My Mid-Life Crisis: From Lay Leader to Federation Professional

changed prioritiesBy Gordon Hecker

Quick – name three things that come to mind when you think of a mid-life crisis? If you answered a convertible, a hairpiece and an affair with a younger woman, you got the most popular answers. But how many of you said, “leaving your corporate job and becoming a Jewish communal professional?” Once upon a time that answer was a rarity. But increasingly more of us are doing just that.

In the summer of 2012, I got the phone call that I was both hoping for and dreading. “Gordon, after an extensive national search and months of interviews, we would like you to become the next President and CEO of our Jewish Federation.”

For many years, I had been a Senior Vice President of Marketing at Nationwide Insurance supervising a large team with an enormous budget. The work was fun, intense and lucrative. Yet increasingly, I found that I was getting my personal satisfaction not from my day job, but from my volunteer efforts in the Jewish community, where I had been Board Chair of the synagogue and the day school and was serving as Campaign Chair at the Federation.

As someone who is passionately concerned about the successful survival of the Jewish people, I realized that I had a unique opportunity in my mid-life to take a personal passion and make it my profession. And I knew that, with the right direction, with solid agency partnerships, with great lay partners and with a strong staff, a Jewish Federation can still be the single most influential Jewish organization in any city. So I jumped at the opportunity and have not looked back.

Federations have a long history of success in American cities – building coalitions, raising funds and providing needed social services. But as Jews have become more integrated into American society, as the affiliation rates have declined, as fundraising for umbrella causes has gone out of fashion and as support for Israel has unfortunately become a divisive issue, in too many cases, our Federations have been slow to change.

Change is hard. It is particularly hard for Federations that strive to represent an entire community and not just take direction from those who speak the loudest or make the biggest gifts. And it is hard when the needs are so great and varied and community members often judge the value of Federation by whether the organization has met their individual expectations rather than the collective need. And too often, Federation is judged solely on its “annual unrestricted campaign” – a concept that is vital to the success of our communities, yet one that flies in the face of many social trends in America today.

Here in Columbus, we have worked hard to change our Federation over the past three years. We have taken some risks and no doubt made some mistakes. Hopefully we have learned from them. At the same time, we have made incredible progress transforming this organization and increasing the likelihood that we can achieve our vision of being a thriving Jewish community at the forefront of the next renaissance in Jewish life.

Much of the initial work was the hard slogging that had to be done – things like re-shaping Board governance to be more nimble, working with donors on overdue pledges to improve cash flow and instituting Human Resource procedures to make associates feel more valued. Simultaneous with these foundational elements, we began to move forward quickly towards a different future. We decided to narrow our focus and put increasing emphasis and funding behind Federation’s unique responsibilities. We fielded a new demographic study and used the results to highlight key community priorities. We recruited a top-notch staff and we worked hard to engage our lay leaders in our most important decisions.

While we cannot yet claim victory – we have made incredible progress. This past year we raised the most money in over six years by focusing not just on the annual unrestricted campaign, but also highlighting programs like our Holocaust Survivors campaign which resonated with many donors. We increased the number of gifts from 2,050 to almost 2,500 by making our events more interesting and impactful. We offered to meet with every donor in the community who made a gift of over $500. We received the largest endowment in the history of the community. We rebuilt our JCRC and now have four active subcommittees. We re-engaged volunteers by asking them to work on single issue task forces with limited time commitments versus endless committees. We drove PJ Library subscriptions from about 350 two years ago to almost 800 today – engaging a whole new cohort of parents in the process.

I am incredibly proud of the partnership between our lay leaders and our professional staff that made these individual accomplishments possible. At the same time, I am completely energized by the tasks that lay ahead in the coming years. Most importantly for me, this work has brought me immense personal satisfaction that has validated my choice to become a Jewish communal professional.

As I consider mid-life, a convertible would sure be nice and I would love a new head of hair, but what I want most is to lead a life full of meaning. That is exactly what I have found as the President of the Jewish Federation of Columbus.

Gordon Hecker is an alum of The Wexner Heritage Program (Columbus 00) and can be reached at ghecker@tcjf.org.

cross-posted on the Wexner Foundation Blog