By Alicia S. Oberman
At the most basic level, the vast majority of people’s actions are motivated by two things: hope and fear. When I wrote the article entitled “A Love Letter to the Business I Truly Love” back in October of 2017, I can say unequivocally that my mindset was motivated entirely by fear. We were in the middle of the application process for the inaugural cohort of the Board Member Institute of Jewish Nonprofits, a comprehensive board member development program recently launched in partnership with Northwestern University’s Kellogg’s School of Nonprofit Management, and I was terrified.
Mostly, I was petrified of failure, and failure on several levels. I was afraid to fail personally. I was afraid to fail professionally. I was afraid to fail on behalf of our foundation and our initial partners who believed in our vision. Mostly I was afraid to fail the volunteer leaders in our community. That said, what I feared even more than failure was the failure to try. I desperately wanted to prove to our volunteer leaders that our community understood and supported their current contributions, potential and value.
Change of Heart: After completing the first cohort, and amidst the application process for our first national cohort, I am no longer coming from a place of fear. I am instead driven by hope. What has changed? First, based on our assessment, the vast majority of our graduates: 1. Took action to improve the practices, strategies or tools of their board, 2. Indicated that they felt more prepared/ready to serve on a board, and 3. Noted that their confidence as a board member increased.
More importantly, however, there are some really encouraging and interesting anecdotal findings that did not make their way into the formal results. In the interest of expediency and complete transparency, and to help those who may also be creating volunteer leadership initiatives with their respective stakeholders, I offer the following:
We Do Not Take Full Advantage of Critical Points of Entry for Volunteer Leaders: Many of the programs that engage volunteer leaders have age and/or sector experience restrictions. There are good reasons for this in that we want to leverage investments in younger leaders who have shown a commitment to the community. However, we are unfortunately often missing out on an entire swath of high potential volunteer leaders.
We have had more conversations than we could possibly count with people who have either “aged out” of programs, who do not have the requisite experience to qualify, or simply are not insiders in the community and don’t know how to enter. However, these same people have a wealth of knowledge, a deep commitment to Jewish peoplehood, financial resources, and time and energy to finally give back to a community that has given them so much. We need to help them find access back into the volunteer leadership ecosystem.
We Need to Cultivate Meaningful Intergenerational Dialogue: One of the most intriguing and revelatory findings doing this work is that we absolutely do not give enough time, space and energy into fostering intergenerational dialogue outside of a family setting. We are very good at millennial bashing. We can talk about how the “old white guys” in our community don’t understand us. But how often do volunteer leaders from different generations actually talk TO each other about the challenges that the Jewish community faces? Moreover, how often do they do that in a longitudinal learning environment that fosters connection, trust and vulnerability? Not often enough.
We Need to Get out of Our Lanes: First, we often forget that the Jewish nonprofit sector is a subset of a larger ecosystem. While we face our own distinct challenges, in many ways we are subject to the overall trends of the American nonprofit sector. Moreover, because our organizations operate globally, it is also imperative that we understand how nonprofits operate country by country, and within the international infrastructure.
Second, we do not often have the opportunity to explore cross-sector collaborations, even within our own Jewish vertical. To the extent that volunteer leaders do receive development opportunities, it is often within a specific organization or a specific subsector. The opportunity to bring together volunteer leaders from a multitude of different program areas, across different organizational affinities, allows people to learn and implement concepts outside of their own echo chamber. Moreover, the possibility of collaboration, cross-pollination and sector efficiencies increases dramatically.
ROI on Time: Volunteer leaders are just that, volunteers. Because their most valuable commodity is time, you cannot underestimate the value placed on how they spend it. They unequivocally want to see and feel a meaningful ROI on their time. We must take any and every opportunity to engage them, intellectually, emotionally and spiritually. More than anything, they want to feel inspired and they want to feel that their contribution matters.
The time when people felt that board service is compulsory and prestigious is waning, and in many cases, it is long gone. Whether you are a professional or a volunteer leader, ask yourself, how would you make the case for someone to serve on your board? How will you make the experience meaningful? How will he or she be able to impact the organization and consequently the mission as a whole? If you can’t make a compelling case, that is something to think about.
It’s Lonely at the Top for Professionals and Volunteers: We often talk about the lonely nature of being senior professionals in our sector, but we almost never talk about how isolating it can feel to be a senior volunteer leader of an organization. This is especially true for high-profile organizations. In the governance structure of nonprofit organizations, the Board is ultimately in charge of the stewardship of the organization. Consequently, the pressure and public scrutiny that professionals often face are also experienced by senior members of the Board. Moreover, there is constant judgment placed on them about how seriously they take their Jewish identities, the level of their religious practices, and their knowledge about the geopolitics of the Middle East.
Creating an opportunity for volunteer leaders to learn and troubleshoot with peers, and creating a space for them to discover blind spots and recognize and embrace that “they do not know what it is they do not know,” can truly transform how volunteer leaders see and conduct themselves within the organizations they serve.
Final Thoughts: One of the components of the last nine months that has given me the most hope is the privilege of sitting in on some of the sessions of the Board Member Institute. What I experienced were twenty-eight leaders of the Jewish community who are dedicated, introspective and eager to make themselves and each other better leaders. Moreover, running through all of their efforts is a deep and profound love of Jewish peoplehood. Sitting in that room often reminded me of one of Antoni Gaudi’s principles, “To do things right, first you need love, then technique.”
Alicia S. Oberman is the Executive Director of the Jack and Goldie Wolfe Miller Fund. In partnership with Kellogg’s Center for Nonprofit Management, the Marom Group and other strategic philanthropic partners, they launched the Board Member Institute for Jewish Nonprofits. Applications are currently open for its first national cohort. For more information on the Institute, please visit kell.gg/kxjboard.