by Rabbi Hayim Herring and Debra Brosan
Synagogues and Jewish organizations always have choices about their destiny – to be proactive or reactive, to be strategic or let environmental factors take over. This applies equally to the collaboration continuum, the range of options that congregations have to remain vibrant by creating partners with other synagogues or organizations, or even ultimately merging or being absorbed into another congregation.
In our last post, we identified some emotional factors that inhibit collaborations that seem logical but never materialize. In this post, we want to define more specifically the options that congregations have along this continuum, so that leaders can recognize that they have options for remaining vital and impactful.
First, a synagogue must explore its risk level associated with independence and integration, the collaboration continuum’s bookends. Most collaborations fall within an organization’s administrative, operational and programmatic function, as well as the possibility of sharing space.
Synagogues are already linking together in many forms. For years now, Federations and Central Agencies have championed inter-organizational collaboration by funding and supporting shared events, such as community Simchat Torah celebrations, professional development and pooling electricity credits. In these, each synagogue maintains its individual mission. This is a low barrier way to enter the continuum that requires some commitment of time and but little or no organizational change.
As synagogues move on the continuum towards more integration, strategic alliances form in pursuit of fulfilling a common goal. Management consortia, confederations, joint programs and projects fall into this category. Two or more synagogues and organizations combine agreed upon resources, time and commitment to create something new. Issues of identity and turf are worked out and give way so that innovation can emerge. While each organization maintains its organizational structure, the locus of power and decision-making for what they created is shared. Exciting strategic alliances have emerged from religious schools creating cooperatives, joint programs and new partnerships.
Sometimes organizations will form an alliance in order to bring together specific skills and resources that complement one another. For example, the Siegel JCC and Jewish Federation of Delaware are a natural strategic alliance for they share space, service similar populations and are beginning to dialogue around sharing “back office” functions such as marketing and information technology. A consortium, like the Jewish Genetic Disease Consortium (JGDC), is an association of like-purpose organizations that come together as a cooperative.
There are nuanced differences between collaborations and strategic alliances. What they have in common is that each organization continues to operate as a separate entity, and only selected programs, services, and operations are in partnership.
Differentiators are the level of formal agreements, the level of trust, and the level of consistency and commitment in the collaborative relationship.
At the other end of the collaboration continuum are mergers, acquisitions and absorptions. Simply put, a merger is when two independent organizations on equal terms become one legal entity. An acquisition is when one organization legally purchases the controlling percentage of another organization. Absorption is when an organization is folded into another organization through the dissolution of one.
One of the greatest challenges that many congregations currently face is whether some form of collaboration is sufficient, and if merging, acquiring or being acquired by another congregation is the wisest option. This is one of the most important strategic questions that board leaders will ever face. While emotionally challenging, acquisitions and absorptions do not have to be wrought with despair. They can be the genesis for being proactive and strategic – such as expanding offerings by acquiring new program portfolios and staff expertise, by enhancing existing programs or to increase size for economies of scale.
A synagogue should first test its readiness to merge, and be clear about its strengths and capabilities. In the faith based world, wouldn’t it be great if the merger conversation originated from a place of optimism and was seen as a way of joining forces to move our collective overall mission forward? It’s a tall order that requires good process, especially in synagogues and Jewish organizations where engagement and relationships are core Jewish operating values.
As we suggested in our first article, there are barriers to begin the dialogue about mergers, such as who begins the conversation or who makes the decision. Questions about leadership, decision-making, partner fit, culture, relationship management, engagement of the congregation, change tolerance and resistance will certainly surface. These questions often create enough anxiety to extinguish interest in entering the collaboration continuum. But just starting a dialogue with another congregation about sustainability and strategy, with a willingness to face what is happening in our Jewish world, can result in positive, strategic change. Looking at several organizations that have worked through the barriers of joining together successfully will be the focus of our next post.