The Networked Nonprofit: A Prequel

by Allison Fine

I have had the privilege of serving as president of my congregation, Temple Beth Abraham (take a peek at our brand new, gorgeous sanctuary!), for the last two and a half years. It has been a fascinating, at times exhausting, but overall very fulfilling endeavor. I learned that instead of using The Networked Nonprofit as a blueprint, I was actually creating a prequel to it. We simply were not ready organizationally to practice the kind of conversational style of community building outlined in the book.

I wrote a case study of my experience and Lisa Colton was kind enough to post it with an interview at Darim Online. The case study begins with these reflections:

“My presidency coincided with the Great Recession and significant decline in the number of Jews moving into our area. In the spirit of never wasting a good crisis, lay leadership, clergy and the congregation writ large have given me great latitude for experimentation for which I am enormously grateful. The following reflections as temple president are not intended as a victory lap, we are far from stabilizing, much less growing our membership. Rather it is an opportunity to share what I have learned in the hopes that others can build and improve on them and share their experiences as well.”

The top level findings are:

  • New Voices. We needed new voices and turnover on the board. Without new people at the table, we would continue to have the same old conversations.
  • Abundance. We had to challenge an antiquated, closed, scarcity-based organizational culture. This meant finding specific opportunities (in our case it was the assumptions the process for financial relief were based on) and having conversations at the board table about them. Why do we believe this? Are the original reasons still relevant? What would happen if we changed these assumptions? What are most afraid might happen?
  • Practice generosity. Traditional institutions, particularly those like synagogues that serve a population scarred by prejudice and hostility and even genocide, find it difficult to be generous. This may seem like an oxymoron for an institution protecting and preserving a religion based on generosity, but over time the institutional default settings were set to suspicion and closed. It’s simply a fact, not a right or wrong. We have to now actually practice being generous. When we give members who are over ninety years old honorary memberships, we find that they donate more than they were paying in membership dues. And last week we found that when we make temple a safe haven for people without power they want to come and be with us.

It is only now that we are able to inch out onto the social media channels and open ourselves up to real conversations with congregants. What did we learn last week when we opened our doors during the Hurricane? What do we want out of our family education efforts? How can we do a better job connecting congregants to one another?

I’m not sure where our synagogue will be in a few years, but I certainly know that road we were on wasn’t sustainable. I’d love to hear from others whether my experience resonates with theirs.

Here is the case study for downloading:

netnon prequel-final.

Allison Fine is a social entrepreneur and writer dedicated to helping grassroots organizations and activists successfully implement social change efforts. She is the co-author, with Beth Kanter, of the bestselling book, The Networked Nonprofit.

cross-posted at