The Redcoats are Coming – and Hope Out of Boulder

by Andres Spokoiny

Every school child in America knows that Paul Revere rode through Massachusetts warning the militia that “the Redcoats were coming”. Fewer people know that in the night of April 18th, 1775, other riders were sent with the same goal, among them William Dawes. Revere was far more effective than Dawes in spreading the word to mobilize patriot forces, and that – with the help of with Longfellow’s poem – catapulted him to the historic pantheon of America’s founding heroes. The difference between Dawes and Revere was just one: network.

No, Revere, didn’t shout “the Redcoats are coming”. First of all, British soldiers weren’t referred as “Redcoats” until much later – he probably said “the regulars are coming”. Secondly, if he would have shouted anything of the sort, he would have been stopped by loyalists that were still plentiful in New England. What Revere did was use his network. He activated the people he knew in each of the towns he visited, he disseminated the news and help the patriots mobilize in record time. He had been a “network weaver” and now he was using his talents as a connector. He basically tweeted this: @revere: #regulars are coming! Alert @militias to get ready. Pls RT!. And he simply had more followers than anybody else …

From Paul Revere to Tahrir Square, from Birthright Israel to Facebook, networks work and create synergies for better or smarter ideas, producing innovation by bringing good minds together. That was exactly the theme of a two intense days in Boulder, Colorado where, under the auspices of the Schusterman Foundation, Jewish leaders from all walks of life hugged and wrestled with the idea of networks in the Jewish Community. As a leader of an organization that has networking at its core, I deal with these issues all the time. And yet, the discussions and interactions I had in Boulder helped me refine my thinking and gave me reason for hope.

Networks aren’t a new phenomenon, especially for Jews. Now, however, technology, globalization and social media have made networks infinitely more powerful than they’ve ever been. Moreover, these tools have empowered individuals to mobilize networks and produce deep change.

Networks that are based on free flow of information, fluid coalitions and ad-hoc partnerships are reshaping the world. We are in the middle of a momentous change of paradigm. The “command and control” paradigm of the industrial age is crumbling and it’s being replaced by the “collaborate and connect” model. For business, as well as for communities that want to thrive in the 21st century, it’s critical to realign themselves with this new model. Networks have proven a unique tool to unleash creative energy. What Revere had was what one of the presenters in Boulder called “bridging capital”, the capacity to connect and transform those connections into value. (For somebody that just moved to NY and spends time in traffic jams trying to get to Manhattan, the critical nature of bridges is quite evident!).

The Jewish People is, in fact, the first global network. We were acting as a global network millennia before Facebook, and yet, now, we seem to be behind the curve. Major Jewish organizations are, many times, parochial and protective rather than connected and empowering. Yet, I come back from Boulder with the hope that we are back in the game.

As somebody who works with a network of funders, it gives me hope to see the idea of networks propelled to the forefront of the Jewish communal agenda. It reassures me to see the big players in Jewish philanthropy investing in developing and strengthening networks and using networks as a way to foster different philanthropic agendas.

I often lament (maybe too often, for those who hear me frequently) that the Jewish Community is no longer in the forefront of social innovation. I generally give the example of network theory. Yet, in this encounter I could see great breakthrough thinking and practice. The network theory, as we call it, is in its infancy. There are many things we still don’t know about networks. As funders, we talk a lot about networks but, often, we’re still top down organizations, set up to fund what we recognize: other organizations that work independently. Our unit of analysis is programs, not connections.

Too often, nonprofits believe in owning rather than sharing, and they are not set up to take full advantage of networks. But through initiatives like this one, the Jewish community is helping to shape a new conversation. We are contributing to this emerging theory and sharing best practices that will – hopefully – change the Jewish communal reality. The level of sophistication of the Boulder meeting gave me hope that Jews can again play a leading role in developing this game-changing theory.

Another reason for hope: We generally cry about how the Jewish community hemorrhages professional talent. Yet, in this one gathering, anyone could see that the world of independent philanthropy still breeds and attracts and grooms the best and the brightest. To mention three examples: Seth Cohen, the event organizer, adds invaluable critical thinking to the conversation about networks. Adene Sacks, from the Jim Joseph Foundation is spearheading the idea of networks in the philanthropic world – even beyond the Jewish Community; and in the Federation world Scott Kaufman is following the model of a young leader that creates value by “connect and collaborate” rather than “command and control”.

Lots still needs to be done to help the Jewish community operate in a networked fashion and unleash its full creative energy. Many things need to change in our organizational architecture to be fully relevant to the world of fluid networks in which we live. If we don’t do it, we risk irrelevance. I generally see the lack of network mentality as a big danger, and a big disconnect between community institutions and the individuals they try to serve – who mostly live fully in the network paradigm. Encounters like this one put the idea of networks in the forefront of the communal conversation. It was long overdue, but as a Chinese proverb says “the best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago, the second best time is today”. Let’s keep the network conversation going and help that tree grow.

Andres Spokoiny is President and CEO of the Jewish Funders Network. JFN offers strategic planning and technical assistance to foundations and funders through its Philanthropic Services department. For more information, contact jfn@jfunders.org, or visit philanthropicservices.org.

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