Good to Great: A Jewish Ten-Point Institutional Assessment Evaluating Successful Jewish Organizational Models

by Steven Windmueller, Ph.D.

Using Jim Collins’ Good to Great principles, I had occasion to study four institutions within the American Jewish communal system, comparing their practices with Collins’ concepts related to the social sector.[1]

Employing his standards, I was able to evaluate ADL, AIPAC, Hadassah, and Jewish National Fund. A summary of the core findings appears below. Realizing that each of these national institutions has a distinguished but distinctive history, it is not always possible to compare these different types of agencies. AIPAC as a 501 C 4 organization has a different set of accountability standards as a lobbying entity than one finds with the traditional C 3 nonprofit institutions.

The organizations in this cohort secured high marks around a significant number of these standards. Critics of some or all of these institutions may want to take a second look at the sustaining power, institutional creativity, and historical resiliency of these four unique organizations. This acknowledgement is not to suggest that these and other institutions have not struggled in light of the economy, the emergence and/or growth of competitors, and the changing demographic picture of the Jewish community among other threats to their institutional position. No doubt, the impact of the Bernard Medoff scandal would create financial challenges for at least one of these organizations.

By way of an overview, each of these organizations has a defined “product” and can proudly market their record of achievement (i.e. their institutional outcomes).

  1. Single Agenda: “Passion for Mission and core Values” (Collins). How well do Jewish institutions stay on message and remain dedicated to their mission and vision? All of these four entities have demonstrated a highly focused agenda and successfully reinforce their core mission in all of their public relations materials. Each initiative appears to build upon their primary focus.
  2. Size Matters: “Those who build great organizations make sure they have the right people on the bus…”(Collins). One of the elements essential for greatness is capacity, both in terms of quality leadership and resource capacity. Each of the institutions in this study demonstrated strengths in relationship to possessing a leadership bench and in maintaining “resource capacity” (membership-financial infrastructure-systems of accountability, etc…). A strong leadership cadre is essential for organizations to effectively implement their core values and to build and sustain a viable infrastructure.
  3. See You in St. Louis, Baby!Leaders in great organizations build catalytic mechanisms to stimulate progress…”(Collins). A significant advantage that several of these mega-institutions have over other institutional models is their physical presence in key markets. For Collins, an organization that can “deliver results” represents an essential advantage. One of the ways this is best manifested in the Jewish communal system is bound up with geography. Institutional presence must be seen as an essential benefit. Each of these entities is strategically situated to deliver its product.
  4. Results Count: “The Hedgehog Concept: what you can be the best in the world at, what are you deeply passionate about and what best drives your economic or resource engine?” As Collins suggests those organizations that make “such a unique contribution” are ones that exhibit “unadulterated excellence”. At least several of these institutions are particularly attuned to examining their “impact” seeking to access how well they have performed. Beyond staying on task, organizational leaders must demonstrate quality of performance. JNF’s historic connection to “Planting a Tree in Israel” has served this organization well, providing a continuous link to its mission. Symbols of a different type are important to each of the other institutions as well.
  5. What’s in a Name?A resource engine composed of time, money and brand”(Collins). A core strength of the four institutions under review is the strong name recognition associated with each of them. Some of these organizations seek to promote and market their identity, yet others such as AIPAC consciously avoids high level media exposure. Each of these groups has successfully branded its product, Hadassah on women’s issues and its medical programs; JNF on Israel conservation and land development; ADL in fighting anti-Semitism and promoting tolerance; and AIPAC in advancing the pro-Israel agenda.
  6. Who Speaks for the Jews?Charisma bypass” Collins argues that quality organizations “do not depend upon having a charismatic personality to get things done.” Nonetheless, Collins denotes a leadership style that is essential, “one who is ambitious first and foremost for the cause… and have a fierce resolve to do whatever it takes to make good on that ambition.” There is evidence in part due to the nature of Jewish culture and practice that this principle may not uniformly hold. Leadership styles are distinctively different among all four of these entities. Within the political arena, it is essential that there be public spokespersons, and in the context of the work of the ADL that requires the presence of an Abe Foxman to frame the message and serve as its principal spokesperson. A contrasting model involves AIPAC where its success and impact is linked to its organizing strategies so that the voice of the pro-Israel community is in fact not delivered by one voice but effectively by a myriad of engaged supporters and activists. The role of voluntarism is particularly prominent within the culture of Hadassah where its chairpersons and board members play high profile roles. In each of the remaining groups lay leaders and volunteers perform vital functions but their roles vary, based on the culture and structure of these organizations.
  7. The Past Matters: “The Flywheel: no one killer innovation, no miracle moment … rather relentlessly pushing a giant, heavy flywheel in one direction … building momentum until a point of breakthrough, and beyond”(Collins). As each of these institutions under review has a rich history (JNF has been in existence 109 years, AIPAC has been around since 1951, while two of these organizations are observing their centennial year, Hadassah in 2012 and ADL in 2013). Their respective past histories have informed and shaped their identity, message, and culture. In addition, a number of these institutions have individual heroes and role models upon which they have built their corporate identity.
  8. Less is Best!Stockdale Paradox: retain unwavering faith that you can and will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties, and at the same time have the discipline” (Collins). Several of these agencies have faced serious internal or external challenges, yet they have been successful in managing crisis. Among these groups one can find distinctive institutional cultures that reinforce their core values. We are reminded as well about the complexity of their respective infrastructures (regional and international operations) related to each of these operations.
  9. Negotiating Both Sides: “Enduring great organizations are characterized by a fundamental duality. …timeless core values and …a relentless drive for change and progress.” Collins challenges the nonprofit world to be able to effectively negotiate preserving essential institutional principles while readily embracing a culture of change management. Here we don’t see the same uniformity among the four organizations as several are far more conscious about the changing market place in which the non profit sector must operate. Membership-based organizations face clearly different competitive challenges than do service and advocacy groups.
  10. Crossing Over: “Disciplined people … operating with freedom.” For Collins the “culture of discipline” allows professionals and volunteers to see their roles not as “jobs’ but as “responsibilities.” The commitment to cause seems particularly high among the key players associated with these four institutions.

Employing these specific institutional measures introduced by Jim Collins, we find in the case of these four Jewish organizations a high level of congruence. Their success can be measured in a number of ways, the high degree of name recognition, significant financial and membership support, their on-going effectiveness in delivering and branding their service or product, and the overriding quality of their leadership base.

Dr. Steven Windmueller is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Service at the Jack H. Skirball Campus of Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles. See his collection of writings at thewindreport.

[1] Jim Collins, Good to Great and the Social Sectors, Random House Business Books, 2006