The Importance of WHAT We Do and HOW We Do It

[eJP note: This piece is part of a three-part series prepared by the grant recipients of The Samuel Bronfman Foundation’s Second Stage Fund. The pieces seek to detail the factors that have contributed to the individual organizations’ plans for long-term sustainability.]

by Nigel Savage

I founded Hazon as someone who was – and still is – fundamentally an idealist. The word hazon means “vision,” and I continue to believe that vision counts for a great deal in changing the world for good. But as each year has gone by I have become steadily more interested in a wide range of organizational issues: a series of internal cultural attributes that have gradually become true of Hazon and that I believe account for some of our success, such as it is, these last thirteen years. As we continue to plan for the future sustainability of the organization, I have outlined a few factors that have helped Hazon advance organizationally:

Connect a large vision with incremental steps. At Hazon we’ve tried quite consciously to explicate a larger vision, to focus on small practical steps, and to work to connect the dots. A good example is our network of Jewish CSAs (Community-Supported Agriculture projects). The day-to-day work of launching a CSA is neither sexy nor intellectually complex: find an appropriate farm; build a volunteer leadership team; develop a marketing plan, an education plan, a budget and so on. Nor is an individual CSA, in and of itself, necessarily a huge deal. It puts Jewish purchasing power behind a local farm; it enables families to get local organic produce at fair prices; it’s a platform for innovative education connecting Jewish tradition, food and a range of contemporary issues; and, properly done, it provides food for those in need and awareness about food justice issues. But it will not, by itself, change the world or even the Jewish community. But as we were working to launch our first one at Ansche Chesed, ten years ago, I was consistent in saying: “there’s no reason that, ten years from now, we shouldn’t have 100 CSAs across the Jewish world; and, if we succeed, we’ll steadily start to shift the nature of what it means to be Jewish, in relation to food, in the 21st century…” Ten years on we do indeed have nearly 70 CSAs in the Hazon network, plus a growing handful outside it. We’ve become the largest faith-based CSA network in the United States. The same approach – connecting a large vision with practical next steps – has underpinned the growth of all of our food work, including, most recently, our work on shmita and our one-day Jewish Food Festivals.

Leverage key partnerships and relationships. We have developed a wide range of partnerships in the last decade, but we’re now engaged in the deepest and most radical “partnership” of all: our proposed merger with the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center. Jewish outdoor, food and environmental education has been an area of immense growth these last dozen years. A larger organization is intended simply to create a platform capable of touching more people and more communities in more ways. The merger was made possible because the two organizations have deeply shared values, visions and theories of change. Both of us are working to create a healthier and more sustainable Jewish community, and a healthier and more sustainable world for all. Both of us effect change through transformative experience, thought-leadership and capacity-building. But our organizational cultures are different, and some of the success or failure of the merger – and we’ll only know this year hence – will hinge on whether we are able to draw on the best of both cultures.

Focus on systems. I founded Hazon interested only in what we could do in the world, not in how we might work internally to do that. That has changed as each year has gone by. On a multi-year basis we’re now working to strengthen our capacity across the organization: building a stronger staff; further lengthening our planning processes; making sure that our systems in HR, finance, database are the best possible for who we are and what we need. These infrastructure issues are a long way from the range of interests that caused me to found Hazon in the first place, but they are a critical piece in determining Hazon’s long-term stategy for sustainability.

Deeply commit to iterative excellence. We routinely get all sorts of things wrong, as all organizations do. But our hope and aspiration is to be outstanding in all that we do. That means celebrating our successes and striving to codify them; and being as rigorous as we can about anything that was less than excellent. We did a fine Food Conference last winter at Isabella Freedman, for instance, and our participants had a good time; but one of the first things we did right afterwards was sit down and go through a series of things that hadn’t worked or needed to be fixed.

Engage in learning, of all sorts. We’ve always believed that it’s vital to be a learning organization, and to commit to a wide range of learning for our staff. We’ve participated in Selah. We’ve had staff do PLP and ROI. In our weekly staff meetings, for instance, we try to learn together, in addition to catching each other up on our work. Our learning has included a wide range of outside speakers and teachers; books or articles on management best practice; learning Jewish texts together; and also – in a different sense – taking the time to learn about each other. Most recently we did a six-part series on shmita, for instance, and brought in external teachers in both NY and San Francisco in partnership with Keva. When we formally complete our merger we’re planning again to learn together Jim Collins’ Good To Great.

Overall, I remain no less animated by the front-edge of our work – working directly with people in a range of programs to effect change in the Jewish community and in the world. But the first 13 years of our existence have helped me understand that Hazon can’t divorce what we do from how we do it. I’m excited to devote time and energy, in the coming months and years, to try to take what we have accomplished thus far to the next level.

Nigel Savage is the founder and executive director of Hazon.

Hazon is a grant recipient of The Samuel Bronfman Foundation’s Second Stage Fund. The Second Stage Fund was launched to help enable post start-ups actualize their transition into the next stage of development.