From Courageous Conversations to Daring Decisions: More Thoughts on Collaboration

by Rabbi Hayim Herring, Ph.D.

I hope that more leaders will spark the kinds of courageous conversations that Rabbi Bisno has started in his recent opinion piece, “Let the Courageous Conversation Continue” in eJewish Philanthropy on September 7. Such conversations seed the ground for potential collaborations on the local level. In following up on Rabbi Bisno’s call to action, I want to suggest a few ways that we can move from courageous conversations about collaboration to daring decisions that foster creative group and organizational partnerships that will enrich the Jewish community.

But first, let us remember just how long various leaders have been calling for greater collaboration. For example, thirty-five years ago, the late Rabbi Samuel Dresner wrote an essay called, From Jewish Inadequacy to a Sacred Community, that appeared in a book, Federation and Synagogue: Toward a New Partnership. Since that time, aside from a handful of communities, there are few synagogue-federation partnerships that we can point to. Why, we ask, are collaborations so difficult to create and sustain?

In one community, I interviewed fifteen volunteer leaders, professionals and philanthropists about their understanding of collaboration. They confirmed what I suspected: potential stakeholders in a collaborative effort have different understandings of the implications of collaboration. For funders, it can be a code word for a merger. For a program officer, it can mean more work with ambiguous benefit. For a lay leader, it may mean efficiency. A lack of shared understanding at the beginning of discussions about collaboration sets the stage for misunderstanding and distrust, and often stops partnerships in their tracks.

Here is a definition of collaboration that I have developed based on other experts who have spent a lifetime of work building collaborations and my own experience of over twenty-five years doing so:

At least two organizations working together, while retaining their identity and autonomy, provide a higher level of service to an agreed upon constituency than they can provide individually. Participants in a collaboration share jointly in the costs and benefits of working together.

Notice that cost savings are not in this definition. In fact, collaborations may not save money, at least initially. If community leaders seek to reduce costs, there are better organizational arrangements for doing so, including mergers, joint programming corporations and management services corporations. While saving resources is a legitimate concern, collaboration is fundamentally about raising the quality of experience for participants in a program. Collaborations can make individuals deepen their involvement in the Jewish community and increase their positive feelings about it.

If funders want to see more collaboration they will have to align incentives with that goal. Here are a few ways they can do so:

  • Create funding opportunities that are only open to two or more organizations
  • Provide technical and administrative support that enable collaborations to be successful and sustainable
  • Celebrate collaborations publicly
  • Be explicit about their true purposes for collaboration and do not use collaboration as a subterfuge to achieve a merger.

When organizations collaborate with one another, they make a conscious decision to cultivate a trusting, transparent relationship. Have you ever seen any healthy relationship come into being spontaneously? Collaborations, like all relationships, require ongoing work and support. But they are worth it, because when they happen, they present better ways for more individuals to find personal meaning in the Jewish community and, in turn, contribute their talents to making it richer.

Rabbi Hayim Herring is C.E.O. of Herring Consulting Network, a consulting firm that prepares today’s leaders for tomorrow’s organizations.