Category: Philanthropy

Keeping Your Board Happy: Sensitizing yourself to how much is too much

By Todd J. Sukol
Anyone who works with boards of directors needs to strike a balance between accommodating board members and establishing clear organizational processes and boundaries. Too much bureaucratization leads to alienated or angry board members. Too much accommodating can lead to unhealthy, unproductive or even illegal or unethical arrangements.

Exponent Philanthropy, an excellent association of effectiveness-minded philanthropic foundations, recently published an article entitled: 6 Ways Self-Dealing Can Creep Into a Foundation’s Work. Even if you’re not working in the foundation part of our nonprofit and philanthropic sector, I encourage you to give the piece a quick read. Though the details of the Exponent Philanthropy piece will apply more directly to some of you than others, I think you’ll all benefit from thinking about how the emerging circumstances it describes may parallel situations you already face. Wishing you all a productive, positive week, Todd

Organic and Intentional: Jewish Grandparents Network Retreat Models Collaborative Program Development

By Todd J. Sukol
I had the privilege of attending the Jewish Grandparents Network planning retreat at the Pearlstone Retreat Center in Maryland this week. The event, co-hosted by JGN and the Mayberg Center for Jewish Education & Leadership at George Washington University, was unusual in one way above all.

To their extreme credit, JGN founders Lee Hendler and David Raphael have taken great pains to learn, to invite and to dream before going into program development mode. When I first learned of their efforts to harness the power of grandparents to convey Jewish wisdom, values and identity to young Jews, I wanted to know what they planned to DO. David and Lee told me it wasn’t time for that yet. They had identified that grandparents have great power and potential in the lives of their grandchildren, but they didn’t want to hurriedly invent a program and then promote it to the funder community. They did a little piloting, certainly, but they concentrated their efforts on running a survey (more than 8,000 respondents — wow!) and inviting various constituents to the table for a series of deep explorations about what JGN might endeavor to be and do. I respect that approach greatly. It is a breath of fresh air in a world where possessors of an interesting idea tend to be a bit too certain theirs is just right. JGN is casting a wide net, and taking a thorough, patient approach.

I’ll wait to see the outcome of the retreat, of course, but I have a feeling the convening, which attracted a very impressive group of hearts and minds, may have helped JGN clarify objectives and point the way toward some particular program areas worth exploring. The Jewish Grandparents Network is humbly and strategically building a strong base of supporters, fans and co-designers. I admire the way they’re approaching the effort and I suspect we’ll see some impressive programming from this group in the near future.

Embracing Complementary Opposites: Learning When to Loosen and When to Tighten

By Todd J. Sukol
Reposted from Mayberg Foundation Blog

Recently I was working with colleagues at the Mayberg Foundation, preparing a presentation about our approach to entrepreneurial philanthropy. As we spun out some of the core operating principles we wanted to highlight, two of them struck me at first to be at odds with each other. The first had to do with the ills of over-bureaucratization. The Mayberg Foundation invests in passionate, driven, committed people. We have seen so many times that visionaries often become stifled while working in rigid organizational environments. This destroys their creativity and motivation. In order to innovate, experiment, learn and iterate, social entrepreneurs require nimble, adaptable environments. On the other hand, we are also staunch believers in the importance of proper organizational infrastructure. Those who work closely with me have heard me say time and again that all exciting ventures require three not-so-exciting counterparts in order to amount to anything real: structure, support and accountability. Process counts. As one of our trustees recently put it, “instinct only takes you so far.”

Far from being contradictory, the need for quick, nimble decision making and the need for well defined processes are great examples of complementary opposites, each as true as the other — and each requiring the other. With too little process even the best ideas remain empty dreams forever. With too much process creativity gets squeezed out, destroying the very experimentation that represents the nonprofit and philanthropic sector’s most important role in meeting society’s challenges. The key, as a former advisor of mine told me many years ago, is “knowing when to loosen and when to tighten.”

And that brings me to our Foundation’s own commitment to constant introspection and improvement. Our growth over the past several years has forced us to professionalize and operationalize in order to handle the volume of good work with which we have the privilege of being involved. And at the same time we remain as dedicated as ever to our ability to pivot quickly and shift gears, remaining approachable and open to new ideas. To be sure, this is a tough balance, something that requires constant attention and adaptation. We discuss this openly and frequently among staff and with our trustees and beneficiaries, constantly tweaking our systems, balancing structure and creativity, discernment and openness, strategy and passion.

A Yom Kippur Message for the Whole Year: Easy Does It

I’m sharing a slightly modified version of a Yom Kippur thought sent out to Koby Mandell Foundation board members by my dear friend and mentor of many years, Rabbi Seth Mandell. The humility and practicality of it made me smile, and made me feel a little better. Although Yom Kippur is a distant memory at this point, I heard back from numerous people I emailed it to that the message resonated with them big time, not only for Yom Kippur, but as a reminder year round that when it comes to spiritual growth, steady but gentle effort is best. So keep working on yourselves folks, but easy does it….


By Rabbi Seth Mandell
I have to admit that I am not prepared for Yom Kippur. I have not read inspiring commentaries nor reviewed the prayer book. Nor, sad to say, have I spent time in self examination or enumerated the things I could have done better this year.

Worse perhaps, is that I am singularly untroubled by this. Maybe because I have been occupied with my sons wedding, my toddler grandson’s almost daily progress and my daughters impending birth.

I’m reminded though of my friend who blew the shofar in one of the synagogues in Tekoa this year. I had heard that he was unable to finish even the first round of blasts. The sounds apparently just would not come out. Finally, frustrated, he asked someone else to take over.

Later he told me something interesting. “When I went home and blew the shofar for someone else (who was unable to get to shul) I did it perfectly. Every sound came out smoothly and easily. Must have been the pressure.” he said, referring to his difficulty during the service itself.

I have decided to take heart from this story. Maybe the lack of focus I feel, the lack of serious preparation, is not all bad. Maybe going into this awesome day without feeling the pressure to make it deep and meaningful, without feeling the awe, is not such a bad thing. Perhaps we can go into the day relaxed, taking it as it comes, and simply pray the words of the siddur and let our intention and focus take care of themselves.

My hope is that those of us who are going into Yom Kippur feeling unprepared can let go of our expectations, our critical self-judgement and accept ourselves, our family and friends – and our world – as it is. And maybe that lack of pressure will allow us to pray with a stronger intent, relate to our Creator in a more natural and meaningful way, and – as we accept and forgive our failings and those of others – be accepted and forgiven by the Almighty.

I wish you all a G’mar Chatima Tova – A successful and healthy year

L’Shalom, Seth