of such a forum. They must be willing to listen and remain open to issues raised for discussion and to allow the respectful, free expression of ideas – particularly when sensitive issues are discussed or when policies and practices are questioned. Creation of this kind of safe space will allow for the creative sharing of ideas and open discussion among people who share an allegiance to the Jewish community and commitment to excellence in their service to it.

Yes, there is a risk in creating an open forum characterized by the free expression of ideas. There is no question that if the right environment is created, then people will present ideas and voice opinions that will differ from how the CEO envisions the organization or the community. An executive who is able to handle such an open sharing and exchange of ideas will acquire the respect of the staff. Over time, trust between the CEO, senior management, and the staff will provide opportunities for the creative development that will enhance the agency’s functioning in the community.

Of course there are limits to free expression, and through experience I have discovered the “three time rule”: An issue can be raised three times in an organization and if it is not heard or responded to by the CEO or colleagues then it should be dropped. If a staff member continues to hound an idea, it loses traction and begins to reflect negatively on the staff member.

During the course of forum discussions, there might be a suggestion to write an opinion paper to focus deliberations on a particular issue. Having staff members commit their thoughts to paper enhances the professional level of an organization; for those individuals, writing a document that expresses their thinking often aids in distilling ideas and clarifying their conceptions of the issues and possible responses to their concerns. The level of the subsequent discussion is raised because it is focused on the issues raised in the document, and not on the individuals raising them.

Given the wealth of knowledge and experience we have in the field of Jewish communal service, it is a shame that more of us do not write up our thoughts and create a culture of a learning community. When we have an opportunity to read material written by our colleagues and then respond to it, it is a very different experience from having an “off the cuff” conversation. After all, we are the people of the book.

Although this posting focuses on the professional staff of an organization the same would apply to a forum of our volunteer leaders or a joint forum where both volunteer and professional leaders participate in an open exchange of ideas. At the very least these types of discussions have the potential to strengthen the commitment both volunteers and professionals have to the community. The benefits of such an approach are worth the risk of being open with leadership about the challenges our organizations and communities confront on a regular basis.

Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Nonprofit Management and Leadership Program and has a consulting firm focused on strengthening nonprofit organizations and their leadership for tomorrow. Stephen is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy.