Cultivating the Next Generation of Leaders for Jewish Nonprofits

Why are critical Jewish institutions struggling to find the talent they need, particularly at the most senior ranks?
a must read report for current and aspiring communal leaders

Last month’s Jewish Funders Network annual conference saw a full morning devoted to leadership for a 21st-century Jewish community including a plenary that looked at “the changing roles of leaders in the social sector, how we prepare future lay and professional leaders for complex roles … and what it takes to make the Jewish community sector an attractive and compelling career and life path.”

The session also included the official release of “Cultivating the Next Generation of Professional Leaders for Jewish Nonprofits – Findings from Interviews and Research.”

from the Executive Summary:

Jewish life has benefitted enormously from decades of generous support by its members. Community leaders have built durable institutions, and a thriving network of young start-ups is galvanizing a new generation. However, like the general nonprofit sector in the United States, the vast majority of Jewish nonprofits – 75% to 90% by some estimates – must find new executive leadership in the next 5-7 years. Finding the right leaders to move immediately into these openings is already proving difficult.

Opinions vary about why this challenge exists. Some think that the next generation of leaders does not have the skillsets to take on the complicated challenges to be addressed, especially at the largest Jewish nonprofits. Others think that visionary and skilled leaders already exist, but that hiring committees are overlooking talent within the field. Still others think that the culture of traditional Jewish organizations is simply not attractive to younger generations.

To better understand these issues, a group of Jewish funders hired The Bridgespan Group to gather input from across the field and to help develop an action plan to address the most critical challenges facing Jewish leadership pipelines. We interviewed more than 160 leaders: Jewish and non-Jewish, for-profit and nonprofit, lay and professional, current and emerging, funder and direct service, expert and academic. We also reviewed existing literature, surveyed current leadership programs, and drew on more than a decade of Bridgespan’s experience across the social sector and knowledge of best practices in the private sector.

Two themes on what contributes to the leadership deficit

Two themes emerged in our research about why the field’s more traditional institutions are struggling to find the leaders they need:

THEME 1: The field of Jewish nonprofits is not sufficiently developing and advancing the leaders it already has.

Our interviews revealed that, like many organizations in the nonprofit sector more broadly, most Jewish nonprofits do not provide sufficient on-the-job support and training that leaders need to develop in their careers. Most organizations don’t make leadership development a priority: investing in talent is often seen as “overhead” – something to be minimized. Additionally, many organizations simply don’t have the capacity or expertise to effectively cultivate their talent, and many lay leaders are not effective stewards of good talent management.

In addition to job-embedded leadership development, there are also not enough leadership development programs serving the field as a whole. Bridgespan’s preliminary scan of over 50 organizations providing leadership development programs in the field of Jewish nonprofits uncovered only a small number aimed at developing senior professional leaders.

This lack of support for existing talent often inhibits the field’s ability to cultivate the leaders it needs from within. Instead, a large number of interviewees for this project felt that hiring committees are opting to look elsewhere when filling open senior positions – that they don’t always value the potential of their own staff and others in the field.

THEME 2: Many Jewish organizations don’t have the value proposition to attract and retain the leaders they need.

In the endeavor to attract new talent, traditional Jewish organizations are also struggling. Interviewees noted that many of the next generation of leaders are not choosing to work in the sector altogether. They pointed to issues such as steep hierarchies and bureaucratic cultures, little autonomy for junior and mid-level staff to take risks and feel ownership over their work, limited career advancement opportunities, and low salary levels compared to jobs outside the sector. A major concern shared was the stark gender inequality across the field: Of the largest North American Federations, only three have hired female CEOs in recent years (and one of these has recently resigned). This is woefully few compared to many other fields in the nonprofit sector.

These challenges underscore an overarching theme: the importance of organizational culture as a critical contributor to, and inhibitor of, talent cultivation. Not only does the field need to invest more in its leaders, but it also needs to invest in its organizations to ensure they are great places to work and grow for the next generation of Jewish professional leaders.

The Leadership Pipelines Alliance

Early discussions of this research have already begun to spark promising momentum. The Leadership Pipelines Alliance is being established to create a forum for the field as a whole, across all organizational structures, to work together to address these issues. The mission of the Alliance will be to increase the flow of high quality leadership into senior positions at Jewish nonprofits to further the health and effectiveness of the Jewish professional sector. The Alliance will work to facilitate greater awareness of the issues, will encourage collaboration among Jewish nonprofits, and will partner with funders supporting specific efforts to address the field’s challenges.

As of the publication of this document in early 2014, a core group of private and Federation funders has committed over $1,000,000 to cover two full years of operations for the Alliance, with the potential to provide further funding for future years. Work is currently underway to put the initial elements in place. Organizations and leaders – both lay and professional – from across the field are invited to join and help drive these efforts forward. Stay tuned as the Alliance gets underway for opportunities to get involved.

A call to action

Cultivating outstanding leaders is the most powerful lever that organizations have towards becoming more innovative, adaptive, and results-oriented. Now, more than ever, it is critical to address the root causes that hinder the field of Jewish nonprofits from having the outstanding leaders it needs. It will take hard work and collaboration from across the field. But there is cause for optimism: The Jewish community is blessed with a talented base of current and aspiring leaders – professionals, volunteers, and funders – who are committed to the community and will ensure its success.

Get involved: Start by reading the full report, “Cultivating the Next Generation of Professional Leaders for Jewish Nonprofits” and sharing it with others. Join the Alliance. Identify ways you can change your own board and workplace culture and behaviors to better cultivate talent. Bring your talents to bear on this important challenge.

The complete report, “Cultivating the Next Generation of Professional Leaders for Jewish Nonprofits” is available for download.