Not Just a Spoke in a Wheel

Not Just a Spoke in a Wheel:
how young professionals can make an impact within the organized Jewish community
by Jonah Halper

I have been a fundraiser for the last decade, with my last two years working as a consultant specializing in next generation philanthropy and new donor acquisition within and outside of the Jewish philanthropic world. Because I was trained in the Jewish Federation system and then went out on my own, I hear from many young professionals in the organized Jewish community, both within the Federation system as well as other established Jewish organizations, that they are frustrated with their professional development and experience.

A common thread is a feeling of despair; not being able to make meaningful impact when they feel like a spoke in a wheel. These professionals come in with passion and commitment to serving the community but they become quickly disenchanted, and even jaded, with the slow moving bureaucracy and mediocrity that is pervasive within the existing system.

When I was leaving a former Federation employer, there was a meeting from the executive team as to how to ebb the loss of young talent. My source told me that their conclusion was to host pizza parties to show appreciation of their staff. Oy.

Common sense tells you that employee retention comes only from job satisfaction and that other variables like increases in salary are second to the feeling that one is truly making a difference. After all, it’s why we entered this career path instead of higher paying industries. Nancy Lublin, Founder of Dress for Success and CEO of, said this best in her book, Zilch: The Power of Zero in Business,“We motivate employees to work past five o’clock with commitment, creativity, and passion totally disproportionate to their tiny salaries.”

So the question boils down to how young professionals can feel like they are making a true impact in a system that doesn’t seem to require or even want their own innovative approaches to accomplishing the organization’s mission.

Yes, innovation is not relegated to start up companies and charities. The Miriam-Webster dictionary defines it as 1. the introduction of something new 2. a new idea, method or device.

Can’t there be innovation in the organizations that have been around 100 years?! In fact, I would say that innovation is a term best suited for the established organizations. It is where you can clearly see what new ideas and approaches are being implemented in contrast to old assumptions. In a startup everything looks innovative, because everything is new!

So where does the opportunity to innovate exist in the establishment?

I propose that there is a knowledge gap between the established organizations and the myriad of new charitable startups. The big guys know how to run a sustainable operation. They understand the importance of building the base of support, and how to steward large gifts from individuals, foundations, corporations and other enterprises. They know how to avoid putting too many revenue-generating eggs in one basket and make sure that there mission can be carried out for years to come. This is something the start up world is still trying to figure out. They grapple with how to gain a broad base of support, instead of relying on “seed investment-style” funding which does not create a growing base of individuals who care about the organization and will support it. Or how to properly manage cash flow, invest in infrastructure or make smart hires and fires.

On the other hand, the new organizations know how to connect and engage with new donors and a younger audience. The big guys haven’t a clue. The reasoning for this is simple. Any good fundraiser will tell you to focus most of your relationship building on prospects that can give the bigger gifts. It takes a lot of $10 donors to reach a single $10,000 gift. For this reason, Jewish Federations, and many other established organizations, will continue to make their top donors a priority … and rightfully so.

However, this marginalizes the new donor and creates a model where the bigger givers give more, but the sheer numbers of donors decrease. Because these large organizations have been so intent on engaging and soliciting the top end of prospects, there is little culture and adaptation to the changing philanthropic landscape to properly cultivate a new generation of givers.

This gap is where the innovation lies. Therefore, if you work for an organization and you have these feelings of frustration, but truly want to make a difference and to feel inspired when going to work, please do the following:

  1. Look at your job description and what you were hired to accomplish.
  2. Look at your current portfolio and work, and see if you can justify your current course of action.
  3. If you think things need to be done differently, look around for ideas and inspiration. Don’t look at similar organizations. They are probably making the same mistakes.
  4. Get permission from your boss to focus some of your time on your new idea(s).
  5. Do the work. Do not complain about not having enough time. Every innovator makes the time.

If you truly want to innovate, then you need to remember that failure is a requirement. If you do not fail, in part or even in full, then you are not trying hard enough. A good boss will want you to push the limits and find new solutions to old problems. Every entrepreneur has more failures than they can count. That is why I am a big fan of Seth Godin, author and marketing guru, when he says, “It takes about six years of hard work to become an overnight success.”

Jonah Halper is a nonprofit fundraiser and marketer for ALTRUICITY, a consulting firm specializing in new donor acquisition and engaging Gen X and Y’ers. He is also Co founder of NextGen:Charity, a national conference on nonprofit and foundation innovation. He is married with three children and lives in Wesley Hills, NY.

This post is from the just-released PresenTense leadership issue; you can also subscribe to PresenTense Magazine and receive this, and future issues, delivered directly to you.