Contract as Covenant: Reflecting Organizational Values

By Debbie Cosgrove and Jamie Allen Black

At the Jewish Women’s Foundation of New York (JWFNY), we view all of our activities through both a Jewish and a gender lens and ensure that our work is centered on social change. So when it came time to enter into negotiations for a contract for our top professional for the first time in our 25-year history, we took each step – from conception to execution – slowly and carefully.

We wanted to be intentional about how we could infuse each stage with our standards, creating a contract that was the very essence and embodiment of JWFNY’s values.

In the Jewish tradition, there are many examples of contracts, the first being the covenant with God. Right away, we began to call our contract a covenant. This language signaled our connection, divine-like to each other, to trust and love and work together for a better future. We wanted this moment to feel large and momentous for our organization, and using this specific language elevated our negotiations.

As leaders in the field of supporting women, we know it is important to lead by example. We strongly encourage our visionary social entrepreneurs and the organizations they lead to incorporate sound policies of family leave, health insurance, vacation, professional development, and safe and respectful environments, for professionals and lay leaders alike. So we knew that we, too, had to push our own organization to mirror those high standards as we entered a new phase.

Ultimately, our negotiations focused on four central issues: title, sabbatical, professional development, and severance.

Title. Early in our contract negotiations, we discovered that a title change would be necessary for our Executive Director. Consider some startling statistics taken from a 2018 study by Leading Edge: “Are Jewish Organizations Great Places to Work?” It revealed that among male-led organizations, three-quarters of those surveyed assigned the title of President and/or CEO to its top executive. Among female-led organizations of comparable size, just 52 percent did so.

The trickle-down effect of this inequity is tangible. For one, as noted in the study, women may often be passed over for top leadership positions if they’ve never held the CEO title, even though they’ve held the top position at an organization. Additionally, calling the top executive position “CEO” instead of “Executive Director” can result in more desirable internal and external perceptions of an organization’s strength and the responsibilities of the person leading it – a fact that can positively affect fundraising and better position a nonprofit leader as an agent of change.

It became clear to us that we needed to drive the change and challenge the status quo for women executives in the Jewish community. Thus, our new CEO!

Sabbatical. The idea of a sabbatical is rooted in Jewish tradition. The shmita year (translated as “release”) is the seventh year of the seven-year agricultural cycle mandated by the Torah for the land of Israel. This sabbatical year gave the Jewish people the opportunity to take a break and focus on higher, more spiritual pursuits.

There is no doubt that most CEOs could benefit from a sabbatical. But how could we, as a small, Jewish women’s organization, afford a sabbatical for our CEO? Do others do this? Isn’t this just for academics?

Pushback came in many forms from both inside and outside of our negotiating room. In the end, however, being true to and staying focused on our values, JWFNY understood that in our Jewish tradition, a sabbatical represents the covenant, the trust to rebuild and rejuvenate, and the obligation to return more empowered and prepared to lead.

Professional Development. Just as we encourage the social entrepreneurs we support to make time for professional development and fund them to do so, we need to provide the same opportunity for our own staff. Funding for annual professional development is included in the contract because we support the need for our top executive to continue to learn and grow and bring knowledge and discoveries back to the organization to advance its growth.

Severance. In keeping with our core value of caring for and supporting one another and providing healthy work environments, severance pay, too, is contractually codified as a form of a social safety net. Taking into account the experiences of both the CEO and JWFNY when the time might come to terminate our relationship enabled us to think more deeply about issues such as ageism, gender equity, and professionalism in the hiring process. We aimed to make considerations and allowances for challenges that the CEO might face, while at the same time balancing how severance would affect the bottom line of our small organization. These were not easy questions, and the answers were elusive.

In big and small ways, the contract negotiations brought us all closer – the CEO and Board Chair, the Board Chair and the Executive Committee, the Executive Committee and the Board. It was not always easy, but it was always great. We knew that we had all been pushed out of our comfort zones, poring over legal words and phrases, making sure we knew what our covenant really said in both intent and impact.

Because of our commitment to forging a better world, our interactions underscored how we in the Jewish philanthropic sector perceive our organizations, value our staff, want others to view us, and embrace our respective missions.

When it comes to making change around gender equity in leadership, all organizations would be served to not only identify institutional values, but align with them.

As Jewish women, we celebrated the completion of the negotiation inspired by Miriam, the sister of Moses, who led the people with timbrels across the Red Sea. Her vision of hope and future was the perfect example, and as we walked our new CEO into our Board room, each of us shook our timbrels and sang a song – a song of love and action, imagining a better world for women and girls.

Debbie Cosgrove is President, and Jamie Allen Black is CEO, Jewish Women’s Foundation of New York.