Understanding the Need for a Jewish Nonprofit Leadership Pipeline

By Erik Ludwig


The purpose of this memo is to frame a conversation about the contemporary context of Jewish nonprofit organizations and the increased importance of a Jewish nonprofit leadership pipeline to develop professionals with the core competencies to lead Jewish life into the next century.

Jewish American philanthropy can largely be understood within the larger trends of the American nonprofit sector and philanthropy. The American nonprofit organization has undergone significant changes over the last 100 or so years. The modern era of the nonprofit sector can trace its beginning to 1954 when the IRS code was amended to establish 501(c) tax-exempt status, allowing donors to directly benefit from charitable giving and for the dramatic growth of private foundations. Jewish nonprofits exist at a complex intersection of changes in tax law, generational wealth, and societal norms that have created growth in the nonprofit sector.

Impact of Private Foundations

The American Jewish community has benefitted from the incredible growth of private foundations. Many of these foundations are committed to centralized giving as well as in grant funding (Ludwig & Weinberg, 2012). Beyond the direct financial benefit private foundations have provided for Jewish nonprofits, the investment of private foundations is responsible for an emphasis on strategic philanthropy as well as encouraging innovative Jewish initiatives in existing organizations and the launch of startup organizations. Philanthropists who two decades earlier may have made their entire charitable contribution as centralized giving or to a specific organization are now choosing forms of strategic philanthropy based on their foundation’s theory of change. The use of private foundations to effectively employ strategic philanthropy is changing the way Jewish nonprofits do their work, increasing philanthropic partnerships that are (re)shaping the programmatic response.

The advantage of strategic philanthropy is significant investment across multiple nonprofits to address large-scale communal challenges. This investment is in part the catalyst behind a growth in Jewish organizations launching innovative initiatives and in the explosion of Jewish startups. While the success of strategic philanthropy is evident there are concerns raised by professional and lay leaders that “foundations are saying a few of us know what’s best for nonprofits, their constituencies, and the greater good” as Eisenberg (2013) has suggested in his article ‘Strategic Philanthropy’ Shifts Too Much Power to Donors. Today’s debate over the advantage or disadvantage of strategic philanthropy is often passionate and those of us in this conversation must also recognize that strategic philanthropy in the Jewish nonprofit ecosystem is an emerging practice. As a result, our approach needs to be collaborative, learning from each other and strengthening the Jewish nonprofit ecosystem by developing a shared understanding of the practices that work.

The Professionalization of Nonprofits

Along with the structural shift in funding towards strategic philanthropy there is the continuation of a shift towards the professionalization of nonprofits. The conversation about professionalization today is often voiced as a concern about “accountability” and “bottom line” efficiencies. These concerns not withstanding, it should be understood that professionalization is as likely a response to societal changes, such as the shift towards dual-income households, that changed the ways volunteers operate within the structure of the nonprofit or the increase in scale of the nonprofit that required skill sets beyond the expertise of lay leadership. Organizational roles that were once filled by lay leaders are now commonly part of the professional structure of the Jewish nonprofit. This shift in which professionals received compensation for doing work that had traditionally been achieved through volunteers resulted in high levels of efficacy that likely had the reciprocal effect of strengthening the movement towards professionalization.

What we are witnessing today may be described as a conceptual shift in the field from the practice of Jewish communal service to the business of Jewish nonprofit management. The leadership competencies have shifted from social service to business and innovation. This conceptual shift occurs at a time when the Jewish nonprofit ecosystem is struggling to maintain its viability with a number of mature nonprofits entering a period of decline and startup nonprofits that have yet to get past the growth stage (see Stevens, 2008 for a detailed description of organizational lifecycles). Despite its challenges the Jewish nonprofit ecosystem is robust comprised of over 3,600 Jewish nonprofits responsible for an aggregate $26 billion in net assets and $12 billion in annual revenue (excluding synagogues) as Nathan-Kazis (2014) reported in the Forward. The challenges, however, are likely to be exacerbated and persist into the next decade as professionals of the baby boom generation with decades of institutional “know how” leave the workforce for retirement. It is evident that the changing structure of the Jewish nonprofit and the increasingly dynamic landscape of Jewish life requires a next generation of Jewish nonprofit leaders that think different.

Whos Got Next?

Who’s got next? This is the existential question confronting the American Jewish community. Responsibly answering this question will require an investment in emerging leaders (those in the field and those going into the field). Professional readiness for this next generation of Jewish leaders is going to be dependent on a different set of business and innovation expertise than the social service model of previous generations. The complexity of our Jewish nonprofit ecosystem requires it. Why? In quickly examining the leadership advantages of the Jewish baby boom generation, we must recognize that this is a generation that grew up sharing a common experience of religion, identity, Zionism and culture. The kinship of shared values guided their professional practice. As Jewish professionals they assumed leadership in a time of economic prosperity and along with their lay leadership, which held similar values, they entered Jewish institutions that were in an organizational stage of growth and built them into robust mature institutions. An accomplishment that deserves tremendous respect and that is widely responsible for the way we experience Jewish life today.

To be successful leading forward Jewish life, the nonprofit professional will require the following set of core competencies:

  • Lead people
  • Drive dynamic and continuous organizational change
  • Nonprofit business expertise
  • Innovation oriented
  • Stakeholder centered
  • Purpose driven
  • Ability to make Jewish wisdom the experience

A similarly quick glance at the landscape of Jewish organizations that today’s professionals will walk into reveals institutions that, on the whole, are in a state of organizational stagnation or decline and those that are startups are struggling towards viability. To be clear, it is a Jewish organizational ecosystem that is the result of decades of institutional success. The next generation of Jewish nonprofit professionals are entering leadership at a time when the economy has seen minimal growth and the current economic forecast is uncertain. Unlike generations of the past, the nonprofit professionals and the generation we want them to engage maintain fluid understandings of religion, identity, Zionism and culture that require uniquely tuned spaces of Jewish expression. We are asking Jewish professionals to be responsible for leading change and organizational renewal on a grand scale at a time when systemic challenges make the way forward unclear.

As we seek to recruit and develop this generation of Jewish professionals it is important that we approach it as a shared responsibility. As a community of philanthropists, lay leaders and professionals we will want to think collaboratively and strategically about how we design a professional pipeline that can address the diverse and dynamic organizational needs within the Jewish nonprofit ecosystem. We will want to think beyond the 5-year strategic plan and in doing so invest in the development of Jewish leaders who will take our nonprofit organizations from one generation to the next generation and the people who are impacted by those organizations from strength to strength

Erik Ludwig is the Director of the Zelikow School of Jewish Nonprofit Management at Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion.

At the Zelikow School, we are shaping the Jewish future by educating its leaders. We offer eight MA degree programs including four Dual-Degree programs with USC (our neighboring campus) and a MS in Organizational Leadership that is low residency and can be completed in 14 months for professionals seeking to maintain their career track (requires 2 summers on campus). Located in Los Angeles on the Jack H. Skirball Campus of HUC-JIR, over the past 50 years the Zelikow School, formerly the school of Jewish Communal Service, has earned a distinguished reputation as a premier center for the education of Jewish professional leaders.


Eisenberg, P. (2013). Strategic philanthropy shifts too much power to donors. The Chronicle of Philanthropy, August. https://www.philanthropy.com/article/Strategic-Philanthropy-/154451

Hall, P. (2004). Historical perspective on nonprofit organizations in the United States. In Herman (Ed),
The Jossey-Bass Handbook of Nonprofit Management and Leadership. Jossey-Bass Publishers. https://www.hks.harvard.edu/fs/phall/Herman-CH1.pdf

Kania J., Kramer M., & Russell P. (2014) Strategic philanthropy for a complex world. Stanford Social Innovation Review, Summer. https://ssir.org/up_for_debate/article/strategic_philanthropy

Ludwig, E. & Weinberg A. (2012). Following the money: A look at Jewish foundation giving. Institute for Jewish and Community Research.

Nathan-Kazis, J. (2014). 26 billion bucks: The Jewish charity industry uncovered. Forward. http://forward.com/news/israel/194978/26-billion-bucks-the-jewish-charity-industry-unco/

Stevens, S. (2008). Nonprofit lifecycle: Stage-based wisdom for nonprofit capacity. St. Paul, Minnesota: Stagewise Enterprises, Inc.