Leadership Development: A Strategy Emerges, Investments are Made

By Barry Finestone and Seth Linden

The challenges facing the future of Jewish leadership are well-chronicled – from identifying talent, to training and retaining leaders, to ensuring that Jewish organizations are utilizing leaders to their full abilities. As we have shared, the Foundation understands the urgent need to address these challenges – and is taking action. After a strategy retreat in August, the Foundation’s Board of Directors affirmed a commitment to increase its support for talented and inspiring Jewish educators and leaders. While the Foundation has supported Jewish education leadership over its past 11 years, actions over the past several months have reinforced a more proactive, field-building and risk-tolerant approach.

An emerging leadership development strategy is taking shape and guiding critical investment decisions. The Foundation’s recent $3 million investment in Leading Edge, led by Gali Cooks, will support its growth and build its capacity as a field-building organization that invests in professional and lay leadership in the Jewish community. This gift emphasizes the Foundation’s increasing commitment to developing current and future leaders in Jewish education.

While the Foundation has spent a year and a half studying the leadership field, much remains to be learned in how best to invest in leaders and leadership development. In addition to the new Leading Edge grant, the Foundation is investing $7 million to an additional 11 organizations that submitted proposals for their leadership development initiatives following the Foundation’s recent RFP. These grants all approach leadership development through various lenses and reach various target populations, such as social justice leadership, thought leadership, early childhood leadership and education, and youth leadership.

Representatives from this new group of grantees are being invited to attend two convenings to learn from and with one another, and will participate in a cross-portfolio research study to understand common outcomes, themes, and strategies in developing Jewish education leaders. Representatives of current Jim Joseph Foundation grantees in the leadership space are also being invited to participate in the convenings and the study. To help ensure alignment with a field-wide agenda, professionals at Leading Edge will play a central role in advising and guiding key components of this important, cross-portfolio work.

Evolution of a Jewish Leadership Think Tank

Critically, Leading Edge is building on its initial success and is still evolving its early stages of organizational and governance formation. It intends to spread ideas, convene the field, and test new programs to develop current and future Jewish leaders, focusing on executive professionals, volunteer boards, and workplace culture. To help re-focus its mission, it will frame itself as a Think Tank, Platform, and Laboratory. Even in its nascent life cycle, Leading Edge has produced several important reports within its current programs, including its Great Places to Work (over 7500 responses from 92 organizations over two years), Lay Leadership Commission (a call to action led by 25 lay leaders and The Bridgespan Group), and Onboarding Best Practices (a useful guide to any organization looking for best practices in bringing on new team members). It has convened multiple stakeholders at various local and national Jewish conferences, including Jewish Funders Network, JFNA’s General Assembly, and Foundation for Jewish Camp’s Leaders Assembly. And Leading Edge recently launched its second cohort of CEO Onboarding, bringing together 14 Jewish leaders new to their organization for a year of leadership development, including executive coaching, a community of practice, an Israel Seminar, and learning with faculty from top-ranked institutions and leadership organizations in the public, private and nonprofit sectors.

In addition to focusing on professional executives and lay leaders, Leading Edge will also focus on workplace culture. Culture emanates from the top, but grows throughout an organization. Peter Drucker’s famous adage, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast,” is wisely heeded, and Dan Pink has taught us that motivation, autonomy, and purpose are essential drivers for a happy and productive workforce. Collaborations are also brewing. Leading Edge is working closely with JPRO to connect, educate, inspire and empower professionals working in the Jewish community, and Fund the People (a secular version of Leading Edge). The so-called “talent deficit,” Rusty Stahl of Fund the People argues, is actually a matter of talent investment deficit. Stahl makes the case that it is up to funders, working with their nonprofit partners, to lead by example and provide more financial support for professional development, leadership training, capacity support, and other items that might be swept under the “overhead” line item – an overused and underappreciated cost of doing business.

Lets Model Successful Leadership Initiatives

Funders are pursing many forms of creative investment in this space, which we know offer significant opportunities for modeling and adapting:

  • Barr and Durfee Foundations, and O2 Initiatives, have made sabbaticals their place of impact. Give your leaders time off, the research shows, and they come back rejuvenated, thinking and delegating more strategically, and enhancing the skills of their senior team and board.
  • Packard and Robin Hood Foundations, and the Haas, Jr. Fund, invest additional money in technical support, management skills, and other flexible leadership grants. This benefit fills gaps in leadership throughout an organization to better achieve its strategic goals.
  • Other funders and organizations run their own fellowship programs, from the Wexner Field Fellowship, Schusterman Fellowship, and Selah Leadership Program. These are ongoing and immersive leadership programs, with commonalities including coaching, in person convenings, and a mix of focus on personal development, professional growth and Jewish learning.

Leading Edge itself offers a useful model of “walking the walk.” Their budget reflects their values, with a strong investment in professional development and staff benefits. As an organization working to change the field in how Jewish professionals are treated, valued and nurtured, Leading Edge implements internally what it wants to infuse in the field.

A New Chapter

The foundation continues to learn from its grantee partners about the best way to invest in programs that train educators. This learning has and will continue to inform the foundation’s approach to investing in education leaders. Successful educators and successful leaders have much in common: they ask good questions, they are good managers, they have vision and they are constantly learning themselves. It is not surprising that a founding principle of the Jim Joseph Foundation is that Jewish education should be loosely defined as that which imbues leadership skills in youth. There is no doubt that as the Foundation takes on this new chapter with an increasing focus on inspiring educators and leaders, it will encounter success and failure along the way, and continue to learn from other leaders in the field.

The Jim Joseph Foundation is energized by the numerous funders already investing in leadership for the Jewish community. We are hopeful and excited about collaborating with more funding partners to build the alliance around Leading Edge to advance this essential area of work.

Barry Finestone is President and CEO of the Jim Joseph Foundation. Seth Linden is a Program Officer at the Foundation.