From Organization-Centric to Network-Focused Design: A Response to Drs. Kingston and Windmueller

By Lisa Colton and Miriam Brosseau

Recently Marylin E. Kingston, Ph.D. and Steven Windmueller, Ph.D. published an article here titled The Same Jewish Crowd! Who’s Showing Up and Why, exploring the behavior of multiple concentric circles of people, and their relationship to Jewish organizations. They observe that “organizing today takes place from the bottom up, in contrast to an earlier period in this nation where organizations operated from a top-down framework of securing membership and creating regional and local chapters or synagogue-affiliates. The idea of “belonging” is self-defined, as individuals today are making choices about their connections with the larger society. The “sovereign self” has replaced the collective obligation to be a part of a communal order.”

As researchers, Kingston and Windmueller end with an assertion that “other forms of social engagement will replace the idea of affiliation and the role of membership” and that “the new Jewish paradigm is one of instability and disequilibrium without a clear endpoint in sight.” While we don’t necessarily disagree, we want to offer some constructive suggestions to help leaders adapt their approaches for this new paradigm.

For decades, the Jewish community has built institutions, and encouraged affiliation with institutions as a core organizing function of our wider community. Our goals are often the sustainability of the institutions, and our measurements are often based on membership numbers and “tushes in seats.” Kingston and Windmueller’s concentric circles of audience participation are just that: degrees of engagement with the institution. From a Jewish-communal-insider perspective it’s a useful framework if you assume the goal is “more people engaging more often with more institutions.” However, that approach isn’t working so well with younger generations, so we invite you to consider a different model.

Consider a model that’s based on networks. Rather than a hub-and-spoke model with the organization at the center, the slightly messier and more distributed network model is based on – relationships, trust, and communal (not necessarily institutional) behavior. It may be infused with the mission of the organization, and recognizes with deep empathy the wants and needs, goals and interests of the people as a core organizing principle. A network model captures Shabbat dinners in each other’s homes, Hanukkah parties in a suburban development clubhouse, and groups with shared interests (nature, infertility, vegan) connecting around shared meaning. In this model, the descriptive terms (like “activists” and “joiners” in Kingston and Windmueller’s model) apply not to how many times they show up, but what role they play in developing a strong, dynamic, engaged Jewish social network … or in other words, community. The measurements are not about “membership” (which is in fact less common among Millennials), but about the number and strength of relationships, and the influence that some people (those who know many people, have trust, have built social capital and convene their friends) have on the culture and behavior of others and the group.

While networks can evolve on their own, we can work intentionally to grow, mature and nurture them. We can help people find and integrate into networks, and we can leverage the greatest asset of networks – people – to achieve these goals. But it does require aligning how we work with this new model. While we are strong believers in network theory (this stuff is seriously fun to geek out on), we will offer 4 key principles we think are essential to understand how Jewish leaders can adapt successfully to a network model, and then will illustrate their function in real life with a case study from an initiative that’s in the midst of making this pivot.

  1. Audience. In a network model, the audiences don’t revolve around their relationship to the organization (like Kingston and Windmueller’s concentric circles), but rather are defined by their position and role within the network of relationships. Your organization is not the center, but the mission may be a gravitational center of how you understand the network. For example: Who’s most connected to others? Who’s on the periphery? Who has relationships with those on the periphery?
  2. Niche and Specific. Kingston and Windmueller write that “The idea of “belonging” is self-defined, as individuals today are making choices about their connections with the larger society. The “sovereign self” has replaced the collective obligation to be a part of a communal order.” Niche opportunities to find “people like me” is the on-ramp to integrating oneself into the larger “communal order” or network. This is counter-intuitive for most program professionals – it requires that we “go small to go big” and not try to speak to everyone all the time. This is as much about deciding who you’re NOT going to speak to as it is about defining your core audience. Relevance, authenticity and meaningful connection are paramount, and earn the trust and attention needed to become more integrated into the larger whole.
  3. Role of Staff. Rather than creating and marketing programs, staff pivot to supporting a platform for people to create their own gatherings. Their role becomes one of activating people, supporting them, coaching and making connections. When staff practice tzimtzum (contract) in this way, it makes room for people within the network to step up and actively create and commit to the community they want. Working in this way doesn’t mean less work, but it does mean working differently. [Note: some functions within the Jewish community may not fully make this switch, for example, organizing High Holiday services, but even in those cases staff can intentionally design for social connection and build a network culture. See Rabbi Paul Kipnes’ Yom Kippur adaptation of the Social Sermon as an example.]
  4. Think and plan in campaigns rather than departments or programs. So often we splinter our resources by designing around departments or committees each of whom pursue their own agenda. While that makes sense from a division of labor mindset within an org chart, it often feels fractured from the point of view of a participant. Furthermore, in today’s attention economy, too many messages and opportunities means very few cut through the noise. Organizing around campaigns helps focus the message, tailor opportunities to various audiences, and gets all leaders coordinated in their purpose and efforts.

An Illustration of these Principles from a Recent Project with MazelTogether

Recently, we coached MazelTogether, an initiative of Rose Community Foundation in the Denver area, to align their work with these four principles. Originally MazelTot.org, the organization began with the goal of engaging more young Jewish families in Jewish programming such as Tot Shabbats and Jewish preschool. To do this, they built an online portal which cataloged all the local offerings and provided subsidies for participation – but they were mostly getting “the same Jewish crowd,” which was not its intended purpose. By better understanding the aspirations of the audience, many of whom have recently moved to Denver or had a new baby, MazelTogether refocused on fostering adult Jewish friendships among young families.

First, we identified three layers of audiences based on their role in the network, and the function they may play in maturing the network:

Animators and Catalyzers are those who may host gatherings and convene their peers. Animators are actively seeking to do so (and are often already doing it for themselves); Catalyzers need an invitation, encouragement and/or support but will assume that role with MazelTogether’s help.

Seekers and Participants are those who want to meet other Jewish families and build community. Seekers are actively looking for opportunities for connection, while Participants would like to make new friends, but may not know where to start. Just as Catalyzers need a nudge to host, Participants need a nudge to show up.

Prospects are the people who aren’t yet on the map. They aren’t looking for Jewish life or friendships, and we aren’t yet able to speak to them. However, they are likely 1-2 degrees away from the other audiences, and peer-to-peer engagement can have a powerful effect.

Animators and Catalyzers are, in many ways, the equivalent of Kingston and Windmueller’s Activists and Joiners. However, when moving from a hub-and-spokes model with the institution at the center, to a network model that’s based on relationships with the mission at the center, the way that the organization works, and the role of staff must adapt as well.

We chose Passover as an ideal opportunity to create a campaign through which we could practice these new adaptations with the MazelTogether team. It was an ideal opportunity to activate Animators and Catalyzers to create gatherings, who then in turn create invitations and opportunities for Seekers and Participants to attend. Passover happens in homes, it’s regularly observed, and Denver has so many newcomers who don’t have local family for the holiday. The team sought to learn: How does the MazelTogether team create a supported platform to help Animators and Catalyzers do more than they otherwise would have on their own, and to make connections with the right people, “their people,” who may become regular friends? How can the team listen to and support those who are interested in being activated?

By listening to the audience, niche opportunities arose: a gluten-free seder, a neighborhood based gathering, an ASL (American Sign Language) table at an existing communal seder. One host with very young kids decided to host a daytime charoset making party to meet people rather than a seder when their toddlers would be falling asleep.

In addition to the connections made across the 15+ gatherings, the campaign helped the team team focus on the Animators and Catalysts who can be the engines for future community building, and gave permission to members of the community to be active creators of the Jewish community they want for themselves. Furthermore, the team itself felt more cohesive and inspired. As one team member reflected, “I’m most proud that we have been able to change the paradigm that we were working in and find a way to all interconnect our roles. It’s been much more satisfying to support each other than work siloed.”

Final Thoughts

Finally, we want to offer two key insights we encourage you to come back to in your own work to begin to see the world through this new lens:

  1. Connection often precedes participation. Who among us has never felt the awkward isolation of attending an event and seeing no familiar faces? Of questioning whether we are in the right place, or whether these folks are “the same kind of different” as we are? Why does the “same Jewish crowd” keep showing up? Because they’ve become friends! Let’s be in the business of helping people make new, meaningful friendships.
  2. Relationships are rarely intentionally fostered inside of programmatic offerings and participants often need a pre-existing relationship to attend and participate in the programs in the first place. We have seen repeatedly that this combination of factors can either become a vicious or virtuous cycle. Leading with relationships rather than programs encourages the latter, and sets us all up for success in a networked world. We call this “designing for social”.

We are not researchers like Kingston and Windmueller – we are consultants and coaches. Thus, we look at this issue in perhaps a more constructive, practical, action-oriented way. Just because “organizations no longer have a monopoly on organizing” (thanks, Clay Shirky) doesn’t mean they don’t have an important role to play. But it does mean that the role they play changes. While the “endpoint” may not be clear, the compass heading is quite clear, and we hope this illustration of what it looks like to change the compass heading and adapt successfully can inspire others to re-examine their approach too.

Lisa Colton is the Founder and President of Darim Online and Darim Consulting, LLC. Miriam Brosseau is the Principal of Tiny Windows Consulting. They have helped leaders from a wide range of organizations understand the strategic and operational pivots needed to thrive in this new age.