The Day After:
Young Jews and Legacy Organization Boards
By Danielle Flug Capalino and Jay Chernikoff
What if all the same concerns we’ve all heard ad naseum – young people don’t care about Jewish issues, about Israel, about the continuity of the Jewish people – were moot?
What if the questions we take great pains to explore – How do we engage them? How do we keep them around? Why bother? – were null and void?
What, in other words, happens when we are through the door and serving, when great pains have been taken to do it right and now you have this group of young Jews, eager, passionate, and enthusiastic to shake things up?
Let’s face it, being involved in the Jewish community in a meaningful lay leadership role is already fraught with challenges for young adults – endless bureaucracy, staid content, and a focus on training us rather than our actual participation in decision-making. Imagine how much more so when your interests lead you to a legacy organization, whose history, impact, and breadth are the very things that can also be deeply frustrating at times.
For four years, we have been experiencing the opportunities and challenge serving on the Board of a legacy Jewish organization. We joined the Board of Directors of JDC, the global Jewish humanitarian organization, as part of their forward-thinking efforts to put their money where the Jewish community’s mouth was. JDC built a cohort experience for people in their 20’s and 30’s to be Board Members called the Global Leader’s Initiative. As veteran JDC Board Member Arlene Kaufman, and her husband Sandy Baklor, who championed the effort said, “we should be replacing ourselves.”
The experience here has been nothing less than transformative, where we’ve learned much about ourselves and, in turn, helped JDC learn about itself. And while there are things that still need work – and we’ll get to those – there are many things that have gone right. These takeaways are worth noting as other Jewish groups contemplate their “day-after” young adults are brought into positions of leadership:
1. More than a minyan: The cornerstone to our experience was the JDC Board decision, led by then-President Penny Blumenstein, to proactively enshrine in JDC’s by-laws the requirement to include younger leaders. Essential to that change was that a critical mass of 15 seats were reserved for leaders under 40 – some 9 percent of the total Board. And, because our experiences were so positive, many GLI Board Members were then nominated to take up regular Board positions outside the GLI cohort. After 4 years of this effort, we are due to have 9 former GLI Board Members serving as regular Board Members in addition to the 15 reserved positions. It is critical to include a real mass of younger people from a variety of backgrounds with full voting rights – a token one or two, asked to represent their whole generation, simply doesn’t cut it.
2. Be flexible, but firm, in giving: You can’t say you want to have young people on the board and expect from them the same financial commitment as people who have been in the workforce for 50 years. Even if they have family wealth, they may not have full decision-making over those resources (yet). Therefore, they should give a “meaningful gift,” as we termed it. What we found was that there were people who came from all capacities and when they were in it, they dug deep. In fact, we even had peers who turned around to say that they gave the biggest gift in their philanthropic journey to JDC. Since beginning this program, our young adult cohort has given an average gift of $15,000 to our Annual Board Fund and have given and directly raised $2 million to the organization overall. More critically, younger Board members may hear new or “fringe” ideas in an organization and see their value faster. Take Danielle’s role with TOV, a new JDC initiative bringing Israeli ag-Tech and critical funding to African farmers to improve their financial status. It only took hearing the idea one time for her to know how smart the model was and now with her family’s support, she’s helped launch it with other savvy investors like Seth Merrin and is working to spread the word on this innovative program, including in the media. If we too strictly apply giving requirements built for a different profile leader, then we risk the long view.
3. Our ideas are your innovation: Many young people are blessed with career success and the experience of transforming ideas into reality. We are also uniquely positioned to have a point of view that is fresh and tapped into today’s business and social impact trends. That skillset, and the ideas that come with it, can advance an organization’s way of doing business and bolstering its financial and programmatic future. For example, Jay recently pitched JDC the idea that it take a typical endowment campaign, its Second Century Campaign in this case, and turn it into an appeal to young people as an insurance policy for JDC’s future. Younger donors and supporters are often not thought of for endowment campaigns – organizations seem to automatically skip them by default of their youth. But the one advantage that young people have, Jay notes, is time and time is money; they have the advantage of time; taking a small gift now and growing it can result in major dividends for an organization’s future. This idea was so persuasive, JDC’s endowment campaign now includes a whole strategy around younger supporters.
Of course, tensions do exist in all of this work and we shouldn’t shy away from it because in order for us to get the most out of each other, we need to test our limits and expand our horizons. Among the main concerns that keep bubbling up for us are:
Pacing and processes: When things take too long, are overly process-oriented because “that’s how we have always done it,” you risk losing young people who want to cut through what they view is proverbial BS. That’s why its important for more veteran Board Members to set the context and explain the thinking around the process. Young leaders can then weigh in and find ways to speed things forward that are appealing to their colleagues, or as can sometimes happen, participate in the process as it was and learn from it and appreciate the deliberations.
Being the young ones: Youth may have its advantages, and veteran Board Members often enjoy having the rising generation present, but we want to be seen meaningfully and authentically outside our demographic. We bring to the table experiences and expertise that transcends age and can influence outcomes for the better. Its important therefore to ensure that young leaders are positioned in areas where they have the most influence and can build a groundswell for their contributions. Also, older leaders who lobby that young leaders be taken seriously on substance help make a difference.
Real work: While past generations might have been happy to just be selected and serve, or honored by the accolades, young leaders care less about this and more about whether we are having an impact. If we’re not, we can find things that need us more. Organizations, especially the large and legacy type, will have to be willing to cede some of their heavy command and control approach to lay engagement. And young leaders can help ease into this new way of operating. Our focus is collaboration and partnership, and our style follows from our genuine enjoyment of collective engagement, problem solving, and impact.
Worrying about overcoming these issues should not be the main driver of efforts to ensure young adults have a meaningful and productive experience on a board. After all, we are still here because of our boundless passion for the mission of the groups we choose to get involved with. We view it as another opportunity rising from our involvement to collaborate with others to strengthen the paradigm for our participation. It may not work exactly how we want, but that’s ok. That’s the silver bullet for keeping us around: let us reflect our generation, challenge you, you challenge us, and we will be the change we want to see.
Danielle Flug Capalino and Jay Chernikoff have served on the JDC Board of Directors since 2016.