From Sarna’s Lessons, 5 Actions

We recently published Prof. Jonathan Sarna’s remarks as an historian looking at the economic downturn (Lessons From The Past). The post was widely circulated, reprinted in Synagogue newsletters, placed on organization and board list-servs and picked up by other Jewish media. Here we have a response from Gary Wexler, a long-time non-profit marketing professional.

by Gary Wexler

Kol hakavod, as they say in Hebrew for congratulations, to professor Jonathan Sarna for his piece on the steps the American Jewish community must take in an economic downturn. His is a respected voice that hopefully our communal leadership will listen to.

But in my experience, probably not.

Professor Sarna is just that – a professor – and not a major donor. In general, in nonprofit communal enterprises, we listen to our major donors first and foremost. We act upon their expectations. We listen secondarily to the voices of those who have dedicated themselves and their careers as professionals, having gained the formal experience, knowledge, education and reason.

If Michael Steinhardt, a megaphilanthropist, had written that article, by now the BlackBerrys, e-mails, instant messages, phones and blogs would have been buzzing, the committee meetings set, the professionals sent scurrying and the communal electricity popping.

So what has to happen for the community to pursue Sarna’s recommended steps? As a marketer of Jewish life, having been an intimate witness to so much constipation and other sources of blockage in our enterprise, here are the additional five steps that Sarna, as the eloquent academic wouldn’t say, and that I, as the crass marketer, will brazenly put forth in order to enable the professor’s recommendations:

1. Innovate as much as we eliminate.
Even in an economic downturn, if we want to stay alive, just to breathe normally, we must take intelligent, creative risks. Everyone is running around with the spreadsheet and the red pen, which is an absolute necessity. Yes, we must eliminate bloated budgets and in some cases important services. But we also must become an enterprise of ideas.

Ideas are risky because their success is not guaranteed, but without them our demise is. In each committee meeting, as much discussion has to be devoted to innovation and ideas as it is to budget discussions and their resulting cuts.

Identify in each organization, both among professionals and lay leaders, who the idea people are. Assign them the responsibility of creating the ideas that are imperative for re-distilling ourselves for a new era. Bring in the leading thinkers and idea people of our community and give them assignments, as well.

Train potential idea thinkers how to create – young and old. Idea creators are not just those of a new generation. Put all those idea people into collaboration, because collaborations create magic.

As positive as Sarna is in his last sentence, “Let’s hope that happens soon,” it may not. We have entered into a very changed world, and we are going to have to be different to remain relevant.

Things will never again be the same. That’s why ideas will be everything. And the best ideas will have to be funded. So there will be new costs.

Great ideas are the key to making anything happen. Professional and lay leaders will line up together to make change if engaged by a powerful idea. Ideas will break the impasse between who’s voice is heeded – the professional or the lay leader. The idea will carry its own voice and authority.

2. Read, educate, consume culture.
Excellent ideas are not created simply off the top of one’s head, as many people believe. Ideas are stimulated by knowledge and information. Excellence is the operative word here. Excellence in ideas emanate from reading, being stimulated by great thinkers, educating oneself to the issues, understanding the trends of our society and consuming popular and classic culture.

Often I am told, when recommending readings to Jewish organizations, “Our people don’t and won’t read.” If “our people” don’t read, our people cannot be leaders. If we are going to thrive and survive this economic downturn, our leaders better be knowledgeable about a changing society and its trends and pull their heads out of a past era.

3. Watch federations as much as foundations.
Sarna often refers to the Jewish Funders Network and the foundations as the entities to watch during this downturn. For the last decade or more, as Sarna rightly points out, the foundation world has been the one to watch. They have been the dynamic innovators of our community.

But now that life is tough, the social services, which are the backbone of the federations, will take center stage. They will become the sexiest offerings to be funded. They will be what people most care to do with their funding dollars.

If federations have learned anything from the foundation world, while the spotlight shifts back to them, they will have the opportunity to begin to innovate like the foundation world has done and re-create the perception the community has of their central role. Even in social services, there is plenty of room for innovations and big ideas that will capture the hearts and minds of the donors.

4. Create a movement, not just a fundraising campaign.
Sarna correctly points out that, like Obama did, one of our most powerful opportunities is in engaging the Jewish masses to support our enterprise. Small donations from masses become big money. But to do that, like Obama, we must create a movement around our causes. That is how you involve the masses.

Tikkun olam, repairing the world, the issue we are all constantly promoting, can be a vibrant, powerful, virally coursing movement. But it will require big ideas, innovations, risk and investment. This is indeed our chance as a community to engage the Jewish masses unlike we ever have before.

5. No grandstanding.
For change to take place, respectful collaboration must become the order of the day: collaboration between professional and lay leaders, collaboration and even merging of organizations, collaborations between the foundations and the federations.

We must realize that no one person and no organization owns this community. We are all in this together with all our resources, talents and many different kinds and levels of contributions. We have to critically think and innovate together, realizing we are all on the same side and need one another.

If our communal enterprise is committed to survive this economic downturn and exit this difficult era thriving, maybe it is time that as Jews, respecting our differences, we collaborate and again consider ourselves as one. And that might be the most promising change this era brings.

Gary Wexler is founder and president of Los Angeles-based Passion Marketing, consulting with Jewish and general nonprofit organizations throughout the world.