What We Learned from Strategic Planning at Mechon Hadar

Courtesy Mechon Hadar

By Rabbi Elie Kaunfer

Editor’s Note: More than four years ago, Mechon Hadar – an educational institution that empowers Jews to create and sustain vibrant, practicing, egalitarian communities of Torah learning, prayer, and service – received an infusion of investments that helped catapult it from “start-up to second-stage.” Since that time, Mechon Hadar experienced dramatic increases in programming, impact, and organizational sustainability, with an expanded donor base and number of students. As a result, it is a leading institution in the Jewish non-denominational educational space.

Earlier this year, Mechon Hadar completed a strategic planning process to outline a growth plan moving forward. Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, President and CEO of Mechon Hadar, offers reflections and lessons learned from that process:

If infancy was about surviving, and second-stage was about growing, what comes next? What do we do with investments in our organizational growth? Create more programs? Reach more students? Add more staff? While we certainly strive to answer affirmatively to these questions, the most important part of our current growth has been a focus on long-term strategic planning, a first for our organization.

Our experiences, lessons learned, and subsequent paths forward we believe offer important insights for any organization considering, or about to undergo, a similar process.

How We Arrived at This Point

Mechon Hadar was founded in 2006 to empower a generation of Jews to create and sustain vibrant, practicing, egalitarian communities of Torah learning, prayer, and service. In the first three years, Mechon Hadar’s budget grew from $240,000 to $660,000. In its third year, Hadar received four multi-year grants: a three-year signature Covenant grant ($153,000), a three-year AVI CHAI Fellowship award ($225,000), a renewable $150,000 grant from the UJA-Federation of New York, and, most significantly, a five-year $1,375,000 challenge grant from the Jim Joseph Foundation. Following a 3-year renewal from Jim Joseph totaling $600,000, Hadar received a $150,000 grant from the Foundation for the explicit purpose of strategic planning in 2015.

At the time, most of the start-ups emerging into second-stage space had not invested significant dollars in strategic planning, and Hadar was no exception (The newly launched Project Accelerate, of which Mechon Hadar was a grantee, is starting to change that trend). Without the Jim Joseph Foundation grant, Hadar’s board would never have approved such a large (relative to our budget) expenditure for planning. But the significant investment allowed Hadar to work with top-tier consultants from TCC Group, and the impact was significant. Following the plan adoption, board members started to increase their gifts significantly – not just in terms of dollars, but also length of time. They finally felt excited and confident enough about the organization’s future to make multi-year gifts, often for the life of the four-year plan.

But the planning process was far from smooth, and we want to offer three ways in which the production of the plan and its eventual adoption was surprising:

1. We told the consultants that a large part of the visioning around strategic planning was done before they arrived. Indeed, we had devoted multiple board sessions, plus focus groups with staff and alumni, on what (we thought) was a very clear choice of three distinct pathways. The original goal of the plan was to flesh out the path on which we had settled.

But after a few weeks of working with the consultants, we learned that our key stakeholders – both lay and professional – did not have clear buy-in on this direction. Our prior planning efforts did not mean we could bypass any of the stages with the consultants. This was a bitter pill to swallow, as it meant going back to the drawing board on practical decisions, and forced us to question our own perceptions of our leadership prior to the formal planning process. The consultants were not overly surprised about this development, and they were willing to re-formulate the engagement (while keeping the cost constant) to retread some of the bigger picture work. Once we finished the plan, our key stakeholders really understood the decisions we made – what was left on the table, and what we decided to press forward with. For other organizations embarking on a strategic planning process, consider engaging all stakeholders from the beginning and be open to wherever the planning process may take you.

2. Our second learning was about staff involvement. Often, strategic planning is done at the highest staff levels (with perhaps a single representative from non-senior staff, if that), and the rest of the staff is interviewed but not brought along in the process fully. This is how we began the engagement as well. But soon after a fullstaff focus group (without senior staff present), it became clear that the larger staff needed to be more involved in the process. This is true to our culture, where staff – especially faculty – have shaped the development of our growth over the previous ten years. We expanded our planning group to include more staff, effectively doubling staff representation. This made for a large (sometimes unwieldy) group of 20. But the consultant was masterful at facilitating such a large group, and when it came time to adopt the plan, the staff had significant buy-in because they had been involved in the process.

Related, senior leadership, many of whom had been with Hadar from inception, realized in this process that not all of their ideas – especially the most aggressive (some said: unrealistic) gambles – would be a part of Hadar’s plan moving forward. The experience with this reality was generally positive: senior staff accepted this, understanding that the decision-making process in 2016 was far different than it was in 2006 – and this was a sign of progress made. The flip side is that the board really found its voice in this process.

3. Finally, one of the most significant unintended outcomes of this process was the space it offered for some staff members to shine. Individuals who would not have normally stepped forward to play a role in organizational direction exhibited creativity, foresight, and, of course, strategic thinking. This is especially important because, as we learned, even with expert consultants, board and staff still have to do much of the heavy lifting. Moving forward, Hadar will look to utilize individuals in ways that both advance their careers and add value to the organization as it implements the strategic plan.

Following the passage of the strategic plan last summer, Mechon Hadar attracted additional multi-year investments, including a $2.15 million grant from the Jim Joseph Foundation, and, more recently, a $900,000 grant from the Maimonides Fund, both through 2020. These investments are two examples of the power that real strategic planning can have on the possibility of growth.

Final Thoughts

Of course we recognize that the success of a strategic planning process is not the quality of the report but the degree to which its recommendations and insights can be put into action. It is a means to an end, not an end in and of itself. And so, while these reflections share some of the deeply valuable lessons learned and insights we gained through this process, the real test begins now. Can we build on these lessons? Can we effectively implement our plans? We hope – and are confident – that our actions will answer these questions with a resounding “Yes.”

Rabbi Elie Kaunfer is President and CEO of Mechon Hadar.

Cross-posted on Jim Jospeh Foundation blog