Mergers…And Acquisitions

Recently I wrote about the pitfalls of mergers intended to cut costs rather than combine strengths. There’s one particular kind of merger that hasn’t much been talked about, but that does offer a real opportunity to revitalize Jewish institutions. It’s the joining of two unequal entities – in other words, an acquisition.

Consider the software industry. When Microsoft hears about a talented software developer who has created a valuable application, it often acquires that developer’s company and moves its key people to Redmond as Microsoft employees. They aren’t looking to integrate two companies. Microsoft just wants two valuable assets: owning the intellectual property and adding some talented people to its staff. At the same time, the people from the acquired company get the chance to continue their work with support and resources they could never get on their own.

In the Jewish community there’s a need for new talent and new “software” at major institutions as well. One of the most serious long-term challenges is leadership and succession, particularly the need for renewed vision at senior levels. The largest communal institutions are mostly run by a generation that grew up in a very different world from the one experienced by today’s Jews under 40. Those entities operate as if the under-40 cohort will change to become more like their elders, though realistically it’s the institutions that need to adapt, not the post-1969 generation.

What’s more, many of the latter feel neither welcomed nor understood by communal decision-makers, and have little reason to believe that their own ideas are valued by institutional leaders. Senior decision-makers may aggravate the problem by marginalizing younger leaders as the “next generation,” sending the implicit message that those under 40 need to wait another decade or two before they’ll have their chance.

One response is the wave of innovation among that younger generation. Jewish startups are not entirely a young-adult phenomenon, but most are. Their leaders’ decisions to go it alone reflect a lack of confidence in communal institutions as a place to realize their visions, for whatever reason. This represents a sizable talent pool that could bring vision, energy, and a more contemporary sensibility to the major institutions. Or not.

Many major institutions do hire and nurture young leaders in positions of responsibility in the hope that they will eventually rise to the top. And a number of gifted leaders under 40 have been welcomed by establishment organizations as resources and consultants. But as long as these visionaries largely pursue their work outside the system, senior communal leadership will be less resourceful and imaginative than it otherwise would be.

Why not follow Microsoft’s example? If our largest institutions offered to acquire nonprofits run by brilliant young innovators, and put those young leaders in senior roles, the institutions could rejuvenate their own leadership while providing those innovators with more security and resources than they can command as stand-alone nonprofits. That calls for courage and risk-taking on both sides, but the benefits would be felt by the whole community.

Bob Goldfarb, a senior adviser with the Arts Consulting Group, is an occasional contributor to eJewishPhilanthropy. He is the president of the Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity.

This is a follow-up to Bob’s recent post, Taking A Closer Look at Mergers.