Where Did Our Farm Teams Go? Rethinking Committee Process

Is the issue the relevancy of our missions or the substance and style of our processes?

by Marci Mayer Eisen

Earlier in my career, my title should have been Manager of a (Jewish leadership) Farm Team, rather than Director of Family Programs at the JCC. Although difficult to envision now, almost every program, project and service provided aligned with a committee. For decades, decision-making committees were seen as vital to our missions. While the stated purpose of these committees was to plan and implement programs or policies, there was always a simultaneous intent to deepen commitments to the organization and develop volunteers, many of whom would advance on to higher level leadership. The word innovation was not yet a buzzword; however, we were taught to challenge committees to develop creative, unique and exciting programs. The word network did not have the meaning it does today, yet these committees provided a direct link to lifelong friendships and community involvement. Although not a perfect system, committee process ruled our training and our thinking. Change was inherent – not a process seen as stuck with slow decision-making and endless meetings, but constant opportunities to invite new ideas, new participants and new endeavors.

A lot has changed in society, and as a result, traditional planning committees are now seen as dinosaurs in the Jewish community world. Few people want to serve on ongoing committees. Gone are the parent-led youth committees. Special event committees are rare, unless they are focused on fundraising. Task forces exist, but usually for short-term projects like strategic plans. Even organizations with sophisticated volunteer structures are struggling with which committees to maintain and which to disband due to lack of attendance. And, many boards of directors have been reduced in size so that they are easier to manage.

There are bright spots – dynamic, meaningful, effective and enjoyable boards. Yet, we bemoan the fact that there are not enough volunteers to lead our organizations. We criticize organizations that are too staff-focused. We are turned off when boards are expected to rubber-stamp decisions made by small executive committees. We attend meetings that are uninspiring or worse, simply boring. We joke about the real conversations taking place on the parking lot. It’s a serious problem.

While we focus on young adults who desire to impact the future of our communities, we lack meaningful ways for them to get involved. Many communities have shifted to support innovation and start-ups, but these new efforts can’t be the only way to engage for the future. Ultimately, the challenge of improving our leadership is not just about young adult involvement. Few of my own peers find enjoyment from traditional committees, even when they are committed to the organization and Jewish life.

Is the issue the relevancy of our missions or the substance and style of our processes?

Volunteer leadership development is a complex topic. Successful decision-making groups have always required relevant and compelling missions, authentic challenges, inspiring values, and respectful exchange of ideas. While we re-imagine what committees can and should be, we need to re-value, rather than de-value group process. As our world gets more complex, it’s essential to reinforce building relationships, nurturing trust, encouraging new ideas and renewing commitments for change.

Decision-making is core to community organization and leadership development. No matter the focus or age of participants, every successful committee must connect members to each other, work together to solve challenges and address larger societal issues. When decision-making groups work well, they are inherently creative and take initiatives to outcomes beyond what could have ever been initially imagined – for the individual, the program, the organization and the community.

Changing the culture of our decision-making structures is critical. Why would someone have a commitment to an organization’s mission if they haven’t been engaged in directly contributing ideas and seeing results of their involvement? As Stephen M. Shapiro writes in “Best Practices are Stupid: 40 Ways to Out-Innovate the Competition,” we have to “ask the right question in the right way to the right people.” Shapiro explains, there are not simple solutions to complex problems. Change leaders have to create engagement not natural to the way we look today, but for how we want to be in the future.

Therefore, we must step back and create new entry points – new farm teams – from investing in diverse leadership programs, establishing brand new endeavors, and perhaps the hardest of all, challenging our traditional organizations to completely re-imagine how meetings are run and decisions are made. The status quo is not working. We must maximize passions and talents that provide immediate meaning and result in short-term engagement and long-term impact. There are few issues as important to Jewish organizational life today.

Marci Mayer Eisen is Director of the Millstone Institute for Jewish Leadership, a community-wide initiative of the Jewish Federation of St. Louis. Marci participates in a national professional network through JCSA to share knowledge and resources around Jewish volunteer and professional leadership development.