Knowing When To Let Go

The choice to leave your organization can be wrenching, for you personally, and for the entire organizational ecosystem. For those who have the choice of when to leave, doing it at the right time and in the right way, is a gift you can give to your organization.

by Tamra L Dollin

I have now sent three of my four children off to college. Letting each one go has been a challenge: Did I give them the tools they need to be successful? Did I teach them everything they need to know? Will they be okay without me? Will I be okay without them? I like to think I have learned a few things in the process. As I decided to leave my most recent position as a key director of a new summer camp, I realized I was applying those lessons to my professional arc as well.

Some people were sorry to see me go, and expressed incredulity ‘Did you HAVE to go?’ ‘What REALLY happened?’ ‘Did they MAKE you go?’ A few understood that the bold act of resigning (and facilitating transition) was smart for me and smart for the organization.

Am I building an organization or an empire? Is it about me as the leader or the vision? What is best for the organization? Have I added what I uniquely have to add? Where is the organization heading? Can I help it get there?

The choice to leave your organization can be wrenching, for you personally, and for the entire organizational ecosystem. For those who have the choice of when to leave, doing it at the right time and in the right way, is a gift you can give to your organization.

I came to the project of starting a Ramah camp in the Rocky Mountains in Sept 2008. The project had been stumbling along for over a dozen years, in fits and starts, but had begun to show momentum that made me believe it was poised to actually happen. A site had been purchased in partnership with the local Foundation/Federation, National Ramah was supportive and ready to help with next steps, and an exciting vision of creating an environmentally sustainable outdoor adventure Jewish camp was articulated and shared by rabbis and leaders in the region. The project needed some optimistic leadership, entrepreneurial chutzpah and tenacity. The project needed leadership that understood the vision, could articulate it to stakeholders, mobilize resources in support, keep the leaders talking to one another, form a board, create an organizational structure, raise funds and do whatever was needed to move the project forward.

I came on board with enthusiasm, passion, tenacity, optimism, drive. Soon after, National Ramah was awarded a substantial grant from the Foundation for Jewish Camp/Jim Joseph Foundation to start an outdoor adventure specialty camp in the Rockies and we were off and running. In the five ensuing years, I learned a lot about fund raising and raised over $5,000,000 (An accomplishment in and of itself considering the huge economic downturn in 2008). I worked with two other principals (one being the camp director, Rabbi Eliav Bock, responsible for all programmatic aspects of starting the new camp) and Don Skupsky (a dedicated and devoted lay person who was acting as Executive Director; had found the property, negotiated the lease and was involved in the project from the beginning). Each one of us had our roles, and I kept us talking together, working in one strategic direction, navigating the pitfalls, managing the setbacks, and rejoicing in the small incremental steps forward.

The first nine tents were built, temporary port-a-potties were secured, and our first summer brought 100 teenagers and 35 young adults to camp for the first time. This coming summer, our fifth, we will have over 350 campers (ages 8-17) and 100 young adult staff from 26 US States and four countries. We now have 21 tents, a permanent bathhouse, staff housing, a sport court and this summer, a completed new staff building with ten dedicated rooms, which is the centerpiece of a new kosher retreat center in the Rocky Mountains. We celebrated a few bar/bat mitzvahs, a wedding (!), and have watched as young people, including our Israeli emissaries, find new meaning in Judaism and more connection to the Jewish people.

So, why leave? Why now? The answer is both personal and professional.

I love the startup phase. I cherish the moments when anything is possible; when a little bit of strategic thinking, or organization, makes the next step easier. I loved getting the stakeholders all headed in the same direction, asking hard questions, finding allies and supporters. Having an electronic data base would enable us to know our constituency and build a responsive, customer driven enterprise. Using technology in new ways enabled us to communicate with likeminded people in all corners of the world. Knowing the specifics of where funds would go, how they would be acknowledged, tracked, evaluated, creating processes, checks and balances, financial systems that would allow us to be transparent and effective. Getting more people involved who brought different expertise and varied networks into our orbit, enlarging the board, teaching board members their roles. Bringing the fun of camp into the day to day operations of an organization so we always kept in mind the reason we were doing this. Creating a brand and learning how to tell a great story so that others would want to take part.

And then I realized that I was ready to move on. I had brought 150% of myself to the task, been passionately committed to the project for five years, accomplished much to be proud of, tested my skills, learned new things, made a difference. I felt ready to pursue a new challenge, maybe even a new direction in my life.

I took a hard look at what the organization needed. Where did we need to go? What would be my place in the changing organization? Did I want that role? The organization was growing up, and needed to consolidate leadership under one executive, who had to have the authority and freedom to mold the organization as was needed.

So I decided to resign. No one asked me to. No one forced me to. I would have been welcome there for a long time to come. I will always be a part of the beginning of Ramah in the Rockies. I will always remember with fondness the first summer, the smelly portapotties, the young kitchen staff working around the clock to realize a vision of healthy, sustainable food, the first Shabbat as we came together as a new community, the pioneering spirit of the first campers and staff, who brought such open hearts and full spirits to form a new community high in the Rockies, instituting rituals that would, over the coming years, shape and define our unique culture.

A development director was hired, and I helped introduce her to our community. The organization is in a new phase, moving steadily forward with vision and energy as I had hoped. Rabbi Eliav (the director) and I touch base often – we made history together – and I want to stay involved as things progress. I headed on to my own search process. Took some much needed time to refocus and think about where I wanted to go next. I’m still working on that. Ramah in the Rockies will always be a part of me. But sometimes, as hard as it is, it’s just time to let go.

Tamra Dollin can be reached at tamradollin@gmail.com.