Category: Nonprofit Management


“Innovation”: What to make of a word that just won’t go away

By Todd J. Sukol
In the nearly 10 years since bestselling author and popular speaker Scott Berkun famously implored the world to “stop saying innovation,” we in the Jewish philanthropic and nonprofit world show no sign of heeding his sage advice.

Scott, whose credits include the bestseller The Myths of Innovation, makes a nearly irrefutable case that the word innovation has lost meaning and become noise pollution. Instead, he encourages focusing on developing ideas for solving significant problems rather than finding exciting adjectives to describe those ideas.

So why is it that some of the most passionate, sincere and talented people I know in Jewish nonprofits keep returning to the innovation trope? Are we a bunch of gushy romantics, repeatedly working ourselves into a frenzied lather of naïveté at each “next big idea” that comes our way? Or have we become allergic to hard work, victims of our parents and grandparents successes and good fortunes, in search of one shiny new quick-fix after another? Or could there be something deeper and more substantive at play that causes us to hang on so stubbornly to “innovation” as an ideal.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I am far from immune to the Jewish innovation addiction. I was an active participant in the birth of the Jewish Education Innovation Challenge (JEIC), along with Mrs. Manette Mayberg, trustee of the Mayberg Foundation and our cherished colleague and friend Rabbi Shmuel Feld. I was in the middle of plowing my way through a daunting pile of books on social entrepreneurship at the time* and I stridently insisted that the word innovation MUST be in the name of the organization we were creating. I was an architect of JEIC’s subsequent partnership with Joshua Venture Group, which later merged with UpStart, whose mission is “inspire and advance innovative ideas that contribute to the continued growth and vitality of Jewish life.” If the Jewish world’s addiction to the word innovation is a pathology, I am surely among the diseased.

But is there a healthy way to be obsessed with innovation? Could it be, in fact, that innovation lies at the very core of what it means to be a Jew, a uniquely Jewish way of relating to the world, to each other, to ourselves and to the Divine?

In Judaism’s morning prayers, we praise G_d “who forms light and creates darkness.” This is stated in the present tense, explains Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev, because G_d is perpetually creating the world. Judaism, in other words, sees G_d not as a being who created the world many years ago, but as the active, engaged Spirit who continually creates and renews everything in this world at all times. If we hope to align with this Spirit that guides the world and fulfill our highest potentials as humans and Jews, we too need to constantly refresh our relationship with this ever renewing G_d.

Jewish teachings repeatedly encourage us to “sing a new song” to G_d**. This suggests that while great value is placed on ritual in Judaism, there is also great value placed on bringing a renewed, sincere desire to connect afresh with G_d each time we engage in ritual.

Innovation as a state of heart and mind
I had the pleasure this week of sitting in a noisy Starbucks in New York City for nearly two hours with Stefanie Rhodes, executive director of Slingshot. Listening to Stefanie’s ideas about next generation philanthropy’s potential for the Jewish future, one gets the impression that Slingshot, known to date primarily for its annual Resource Guide to Jewish Innovation, just may have its brightest days ahead.

As Stefanie and I were talking, it occurred to me that innovation in the Jewish corner of the philanthropic and nonprofit sector may be a sign that the Jewish ideal of renewal and rejuvenation is yet alive. Perhaps innovation in the Jewish nonprofit world is more than a utilitarian response to declining communal organizations that seem out of step with contemporary Jews. Could it be that creation of new avenues for Jewish engagement is an imperative for every generation, part of renewing our relationship to ourselves and each other as Jews, and ultimately to the Divine?

To be clear, I’m not excusing continued over-use of an annoyingly hackneyed word, nor am I advocating change for its own sake. The philanthropic and nonprofit sector has seen billions wasted that way, by decades of initiatives that lack well defined aims and strategies. But when the newness is intentionally directed to create “significant positive change,” as Scott Berkun would have us say, innovation – the concept if not the word — can become a powerful, positive engine, both for responding to contemporary problems and to renewing our very souls.



*Among them Bishop & Green’s Philanthrocapitalism, Bornstein’s profiles of early Ashoka fellows, Christensen’s testament to the power of disruptive technological innovation for reforming education, and Paul Light’s “Driving Social Change: How to Solve the World’s Toughest Social Problems.

**No less than five times in the book of Tehillim, Psalms, alone.

Three-Part Harmony Fundraising

ccs, national public radio, npr, catholic charities, georgetown lombardi cancer center, association of fundraising professionals, afp, sukol, giving usa

Perspectives on Philanthropy, August 3, 2017. Sponsored by CCS Fundraising and held at NPR headquarters in Washington, DC (from left): Donald Dunn (Georgetown Lombardi Cancer Center), Stephanie Witte (NPR), Tara Dwyer-Arras (Catholic Charities of Washington), Jason Lee (AFP)

By Todd J. Sukol
Several organizations I am in close touch with are currently searching for senior development professionals. One executive director with whom I’m especially close was bemoaning how hard it is to find good fundraising staff. “It’s simple,” I leaned across my desk and said, almost annoyed. “You just need someone who can build on your successes, bring in new major donors and turn your hodgepodge of activities into an integrated program!” We both burst out laughing. Of course develpoment IS that simple, but what’s simple in words can be impossible in deed. It is not easy to find a single professional who appreciates the need for – let alone has the characteristics to accomplish – those three very different assignments. We talked about this a little further:

The project manager: Building on successes requires a disciplined worker, someone who is organized, thorough and systematic. This is the person that will pull old lists, order them by value and assign contact people for each name and check-in to make sure the work is getting done. She will also plod through dozens of phone calls per day, keeping close track of results.

The evangelist: Breaking open new major gift relationships requires a hunter gatherer, someone who is a master relationship builder who loves the thrill of the chase AND loves people AND loves your mission. Whew! If you’ve got one with all those attributes who can also close a gift, hold on to them no matter how much unmanageability their sloppiness and high energy level causes. This person will drive your accounting department nuts but everyone in the field will love them. They will make your professional life hectic, exciting and funded (at least this year).

The chief development officer: Building an integrated program requires a wise professional who can strategically assemble the component parts of a well-balanced system so that you can continually acquire new donors through multiple channels and grow existing donors up a pipeline with increasingly customized communications as their annual giving level grows. This is the kind of person who will be thinking about the 20 or 30 year value of donor relationships. This is ideal, assuming you’ve got this year’s bottom line covered.

If you could only hire one of these, which would it be?

The conversation was still on my mind yesterday morning when I attended a panel discussion hosted by consulting firm CCS Fundraising and hosted by National Public Radio at their beautiful Washington, DC headquarters. The program featured a top line report on this year’s Giving USA report on philanthropy in America, presented by CCS’s Luke Driscoll and followed by an insightful discussion. Moderated by Linda Cameron (also of CCS), the panel included Donald Dunn, Senior Director of Development at Georgetown Lombardi Cancer Center; Tara Dwyer-Arras, Chief Development Officer at Catholic Charities of Washington; Jason Lee, Interim CEO at Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP); and Stephanie Witte, Chief Development officer at NPR. I attended the session because I had the privilege of learning from people associated with Giving USA’s annual report when I was in graduate school at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, and I have so much respect for the work they do. It was especially stimulating to hear how senior colleagues in the trenches process and integrate this valuable annual publication (which you can purchase online). Thank you to all who made the event possible.

During the presentation I got to thinking about my colleague’s hiring dilemma. It occurred to me that fundraising is such a different animal in different contexts. When considering who you want to hire in that top development slot, lots of factors come into play. Do you have a full development staff with well-differentiated roles? How big is your organization? How much a part of your annual revenue comes from fundraising as opposed to fee for service income, operating grants/contracts or endowment income? How well does your current team do at balancing short term needs for revenue with long term investments in lifetime donor value? What is the team like that the person will work within or supervise? These are all important questions to think about when crafting a development position for your organization.

The sooner organizational leaders do what Mr. Lee of AFP emphasized, and recognize fundraising as the multifaceted, complex field it is, the better prepared we will be to hire the right professionals for our unique circumstances. Moreover, if we can parse out the three personality types listed above and find ways to balance and integrate them among our team members, we just may find that elusive three-part harmony of fundraising after all.

Personality Diversity

By Todd J. Sukol
Like many in the nonprofit sector, I have spent much of my career in small staff environments. The nimbleness, entrepreneurial spirit and experimentalism this enables can be exhilarating and productive. It can be stressful too, particularly when resources are limited. This can lead to something of a hero mentality, where talented and passionate zealots take on too much work. To make matters worse, when leaders (especially founders) do share responsibility, they have a tendency to choose “clones,” people they feel will handle things the way they would. It takes most of us awhile to internalize and operationalize what we already know intellectually – that a well-run organization requires diversity of skills.

But diversity of skills is not good enough. Once we become proficient at creating and managing teams with balanced skills, there is a more complicated kind of diversity we must master, diversity of personality. Teams are made up of human beings, and balancing diverse attitudes and attributes among team members can go a long way to developing teams that innovate, problem solve and make healthy decisions. Attempting to build organizations by replicating, rather than complementing, leaders’ strengths dampens progress, limits capacity and diminishes potential outcomes. Teamwork, it seems, doesn’t come naturally in our nonprofit sector.

rabbi ari segal shalhevet high school los angeles

Rabbi Ari Segal, Shalhevet High School

One of the shining stars I’ve come across in building creative, diverse teams is Rabbi Ari Segal, Head of School at Shalhevet High School in Los Angeles. A master of recruitment and staff empowerment, Segal’s outcomes speak volumes for his approach. I asked him how he balances the wildly diverse group of staff members he has enticed into joining his powerful team. Segal pointed me to several resources. One was a book by Adam Grant entitled The Originals. I recently read the book at the urging of one of our foundation’s trustees, and I highly recommend it as well. Another source for him was something called The Q factor, a set of diversity rules developed by Brian Uzzi, a sociologist at Northwestern University. The essential message is that team members collaborate best when people know each other as human beings, but not so intimately that they begin to think alike. The trick to balancing this seems to be to give people autonomy, but also provide enough structure so that there is shared language and goals.

“In fostering innovation and originality,” Rabbi Segal told me, “I am a big proponent of avoiding groupthink. The way to do that is by making sure that there is real diversity of thought on the team – not just people playing devil’s advocate.” He described a team member with whom he often finds himself disagreeing this way: “On a range of issues, we have ended up on different sides of the proverbial aisle, and heated debates have ensued. And not despite this, but because of this, [I view him as an] invaluable asset of our Shalhevet faculty.”

This balancing act can be a struggle, but it a challenge well worth undertaking.

Short of bringing in a group dynamics consultant (which may not be a bad idea) here are some approaches to personality balance in the workplace you may find useful. Be cautioned though, that they are often misued to put people into rigid categories. I find that tendency overly simplistic, dehumanizing and counterproductive at best. For a thoughtful and sensitive leader, however, knowledge of these categorization schemes can help you develop your own framework for thinking about your team and how to bring out the best in it:

Probably the best known resource in this arena is the Myers Briggs Type Indicator test, which identifies 16 personality types. Though it has fallen off the “flavor of the month” list of late, it is still worth playing with. Another approach is outlined in this very basic piece, which defines personality as “the sum total of the physical, mental, emotional, and social characteristics of an individual,” and describes five basic personality types. A third approach is outlined in Tom Rath’s Strengths Finder 2.0 protocols, a version of which I recently underwent in the context of a new project we are working on at the Mayberg Foundation.

And to end with my own personal beginning on this journey, I suggest you set aside time to take the VIA Survey of Strengths, an outgrowth of Dr. Martin Seligman’s Positive Psychology. Reading his book Authentic Happiness was an important step for me as well.

Dive into some of the resources listed above and be loose in your thinking. You will soon develop your own style for uncovering what makes each of your team members thrive as individuals and how to facilitate and orchestrate a workplace that gives them the opportunity to thrive as a team as well. Ultimately, this is probably the single most important thing you can do to advance your organization’s vision, mission and values.

Four Apps I Couldn’t Do Without at Work

By Todd J. Sukol
Though lists of the latest and greatest apps are a dime a dozen, I thought I’d add to the conversation on behalf of nonprofit execs, like me, who often have more passion and responsibility than time and attention span. Here are four apps that have helped me reduce stress and increase productivity over the past few years. Give them a try:

Nozbe Task Management App

Nozbe Task Management App

Nozbe is a simple task management tool that enables you to dump everything anyone in your organization needs to do in one central place. In our case we use it to organize tasks by goals and projects. Team leaders can access the information by goal (who’s doing what to advance this goal?), team member (what should Joe be prioritizing?), date (what’s due in the next three days?), etc. By connecting granular activities to big picture objectives we are better able to focus on what matters most. As a side effect, I find that having all the details trapped somewhere reliable helps me be a bit more present in the interpersonal interactions of the day, knowing there is a safety net to catch things that could fall through the cracks. Because I can access it on all my devices I immediately capture to-do’s as they come up, obviating the need for the silly notes, emails and voicemails I once used to leave for myself (I know!). You can get your feet wet with the free version and switch to the paid version as you want to add team members to the system. Integrates well with Google Calendar, Gmail and Evernote. Great for managing personal projects too.

Evernote App

Evernote App

Evernote has become a ubiquitous note taking app of late. I rarely bring paper into meetings anymore, taking all of my notes in Evernote and saving them to “notebooks” that loosely follow the same organizational scheme I use for all my work and personal responsibilities. This provides easy access when I’m trying to find something later. You can add drawings, photos, audio, etc., which makes it a great tool for capturing impressions on site visits, etc. The best feature is that everything is searchable, so you can find those notes from a meeting three years ago even though all you can remember is that someone used the word “ubiquitous” too many times. It’s easy to share notes, access notes on multiple devices, and clip things from the web, etc. The paid version allows you to grant other staff members selective access to certain groups of notes, a handy productivity feature.

Focus Keeper Pomodoro App

Focus Keeper Pomodoro App

Focus Keeper Pomodoro App[/caption]Focus Keeper is one of a string of apps based on “the Pomodoro Technique,” a time management system developed in the late 1980s and named after the Italian word for tomato. The inventor, Francesco Cirillo, discovered that by setting a kitchen timer (his was shaped like a tomato) for short bursts of concentrated work separated by enforced breaks he could dramatically increase his productivity. This technique is deceptively simple and – most importantly – it works! Here’s the deal: You work in concentrated periods, typically 15 to 30 minutes (I do 25 minutes), followed by a 5-minute break. After several rounds of this (typically four) you take a longer break (I do 20 minutes). So it’s 25 minutes on, 5 minutes off (x3) and then 25 minutes on, 20 minutes off. Repeat. Once you turn on the timer it tells you when to start and stop work. I find I have to force myself to take the breaks (I cheat a little) and get up and stretch briefly. It is AMAZING how much of a productivity boost I get from this simple structure. If you are sure this won’t work for you because it would be too many interruptions, just try this. I do not work this way all the time, but when I have a particularly difficult project, I whip out my phone or iPad and open up the Pomodoro app. I make little games out of the process for myself by setting little goals for how much I can do by the end of each Pomodoro. There are a bunch of different versions of this app – look up Pomodoro and try one. You won’t be sorry.

Stitcher Podcast and Radio App

Stitcher Podcast and Radio App

Stitcher: I spend a fair amount of time on the road. Whether travelling in my car or on a trains or planes, my podcasts help me keep on top of trends in the nonprofit field, hear thoughtful social and cultural commentary, listen to book reviews, news, comedy, etc. Stitcher is by far my favorite way to listen to podcasts and live radio from around the country. It even helps me fall asleep in lonely hotel rooms.