Adopting a Collaborative Leadership Paradigm

The problem is that the Jewish Community hasn’t yet fully internalized the need for a new leadership paradigm that places networking and collaboration at its center.

by Andrés Spokoiny

When I watched Rabbi Brander’s passionate argument for embracing “prosumer” culture in our communal organizations, I was inspired. As the head of an organization focused on networking and collaboration among funders, the model he advocates is precisely where I believe we need to focus if we are to build the best-possible Jewish future. I’d like to expand on what that means, from a funder’s perspective.

First, we need to take as a given that the concept of ‘prosumer’, that Rabbi Brander aptly describes, is more than just a fad: it’s a constitutive feature of today’s social behavior. The paradigm of ‘user-generated content’ – epitomized by YouTube and others – has been propelled by the ease with which we can create and upload content and ideas, and has in turn revolutionized all we knew about transmission of information and generation of ideas. Moreover, it is changing the way in which the society organizes itself and it’s affecting most aspects of social interaction.

For funders, this new reality forces a re-evaluation of our traditional ideas of what leadership is. The ‘prosumer’ is an individual who is hyper-empowered and hyper-connected. She’s part-leader, part-follower and has ever shifting loyalties and engagements. Almost by definition, the traditional, top-down avenues of Jewish engagement – synagogues, JCCs, federations – don’t work for her. If we’re to meet these evolved community members where they are, our leadership needs to evolve as well. We need to be, and see ourselves, as catalysts that can liberate – and harness – the energy and the creativity of the individual, and align them towards our shared goals. Second, we need to recognize that for this new generation, identities and alliances are constantly in flux. Instead of a homogenous “community,” we’re entering an era of ad-hoc “collectives,” where individuals reign and the network is key. For millennials, and so for funders, this model allows collaboration towards a common goal without forcing drowning individuality. The concept of authority also changes dramatically: Networks don’t necessarily have a center; the relations and the connections among nodes are more important than any single node itself. In this world of networks, the most effective leaders are those with the biggest numbers of connections.

Finally, we all need to acknowledge that, as it’s become more connected, our world has also become incredibly more complex. Collaboration is the only way we can make sense of our new reality, and in uncertain environments like the ones we face, having diverse points of view and divergent ideas is a necessity rather than a handicap. The free – and rapid – flow of information and ideas across a network is the most critical indication of its vitality.

The problem is that the Jewish Community hasn’t yet fully internalized the need for a new leadership paradigm that places networking and collaboration at its center. We need to help community leaders (funders, professionals, lay leaders, rabbis) see themselves as connectors and facilitators, as catalysts for collaboration. And, we need to differentiate between what collaboration isn’t – the classic quid-pro-quo, ”you scratch my back, I scratch yours” – and what it is: defining a problem together, framing the issue through a collective process, and creating, through open debate and experimentation, needed solutions. Collaboration demands a bizarre mixture of empowerment and humility.

Rabbi Brander eloquently presented these challenges, and at JFN we believe that funders need to embrace the idea of collaboration from a place of “empowered humility”. We encourage funders to use collaborative funding models and provide resources and support for nonprofits to sail the tricky waters of strategic partnerships.

Collaboration is not easy, and one of the worst mistakes we can make is to underestimate the level of difficulty and complexity that collaboration entails. We’re sailing without a map: the ‘best practices” for effective collaboration are still being written.

But not having all the answers is no excuse for not starting to ask the questions. For our community, adopting a collaborative leadership paradigm is critical, because collaboration among diverse stake-holders, is the only way to produce the systemic change we know is not just possible, but necessary.

Andrés Spokoiny is president and CEO of the Jewish Funders Network.

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