Lessons Learned from Building a Succession Plan Together

by Rabbi Avi Weiss and Chip Edelsberg

After years of conceptualizing, creating and developing anything – a business, nonprofit, or, in this case, an educational institution – leaving one’s position often brings mixed emotions. The excitement of a new endeavor is tempered with a concern: “What will happen after I leave?”

Understanding this concern, our organizations, a grantee and a foundation, partnered over the previous two and a half years to build a transition plan for Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT), the open Orthodox Rabbinical School in New York.

One of us, Avi Weiss, founded and headed YCT since its inception in 1999, achieving the goal of creating an inclusive yeshiva where academic excellence is expected and character and Jewish leadership skills of its students are held to the highest standards. The other, Chip Edelsberg, is Executive Director of the Jim Joseph Foundation, which in 2011 awarded $3,000,000 over five years to YCT to provide organizational capacity and matching support based on the contributions of new donors.

Critically, the grant also included the development of a succession plan to identify a new YCT president. While Chovevei’s founder had been encouraging its board to find a successor for many years, it was impossible to do until Chovevei partnered with the Jim Joseph Foundation. Implementing this succession in conjunction with the grant was a vitally necessary step to move the grantee out of its founding stage into the realm of institutional viability.

In partnership, the plan was created to ease this transition, best ensure the grantee’s continued success, and protect the Foundation’s significant investment. We believe our experience with this plan can benefit others in the field.

YCT’s primary concern regarding a transition of leadership was its effect on fundraising. Understandably, due to personal connections or other reasons, some donors who had given generously since YCT’s founding might scale down with a change in the presidency. In this regard, the Foundation grant was critical – in particular the matching $2.5 million portion – for three reasons: 1) This funding serves as a substantial “buffer” during a transitional period, more than accounting for any potential loss in funding relating to the outgoing President’s departure. 2) The challenge to grow the donor base serves as a catalyst for a transition to sustainability. 3) A grant from a foundation such as the Jim Joseph Foundation is seen as a “stamp of approval” by current and potential donors.

While the grant helped create an ideal environment for succession, it was only the beginning stages of collaboration and transition.

We subsequently worked together to build a large and highly qualified pool of succession candidates. The grantee best understood the needs of its clientele, in this case rabbinical students, which the incoming President would serve. The Foundation, given its work with others in the field, could identify potential candidates that were previously unknown to the grantee. We further collaborated to outline the parameters of a one-year overlapping transitional phase between the outgoing and incoming Presidents.

Almost any grantee seeking to transition from “start-up” to sustainability will need to expand its donor base. Oftentimes, the initial circle of donors is tied closely to its founders. Awarding a matching grant creates security and incentives simultaneously – necessary components for a transition to occur. Additionally, a close funder-grantee relationship throughout the process cultivates an environment conducive to sharing best practices. A funder, for example, may have previously guided a similar transition process from founding stage to sustainability.

Our grant is still a work in progress, as the actual transition phase is only now beginning. But our experience to date shows the effectiveness of a collaborative and creative relationship. YCT’s desire to assure sustainability could only be realized with a comprehensive plan for its leadership succession. That succession could only occur with a Foundation grant that recognized the interconnectedness of these elements. Working together, we built a strategic plan that addressed these points and positioned the grantee to achieve that long term institutional viability.

Rav Avi Weiss founded Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School in 1999 and has been its only President. He will continue to teach and mentor at YCT and remain as Founder and President Emeritus of the institution.

Dr. Charles “Chip” Edelsberg is the Executive Director of the Jim Joseph Foundation, which seeks to foster compelling, effective Jewish learning experiences for young North American Jews. Established in 2006, the Jim Joseph Foundation has awarded $265 million in grants to engage, educate and inspire young Jewish minds to discover the joy of living vibrant Jewish lives.