From Founder’s Dilemma to Founders’ Advantage: The Partnership Model as a Pathway to Second Stage Growth

[eJP note: This piece is part of a three-part series prepared by the grant recipients of The Samuel Bronfman Foundation’s Second Stage Fund. The pieces seek to detail the factors that have contributed to the individual organizations’ plans for long-term sustainability.]

by Elie Kaunfer

When someone asks me for advice these days about launching a Jewish start-up, I always ask first: “Who is your partner?” In my mind, this is much more important than the brilliance of the new idea or even the potential sources of funding. Launching a start-up is daunting, but launching a start-up alone is extraordinarily difficult.

Shai Held, Ethan Tucker and I launched Mechon Hadar in 2006 as equal partners. We had already known each other for a decade, and had worked together at Kehilat Hadar (as volunteer leaders) since 2001. In 2009, Avital Campbell Hochstein joined us, and together we formed Mechon Hadar’s executive team. The partnership model of leadership certainly has its own challenges, but ultimately I am not sure how we could have expanded to the readiness for second stage any other way.

Advantages to the Partnership Model

    • Honest Conversations with Respected Colleagues. The partnership model of leadership allows us to bounce ideas, strategize and share successes/failures in a safe space. I remember one particularly challenging week when we were starting out, when three potential funders cancelled meetings with me at the last minute. I could call up my partners and let off steam about my frustrations, and they were there to support me. We have also been able to create and innovate much more effectively, proposing new ideas to trusted colleagues who are supportive yet honest in thinking through these programs. As we have grown and entered into strategic planning conversations, these meetings with just the four of us are cherished time in which we can be our honest selves while sorting through big institutional issues.
    • “Deep Bench” for external engagements. One of the classic dilemmas for a successful start-up leader is how to balance the internal needs of the organization (such as program innovation and execution) with external obligations. If you add up all the conferences, phone calls, presentations and “think tanks,” not to mention the scholar-in-residence and other teaching opportunities, the time commitment outside direct programming is significant. With a partnership model of leadership, we can divide those opportunities in a way that puts less strain on the internal functioning of the organization, while capitalizing on the external engagements. It should be noted that as we all had children in the past 5 years, the deep bench was critical in allowing for parental leave without slowing down our growth.
    • Promoting Colleagues with Diverse Interests. It is much easier with three senior colleagues to speak broadly of the excellent educational content that we produce. Our students connect with one or another of our styles or focus, but there is always a wide range to choose from. Similarly, when I engage stakeholders around our work, I am not hawking my own wares, but speaking about my colleagues’ areas of focus.
    • Focus on the Institution, not the Individual. Oftentimes, a start-up can be confused with the founder. Without the founder, one can hardly imagine the institution continuing. But with a partnership model, there is, by necessity, a focus on the institution over the individual, since there are four individuals in the leadership. This helps build loyalty to the mission of Mechon Hadar, not limited to the relationship with a single founder.

There are some challenges to the partnership model as well:

  • Personnel Expenses. A partnership model is an expensive one to fund. While I believe the investment is certainly worthwhile, for the benefits of organizational stability and depth, it is certainly more expensive to have 4 executive team members than just one or two. This is a constant challenge around our fundraising efforts. It also has meant that, in order to stretch the funding dollars internally, each of us has effectively taken a pay cut from what we could earn at an organization with fewer senior staff.
  • Focus on Communication with Other Staff. Our executive team has often skipped a step in communicating its thoughts and decisions well with the larger staff. With one executive, there is very little room to ignore communications. But with 4 senior staff, who spend hours talking through big organizational issues with each other, there is a temptation to skimp on the communication beyond the executive team. We have had to learn over the years to fight this temptation, and continue to work on this issue.
  • Accountability. While the hierarchy within an organization with a single founder is often clear, the management of a partnership senior staff is more complex. We don’t have a culture of formal reporting to one another, and it is hard for friends to supervise each other. We are all tremendously mission-driven around building Mechon Hadar, and motivation is not in short supply. However, efficient reporting is something that is a challenge in this model.

With Mechon Hadar’s evolution to the second stage of organizational growth, the partnership model has become a critical asset for us. We have a vision of how Mechon Hadar could expand, and we already have the senior staff in place to run those expansion efforts. Whereas in the early years, our senior staff was living in a culture of “everyone does everything,” we are now moving to a culture of segmented responsibilities and areas of focus. This is a tremendous advantage as we consider our concrete options for growth.

Ultimately the partnership model is key to the story of Mechon Hadar’s success to date. We have been able to play on each other’s strengths and push the advantages of this model to implement our vision. As we move beyond the start-up stage, I believe this model will continue to serve us well for years to come.

Rabbi Elie Kaunfer is co-founder and executive director of Mechon Hadar.

Mechon Hadar is a grant recipient of The Samuel Bronfman Foundation’s Second Stage Fund. The Second Stage Fund was launched to help enable post start-ups actualize their transition into the next stage of development.