Category: Society & Culture


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.

Hidden Growth

By Todd J. Sukol
Reposted from www.mayberg.org

As the cold of winter sets in and the barrenness of the trees outside my window becomes a little starker, it is easy to forget the powerful transformation nature is effecting beneath our feet, just out of view. The earth is rejuvenating through much needed rest, and seeds concealed within it are undergoing invisible preparation for what will appear to be a sudden miracle come springtime. The seemingly infertile freeze of winter masks what is actually the greatest breeding ground for quiet potential. Unseen processes can yield remarkable, lifegiving growth.

And the same can be true in our offices.

The mad rush of year-end campaigns, budget planning and goal setting that typifies December in the philanthropic and nonprofit world is now behind us. We may be tempted to do a little digging out and then settle back into our old routines. But that would be tragic. The relative calm of this beginning is no time for business as usual.

The calendar’s fresh start holds endless potential. In the quiet of the new year, we have the ability to make seemingly mundane procedural improvements that can potentiate radical improvement that will come to fruition in months and years to come.

This powerful, hidden growth can sometimes be the most powerful kind of growth there is. We often hear about growth in numbers — numbers of dollars, numbers of meeting attendees, numbers of people affected by the programs we fund or run. But the subtler growth I’m talking about comes from the kind of internal stabilizing and strengthening that happens when nonprofit professionals reevaluate and adjust the systems and processes by which we perform our daily work. This nurtures our abilities and strengths in ways that may not be immediately obvious, but ultimately causes massive shifts enabling outcomes we may otherwise only dream of.

An ethos that guides our foundation is that we constantly strive to learn and grow. Though many of our annual goals are linked to measurable outputs, I am convinced that the most important goals we have are those that relate to ongoing internal process improvement. It is through these subtle, sometimes incremental, changes that we fulfill the wise words of my 9th grade science teacher, who wrote me a note on the last day of school saying “Leaps forward are made through little disciplined steps along the way.” And so it is with organizational growth: Our ultimate impact is governed not by our growth in numbers, but by our growth in capability.

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

By Todd J. Sukol
Reposted from Mayberg Foundation Blog
http://www.mayberg.org/new-blog/2018/9/5/embracing-complementary-opposites-learning-when-to-loosen-and-when-to-tighten

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.

Listening for a phrase: Rosh Hashanah 5778

By Todd J. Sukol
As the sun sets on 5777 and final preparations for Rosh Hashanah 5778 are tended to, our attention turns in earnest to the inner work of the coming days and the outlook for the coming year. It is so tempting to use this time of reflection to make a new laundry list of things to work on, new years resolutions as it were. But we know that tiny bits of progress in a multitude of pursuits leaves us feeling empty and accomplishing little. How can we do less and accomplish more in the coming year? What should we be most focused on? What does the world need most from you right now? What is the single biggest contribution you can make to humanity? To the Jewish people? To your community? To your family? To yourself? To your body? Your mind? Your soul? What does G_d want from you above all?

These are questions worth asking over the coming two days of Rosh Hashanah.

For me there is a certain tension between my choice to observe the halachic prohibition against writing during the holidays and my commitment to use the time for personal introspection in service of repentance, renewal and growth. My own approach to the kind of introspective work called for during this season of renewal and repentance almost always includes lots of journal writing as well as prayer and meditation. How can I do the introspective work of Rosh Hashanah without pen and paper in hand? Is the holiday one thing and personal growth another or can traditional Judaism play an integral role in personal growth in an integrated way?

In an age where halacha, Jewish law, is often viewed as anachronistic or irrelevant, I choose to follow it to the best of my ability because I believe in my heart that it matters. Sadly, halacha can at times be observed by rote and become separated from its meaning and deepest value. But uninspired practice is not an indictment of the wisdom of the practice itself. I find that despite my internal resistance, the specific disciplines of halacha, when observed with deliberate intention, often help channel my exertion of effort toward personal and communal growth. Perhaps this Rosh Hashanah can be such an occasion.

My plan for the coming two day holiday is use my time in synagogue to engage in prayer (formal and informal), reading of inspiring material and personal reflection and meditation. Since I won’t be journaling, I’ll have to listen carefully for a common, overarching themes rather than a long list of fixes and resolutions. As I review mentally the past year and rethink my values and priorities, I’ll be opening my ears to G_d, listening for a phrase rather than an essay. Maybe just maybe, I’ll emerge from the process with a singular, simple principle that I can concentrate on in all areas of my life in the coming year.

May it be a year of growth, depth and truth for us all.