Growing a Culture of Philanthropy Doesn’t Take a Village, It Takes a Small Army

By Alisha Abboudi

I am about to begin my 2nd semester at Gratz College as a Mid-Career fellow in their Master’s Program in Jewish Communal Service and Nonprofit Management. In addition to having the great fortune of joining Gratz professionally as a member of their development team, I am married with 5 children and I have a new baby granddaughter.

This past summer, I left a professional position as the Director of Development at a Modern Orthodox High School, where two of my children graduated, where one is about to graduate from, and where my son will enter 9th grade in the fall. My experience there over two years was extremely rewarding and enriching on many levels. I had re-entered the work force in a full time capacity – for the first time ever after being employed part-time for 16 years as a Jewish educator in the Religious school system as a Coordinator of Learning Resource as a Hebrew reading specialist. After “retiring” from the classroom, I launched my own catering and event planning business. Complementing my professional endeavors was my ambitious career as a Jewish Communal Lay Leader. In those years, I helped to launch a Religious Zionist youth group, served as my synagogue’s Sisterhood President, my children’s school PTO President, was an executive board member, education committee member, a Gala chair and became a donor along the way. Today I sit on the board of directors of two Jewish Day Schools and on several steering committees. One could say that I am somewhat of a Jewish Communal Service junkie. (In fact, my husband does almost every day).

My experience of going from the private sector of lay leadership and donor to the professional sector of a Jewish nonprofit was eye-opening. I learned that my intuitive skills regarding donors and community and my ability to create transformative experiences would serve me well as a Jewish nonprofit professional. But I also learned just how integral my role as a lay leader was. I had taken for granted that as a parent and synagogue member, I was committed to investing my time and eventually money in the sustainability of our institutions, it wasn’t actually true of most lay leaders who lose sight of the fact that it is the professional leadership’s responsibility to keep the trains running on time while also creating meaningful high quality programs of learning and engagement. I learned, as a JDS professional very quickly, that this was virtually impossible without the continued commitment of our lay leaders, and guess what? There were not a lot of “ME’s” out there waiting to jump on board, who were focused on fiduciary responsibility, good board governance and ambassadorship. On top of that, our schools and community centers simply do not have the resources to expend the energy it takes to rally the troops. And our Jewish organizations need troops. It truly takes more than a village, it requires a small army. While I did have the opportunity to learn with a mentor and attend workshops, conferences and webinars, and even participate as a fellow in the 1st cohort of Wurzweiler’s Art and Science of Fundraising and Jewish Philanthropy graduate certificate program, I came to the conclusion that I needed to learn how to be a general if I was going to continue pursuing this enriching, meaningful career as a Jewish communal nonprofit professional. It’s what our Jewish communal organizations deserve – high quality, well trained leaders on both the lay and professional sides.

I knew my professional challenges stemmed from both “textbook” cases of lack of infrastructure to my own gaps in fully understanding how the professional leadership and the lay leadership should function together. So, despite successfully nurturing and reviving donor relationships and implementing several meaningful and fruitful initiatives that I know planted the seeds to grow a culture of philanthropy, I made the difficult decision to step down from my professional position to continue my education in a formal way.

My experience as a Mid-Career Fellow at Gratz College is helping me fill in the blanks. I have been afforded the opportunity to process issues that arose in my experience as a lay leader and a professional, but more than that it is helping me to refine my skills and many areas of thought I had regarding the professional and lay relationship. It also exposes me to areas that are crucial and critical to understand about assumptions and presumptions that should never be made and what a professional is obligated to know, understand and anticipate regarding organizational resources – whether they be financial or human.

Most profound for me has been the time spent on establishing what a Jewish communal leader looks like, what characteristics are/or should be non-negotiable for today’s Jewish communal leader to possess. This applies to both the lay leader and the professional. It applies to anyone who accepts a position on a board of directors, committee or volunteers to run a gala. This discussion, for example, permeated every lecture in my Executive Skills course last semester – as it will always fall back on the leader to set tone and navigate his/her professional team or his/her lay support and in Jewish communal work it will be imperative that it is done based on Jewish ethics, but with an eye and ear to what the broader world is bringing to the table in areas of leadership and management.

My personal goals include refining the ability to create organizational structure, engaging the right people and managing teams. I hope to continue to inspire others to be active in Jewish communal work, but I would like to hone the skills of leadership necessary to manage large teams on various projects. I especially want to engage lay leadership in a way that leaves all involved better educated, trained as it were in the leadership positions involved in running Jewish nonprofits. I aspire to create Jewish community councils or forums in which all leaders of Jewish community organizations are thinking strategically together, considering the needs of all, across the spectrum of faith and observance to create a global infrastructure to actualize the sustainability of all our Jewish organizations.

I am both grateful and humbled to have this mid career educational opportunity that will serve me and my fellow cohorts as we embark on or continue our careers in the Jewish communal world. It is my hope that we begin to see many more lay leaders alongside professionals engaging in the necessary professional development trend that is strengthening Jewish communal service and leadership. This will successfully provide the Jewish world with the sustenance and resources it needs to educate, feed, nourish and protect the Jewish people and its Homeland.

Alisha Abboudi is a Mid-Career Fellow in Gratz College’s Master’s in Jewish Communal Service and Nonprofit Management and is a professional member of the Gratz development team. A self-described Jewish Service Junkie she is most passionate about Jewish Day School sustainability and affordability, lives in Merion, PA with her husband and children for now … Aliyah coming soon.