The Wexner Foundation at 30 – Leading on Leadership

Wexner 30thBy Andrés Spokoiny

John F. Kennedy once said that “leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.” JFK probably didn’t know, but his statement was profoundly Jewish for, in Judaism, leadership and learning are inextricably linked.

This quote came serendipitously to my attention this week, as we prepare to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Wexner Foundation, which, by putting this principle to practice, has been transforming communities across North America since its inception.

One important value in Judaism that is, regrettably, not practiced enough is the principle of “hakarat hatov,” recognizing and celebrating what is good. We excel at whining, and we win world championships of criticism. Yet, we barely celebrate our successes. In this case, celebrating the success of Wexner is not just hailing a great set of programs; it’s deeper. It’s understanding that a meaningful change of the leadership culture in our communities is possible.

The Wexner Foundation recognized that ignorance and meaningful communities can’t coexist, that if you want to enrich and transform Jewish life, you need to start at the top – instilling passion for Jewish learning in those setting policies and crafting strategy. By doing that, it promoted a change of paradigm that can be felt in communities across North America. Wexner has been consistently succeeding in identifying the best and the brightest in every community, and dramatically enriching the way in which those leaders perceive their responsibilities and opportunities. Years before “social networks” became fashionable, Wexner recognized that true change happens through networks of like-minded leaders, and, therefore, it provided a common language of leadership and learning that an entire cohort now shares. There is something evident, yet hard to put into words, that makes Wexner alumni recognized and sought after for leadership positions across the board. Maybe it is some of the key competences that they acquire, or maybe it’s a positive and constructive attitude towards the challenges of leadership, but to paraphrase the folks from Intel, one can easily tell when a community leader has “Wexner Inside.”

But Wexner did not rest on its laurels. Adding to their Heritage Program for senior volunteer leaders, the foundation developed a fellowship for communal professionals and a program for senior professionals in the Israeli public sector, thus encompassing the different dimensions of the Jewish Leadership Challenge.

This anniversary should be an opportunity for the entire community to reflect more deeply on the issue of communal leadership. We need to recognize that we are in the midst of a leadership crisis – in both the lay and the professional levels. With an entire generation of leaders leaving the stage, creating the leadership “bench” that can lead the community in the 21st century is probably one of the biggest collective challenges that we face.

Last year, a group of funders led by the Weinberg Foundation created the “Leadership Pipelines Alliance.” This initiative aims to tackle the crisis of professional leadership in the community. Hundreds of CEOs in community organizations are retiring, and there aren’t enough quality professionals interested in Jewish Communal Life. This is, to borrow a term from the news, a “leadership cliff” that we all face. In this new initiative, partners came together, even if leadership wasn’t among their top funding priorities, because they realized that there’s only one consistent predictor of a successful grant: the quality of the leaders in the grantee organization. So today, leadership is becoming a critical issue for funders from all walks of life. Every foundation knows that whatever programs they fund, it is the right leaders that make things happen.

The issue of leadership is also critical in Israel’s public and social sector. Pushing the analogy just a little, one could say that the leadership issues that Israel’s public sector faces are not dissimilar to the ones we face in diaspora communities. We both struggle to find and retain the right leaders, and we both see gaps between the key competences that we need and those that we already have. Wexner has addressed this issue with the creation of an excellent fellowship program with Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

Both in Israel and the diaspora, we need to follow Wexner’s example. Collectively, we need to place the issue of leadership – professional and lay – at the center of the communal agenda, for it’s the linchpin of the entire system. Building on success, we need to work together – funders and organizations – to create systemic change in the leadership culture of the community.

This is probably the biggest homage that we can pay to the Wexner Foundation at this momentous milestone.

To Abigail and Les, and to the professional leaders of the Foundation, especially my dear friends Larry Moses, Elka Abrahamson, and Cindy Chazan, our most sincere Mazel Tov! To the rest of us, lots of lessons to learn and great examples to follow!

Andrés Spokoiny is President and CEO of Jewish Funders Network.