Viva PLP!

by Joshua Avedon and Shawn Landres

Last week the Jewish innovation ecosystem suffered the first loss of a keystone organization since the economic ice age began. The Professional Leaders Project (PLP) is the premier independent entity for developing and educating the next generation of Jewish leaders, both volunteer and professional.

One thing is clear. PLP’s mission of “turning leadership over to the next generation” will live on, most importantly because of its sustained investment in developing the talent and networks that formed the backbone of its program offering. And PLP itself plans to take its mission online with a Virtual ThinkTank, issuing a call for ideas on how to sustain its contribution to the sector even without programs on the ground. Whether specific PLP programs find new homes at other organizations (and we hope they do – more on that later), thousands of people will carry the lessons they learned through PLP to organizations old, new, and yet to be born.

One of PLP’s many unique aspects is that it recognizes that individual leaders, and the relationships between them, lie at the heart of effective innovation and advocacy for change. PLP has made no distinctions in its offerings to volunteer and professional leaders, in part because it has understood the fluid nature of nonprofit leadership in the 21st century. This approach led to some interesting interactions and collaborations that never could have taken place in more conventional leadership development programs, where individual are often stuck in tracks according to their interests, roles or geography.

PLP is the vision of an extraordinary leader, Rhoda Weisman. In her previous role as Hillel’s Chief Creative Officer, she created a slew of new initiatives which helped redefine the organization for a new era, including Tzedek Hillel, the Campus Leadership Initiative, and many others. She was a key player in the creation of the Taglit-Birthright Israel program, as well as the first director of the Jewish Campus Service Corps. As a Jewish innovator, Rhoda has defined what it means to think out of the box, empower new leadership, and catalyze change in organizations new and established. Her work at Hillel demonstrated her unique aptitude for spotting and developing talent in an atmosphere of collaboration and personal growth. In creating PLP, Rhoda identified and filled a vacuum in Jewish leadership development, one that bridged the established and emerging Jewish nonprofit worlds. Regardless of PLP’s ultimate institutional fate, Rhoda deserves credit for launching and developing the next generation of Jewish leadership. We are sure that whatever she does next will have a similar impact, and Jumpstart is proud to have her as a friend and as a member of our board of advisors.

PLP’s absence will have an immediate impact on the hundreds of young leaders who have been a part of its networks and participants in its leadership development programs. These include hundreds of emerging leaders from around the nation who were recently recruited for PLP’s LiveNetworks 2009, a year-long seminar series incorporating leadership development, Jewish learning, analytical tools, coaching, and mentoring. While many Jewish organizations struggle to find candidates, PLP was able to hand-pick participants who were actually willing to go out of pocket to pay for their participation.

Especially pressing is the question of how to honor the commitment made by the newest members of the LiveNetwork hubs in New York City, Washington, DC, Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles, 20- and 30-somethings who signed up (and even were willing to pay) for training, networking, and mentoring as volunteer and professional leaders in 2009 and 2010. They now have nowhere to go. Our community cannot afford to let their energy go untapped: we must find alternate ways for them to engage their passions and skills.

Beyond the programs themselves, PLP shutting its doors (and we hope it’s only temporary), is a signal moment for the Jewish startup sector. PLP isn’t just one innovative organization; it is also a critical clearinghouse for the entire Jewish nonprofit workforce pipeline. This is not a trivial need. As the NonProfit Times reported on August 13, the senior management gap in U.S. nonprofits is a matter of growing nationwide concern. The Bridgespan Group, a nonprofit human capital think tank, predicts that overcoming this “leadership deficit” will require a commitment “to attract and develop a leadership population 2.4 times the size of the total number currently employed” (Finding Leaders for America’s Nonprofits, 2009).

This issue is only magnified in the organized Jewish community, where according to a study for the Jewish Funders Network and The Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies (ACBP) entitled “Executive Development & Succession Planning: A Growing Challenge for the Jewish Community” (posted August 17 on the JFN website), retirements by long-serving baby boomer executives will create succession challenges at as many as 90% of Jewish organizations over the next decade. As the only independent initiative dedicated to identifying, recruiting, nurturing, and mentoring new volunteer and professional leaders regardless of their institutional affiliation, PLP played a vital role seeding the Jewish ecosystem with human capital. PLP’s absence will be felt quickly, and painfully, unless others step up to fill the gap with programs that continue these critical elements: institutional independence, the recognition that volunteer and professional leadership are intertwined and often interchangeable over the course of a person’s career, and, most importantly, not only a genuine belief in and commitment to the process of innovation and renewal, but indeed the explicit acknowledgment of the real contributions that new leaders bring to the missions and institutions they serve.

The bigger question raised by PLP’s abrupt disappearance is whether this is a harbinger of a cascade of more closures of innovative new projects, or (as we think more likely), the beginning of a realignment of the Jewish infrastructure as it adapts to the altered landscape left behind by the big freeze caused by the economic crisis and Madoff grand larceny. Likely more significant projects will fold, and others may merge in order to survive. Perhaps PLP’s investment in turning Jewish leadership over to the next generation infused the innovation ecosystem with enough human resource momentum so that the work done by PLP will become a core activity of all organizations, both old and new. Or perhaps other organizations will actually pick up some of the programs launched by PLP – we’re thinking especially of the LiveNetwork hubs – and give them new life.

Certainly it would be a waste to allow the framework created by PLP’s visionary work to simply cease because of a potentially temporary funding challenge. One could imagine regional and/or national players deciding that the gatherings of talent represented by the LiveNetwork Hubs shouldn’t be abandoned, then deciding to absorb them into their own organizations. Or perhaps, just perhaps, the shock of this singular event will cause some forward-thinking Jewish philanthropists to come forward to rescue PLP and to demonstrate to the hundreds of PLPers that their unique value to the Jewish world is not unnoticed, and must be preserved, whether in its current form or in a new structure.

Whatever happens, when the history is written of the first epoch of the Jewish innovation ecosystem, we believe that our community will see PLP for what it was, is and could be: one of the Jewish world’s richest talent pools and development laboratories for emerging leadership. Viva PLP.

Joshua Avedon and Shawn Landres are the founders of Jumpstart, a think tank, catalyst, advocate and support system for sustainable Jewish innovation.