Why Jewish Collaborations Can Succeed Where Others May Not

Jewish leadership is not born of title or status, it is a function of the leader or leadership organization’s ideas, talents and resources and the strong will follow that which the situationally positioned will propose.

by Robert Hyfler

Strategic Equity. You can’t buy it, you can’t build it overnight. Through a century of Jewish communal practice five partnership reinforcing activities have been nurtured and refined. Today, where challenges cut across sectors and single agency skill sets, the Jewish community writ large is positioned to cash in on collaborative efforts that deliver. Each activity noted below may be present in the arenas of others; it is however unlikely that they exist in as strong a strategic fit as they have over time in the Jewish world.

The Concept of Community and Network

The successful collaboration can never be the refuge of the weak but rather the opportunity of the strong, the interconnected, the often convened and the supported.

It is fashionable to knock Federation annual campaigns and even the language of collective responsibility. However, the truism still holds that strong donor networks supporting a set of interlocking basic services reinforce the vitality of a communal whole. As long as the concept of core operating support still resonates within these networks (and unfortunately it is weakening in some places) agencies maintain the vigor and resilience to collaborate and entertain new partnerships.

The Legitimacy of Leadership

In times of opportunity and crisis Jews will bemoan the absence of visionary and proactive leadership more than they will grumble about the entitled few and heavy handedness. Foundations, global agencies, denominational movements and Federations are expected to assert situational authority and aggressively convene and engage. Jewish leadership is not born of title or status, it is a function of the leader or leadership organization’s ideas, talents and resources and (a note to a new generation) the strong will follow that which the situationally positioned will propose.

Interlocking Directorships

“I go to meetings in my community and I see the same people over and over – Oy!”

The 20th Century “Oy” can be the 21st century secret weapon. Interlocking agency boards along with often convened sister agencies bring to the table a common vocabulary of style and substance and know how to manage the boundaries of trust and expectations.

Show me an agency that recruits its board from that wide swatch of the community that includes members of other boards and I will show you an agency executive that has license to go beyond fundraising and turf protection. It will be an agency that must be honest with its board and donors about what it can and cannot do on its own – in short an organization ready to collaborate in smart and sustainable ways.

No Boundaries – No Comfort Zones

Sit in on a board meeting of a Jewish agency. When an external threat or existential challenge presents itself in Israel or an overseas Jewish community, the most locally centered, single client based agency will ask, “How can we help, what might be our role?” The agenda is such that, to resurrect an old joke, when a Jew in Kiev sneezes a Jew in Birmingham (either one) reaches for the tissues. Some joke. When Storm Sandy hit trauma support teams from Israel showed up in the Rockaways.

Furthermore, this commitment to global responsibility reinforced by the network concept undermines the very notion of programmatic “silos”. Do any of us know the point where a caring agenda for those in need ends and a Jewish identity platform begins? When Tikkun Olam is inreach, outreach, community relations or all three in one? When a volunteer is actually a client and when the client is an asset to the community and the task? (Going back decades JDC in Eastern and Central Europe labeled volunteers who themselves received support as “collaborators”.)

Playing it safe? When the Great Recession occurred and financial resources went into a tailspin many charities and foundations took the prudent course to pull inward, protect remaining assets, fund only long time beneficiaries and stick to core goals and functions. Conversely, across the continent, Jewish communities sought out new client sectors utilizing new arrangements and new components of service. The very definition of the client was often expanded to reflect the newly revealed pain of the middle class.

Branding Programs not Agencies

I have quipped elsewhere that every time a new idea in the Jewish world makes its way from thought to action a new program is branded – forcing many of us to reach for a Hebrew dictionary to see what the name means. However our idiosyncrasy is also a virtue when multiple agencies (down to line staff) feel loyalty to the initiative and all are focused on the task and the clients they serve. There further exists strong anecdotal evidence that agencies that conspire together on program branding acquire strong talking points and “street cred” with both donors and their communities. (Think Federations and Birthright – think leverage.)

Take Two: A Postscript

In less parochial terms this article could easily have been titled, “Five Qualities of Successful 21st Century Collaboratives”. The headings would have been:

  • Tend to Your Network
  • Lead from the Front and Empower Leadership as it Emerges
  • Keep Seeding the Best and Brightest Throughout your Community
  • Leave Your Programmatic and Geographic Comfort Zone
  • Focus on the Success of Projects not the Institutional Brand

But who knew? These rules have been followed for a century right in our own backyard. As we in the Jewish world learn eagerly from others, act on the imperative to embrace a new spirit of diversity, as we open ourselves to a new range of participants and the rejuvenating breezes of cutting edge ideas, let us still not forget our strengths and talents, the equity we have built and the legacy still to be harvested.

Bob Hyfler is an independent consultant with three decades of managerial experience in the Jewish world. An occasional blogger on eJewish Philanthropy, he can be reached at Bobhyfler@comcast.net and is considering a soft opening on twitter @bobhyfler.