Setting the Standard

A friend of mine used to raise money for Jewish organizations. Later, when he went into fund-raising work outside the Jewish community, I asked him how the experiences were different. “In this job,” he told me, “lay leaders treat me like a colleague and respect my experience. In Jewish organizations they treat you like hired help.”

I thought of that story when I read the account by Erica Brown on JTA’s Fundermentalist blog of a recent conference session. The punch line: “I asked a room of 200 people by a show of hands: ‘Has anyone in this room not had an egregiously hostile encounter with a lay leader this past year?’ One person raised a hand. I asked him to stand up so that we could all congratulate him.’” Stephen Donshik has already weighed in on this issue here on eJewishPhilanthropy. Here are a few thoughts from this corner.

There’s a huge gap in values between the reality described by Erica Brown and the current movement for transparency, accountability, and best practices at Jewish nonprofits. If lay leaders behave “egregiously” with staff leadership and that behavior remains secret, it is the very opposite of transparency. If the behavior is known but not addressed by the board, that’s a failure of accountability. And when the organization’s culture ignores or enables inappropriate actions by lay leaders, it makes a mockery of “best practices.”

There are also long-term consequences. The public-service functions of a nonprofit are harmed when the personal wishes of lay leaders distract management from their formal duties. When inappropriate behavior affects decision-making, it distorts the organization’s priorities and compromises the mission. Perpetuating unprofessional and sometimes abusive behavior by lay leaders also hurts the morale of staff leadership, and as with the friend I quoted, it can result in their leaving Jewish service entirely.

In practice, staff members don’t dare risk incurring the ire of a thwarted board member, so they may acquiesce to unreasonable interactions or requests or demands. The same fear of retaliation prevents them from raising the issue with their board. Even board members themselves, if they hear about a problem, may be loathe to deal with it because it’s messy and can get personal.

Yet the only ones who can put a stop to “egregiously hostile” behavior by lay leaders are their peers. Only lay leaders themselves can set formal standards to uphold the same values of responsibility and openness that they expect of the staff. For example, a board can adopt a resolution with specific guidelines for contacts between lay leaders and staff, mandating courteous, respectful, professional communications. And it can set up a procedure for a third-party review of behavior by a lay leader that appears objectionable. These actions send an important signal that such behavior is not acceptable.

The conduct of lay leaders in Jewish organizations is particularly important at a time when there is an impending crisis in professional leadership. As a generation of communal executives retires, it’s not clear where their successors will come from. Whoever the next cadre of leaders turns out to be, they are less likely to take a job where conspicuously hostile behavior by lay leaders goes with the territory. If the Jewish community continues to turn a blind eye to egregious actions by lay leaders, the result may be an enormous loss of talent on the professional side. It is a loss we can’t afford.

It’s time for a few bold lay leaders to step forward and set a higher standard for themselves and their peers. Both Jewish values and communal responsibility demand it.

Bob Goldfarb, a former vice-president of the Arts Consulting Group, is president of the Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity. A regular contributor to eJewishPhilanthropy, Bob lives in Jerusalem.