Is Start-Up Nation Also the Big Lesson for the Jewish Nonprofit Sector?

by Gary Wexler

Just when the bureaucratic and risk-averse culture of the Jewish nonprofit sector was unraveling my love of the organized Jewish world, along comes the book Start Up Nation. Reading it has been like an adrenaline shot, allowing me to recapture the hyper-excited hope and dreams that drive my passion for this work.

Start Up Nation is about how a once backwater Israel created a globally influential hi-tech sector emerging as the pre-eminent foreign country with listings on the NASDAC. If the Israelis could figure it out and radically change their business practice – and their economy, certainly we can take a page from them and learn how to do it with what has become in many cases, our lackluster, entrenched nonprofit culture.

Start Up Nation is a book that can make even the most alienated Jew proud. But what do we do with it beyond kvelling? Or simply beating what will become a well-worn path to the authors’ doors, setting them up with lectures and conferences for our donors? I read Start Up Nation with an eye to the Jewish nonprofit sector. I believe it has the potential to be read as a bible for our business, if we are willing to abandon some of our worn out internal practices and critically think through a serious cultural shift. And it is not as if we are taking this page from some academic management essay, but from the very people whose national story we share, spending so much of our energies loving and hating.

Just like the Israelis, we in the Jewish nonprofit sector could do this. But it would require a deep understanding of the culture the Israeli hi-tech industry has created, an admission of what we have to change and the subsequent courage and labor of implementation. It’s not that Jewish nonprofit sector doesn’t achieve the impossible. But the world is changing and we have to make certain that our internal culture is relevant, nimble and poised to be powerfully productive.

The nonprofit sector is indeed not the same model as the business sector and works on a different level of interaction and accomplishment. They are driven by profit and we are driven by cause. But nonetheless, if we are mission driven, as is the Israeli business world, we have no choice but to change our internal culture.

So what does Start Up Nation teach us?

The underpinning of this shift, stated by Senor and Singer, the authors, is a culture of audacity, creativity and drive. It is about assertiveness versus insolence, critical independent thinking versus insubordination and ambition and vision versus arrogance.

One of the American executives of Pay Pal, who came to their Israeli plant for a visit had this to say, “Every question I was asked was penetrating. I never before heard so many unconventional observations. And these weren’t peers or supervisors, but junior employees. And they had no inhibitions about challenging the logic. I’d never seen this kind of unvarnished, unintimidated and undistracted attitude. Who works for whom?”

Nonprofit staffs are so intimidated by senior managements and boards, they rarely demonstrate audacity. And yet, isn’t it this kind of audacity that leads to the return that a donor expects on his or her investment? Board members so much want to be part of the board club that they seldom rock the boat, either. As a result of all these fears, creativity is often stifled. And drive is subjugated to survival. Survival is the real buzzword. Few in the Jewish nonprofit sector do anything that may challenge their individual professional survival.

The shift needs to occur both within the professional and lay communities. Is it even possible to think that staff and lay people could ever be on an equal footing, sharing the mission and the debate? Does a hefty donation or grant mean that everyone continues to courtesy around the donor or foundation? Is it possible to be a culture where major donors can be intelligently challenged, even by junior employees or lay people, or senior managers can be challenged by their staff? Can the lay people challenge staff in a respectful manner? On the other hand, even if given the freedom, will the professionals and lay people take the risk and accompanying responsibilities of being informed entrepreneurs and innovative partners, equal in their drive towards the mission? Will they be what Israel refers to as the “bitzuists” – the doers, who will accomplish the mission at all costs?

The book points out that the Israelis have a unique attitude towards what they call constructive or intelligent failure. They embrace the failed entrepreneur, bringing him or her back into the system to constructively use the expertise again. In the Jewish nonprofit world, aside from the small areas of venture philanthropy and innovation, people are understandably petrified of failure and threatened by its consequences. This is why the equality between staff and lay people is so critical. They need to take these risks together, without finger pointing.

Senor and Singer write about a culture of teamwork, mission, risk and cross-disciplined creativity.

If a nonprofit were passionately mission driven there would indeed be much teamwork and cross-disciplined creativity. The organization should be riveted on what ever is required to accomplish the goal. Instead we witness daily turf battles. We don’t even enjoy teamwork and cross-disciplined creativity among nonprofits working in the same arenas, blending our strategies for great outcomes. Instead we compete, denying we are all in this together, until there is a crisis – and even then we are often crawling all over one another. Rather than doing the real work of collaborating and intelligently investing to expand our markets among the millions of uninvolved Jews, we choose to each traffic within the same small circle of those already identified and then elbow our ways over each other.

The book points to two business models. One is a standardized model where routine and systems govern everything. The other is an experimental model where every day every exercise, every piece of new information is evaluated and debated in a culture that resembles an R&D lab. This is the debrief, emanating from IDF culture, which is where most of the book lays its claim for the creation of Israel’s entrepreneurial attitudes.

So which model are we? We should be a hybrid. We need structure, routines and systems. But the nonprofit sector, like the hi-tech sector reflects a dynamically changing daily environment. Our offerings or thinking cannot remain static on a daily basis. Our professional staffs and lay activists must be constantly consuming information. If we choose the experimental model and cooperate cross-discipline and cross-organization, imagine what kind of energy, exposure, thinking and intelligence would percolate within our enterprises.

Where we need to begin this process is through what the book describes as the seminar. It’s where the important issues and learnings are brought, where the research and data is applied, where the discussion is opened up for debate and then turned over to the bitzuists to implement.

But we have to remember one thing. When the Israeli entrepreneurs create an idea for a business, they begin that same week. They don’t wait around for months or years whether or not to make the move.

Will the Jewish nonprofit sector learn to apply the lessons of Start Up Nation? Or will we just kvell over the Israelis accomplishments and understand what lessons apply to us, as well?

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