I've been following Allison Fine's work for years, and have so enjoyed how our paths have crossed in the Jewish community in recent years. Allison is the author of Momentum: Igniting Social Change in the Connected Age, and co-author (with Beth Kanter) of The Networked Nonprofit. Recently, Allison has been serving as the president of the board at her synagogue, Temple Beth Abraham in Tarrytown, New York. This position has given Allison the opportunity to put her theory into practice, and to examine intimately the potential and challenges of synagogues as networked nonprofit.
As part of our blog carnival on Connected Congregations, Allison has written a very thoughtful case study of her work at Temple Beth Abrahram, exploring what it has taken to lay the groundwork for becoming a networked nonprofit. You can download it here. I had a chance to ask her some questions about it.
1) Why did you write this case study?
The role of temple president is enormously time-consuming and difficult. It's a lot like being the president of a local school board with a lot of constituents, technical issues to wrestle with and a fast changing environment. Except that public schools aren't going out of business and synagogues are struggling to stay in business. I wanted to provide a snapshot of my experiences wrestling with the hard questions of what synagogues will look like ten and twenty years from now within the real and difficult demographic, generational and economic shifts that are threatening our survival. How do we stay relevant and meaningful in the lives of our congregants? How do we meet our financial commitments when the dues model is not sustainable? How do we do what we do best and network the rest?
As the case study outlines, just positioning ourselves to wrestle with these questions has taken up much of my tenure as president. The key lessons so far for me is that when we have the courage to look at our ecosystem through a lens of abundance (people want to support us even if it's not at what we now have as full dues) rather than scarcity (people want to game our dues system) good things can happen, like raising over a million dollars to renovate our sanctuary this past summer for the first time in over sixty years. In the future, we are likely to combine programs with other synagogues and our local JCC over the next few years, we are likely to come up with a more flexible donation system that allows people to stay connected to us after their kids are bar mitzvahed, and we are likely to continue to exist into our twelfth decade, but we will be put together differently. Capturing the beginning of that journey to share with others on the same road is why I wrote the case study.
2) You co-authored the book, The Networked Nonprofit, and clearly have thought a lot about what that means. What's your vision for how synagogues can and should be networked nonprofits?
The biggest challenge for synagogues in this century is undoing the membership model from the last century. There are too many choices for ways to be Jewish today for temples to say that there is only one right way to be a part of our community. Synagogues need to move away from transactions (how many tickets to high holidays have we sold?) and have an unrelenting focus on relationship and community building. We need to strengthen the social ties between congregants, not just between members and the synagogue, and engage in meaningful conversations with them on land and online. Synagogues need to be a part of our lives, not an addition to our lives.
3) In your case study, you talk about how we need to confront congregational culture as a starting point. "... the default settings ... had to change because they did not reflect the reality of the congregation or the spirit of a networked organization. And the change had to begin in the boardroom." Why does the board need to own the responsibility for culture change, and what kind of leader is needed to make that happen?
Boards and clergy are the culture setters in synagogues. Together they determine the values that an organization lives by, which in turn drives the processes. In my case study, this manifested itself in how we treated people asking for financial relief from dues. Are they considered slackers or community members who need our love and care? That determination will create procedures, forms, approaches that make people feel a certain way. The hard work for organizations is identifying and challenging their own assumptions (often old ones that haven't been aired out in a while) about why and how we do what we do to make sure that the systems and procedures that emerge downstream reflect our values.
4) How do you define community in a networked congregation that is different from the traditional approach to synagogue life?
The dues structure itself is at the heart of a lot of the distance congregants feel from their synagogues. It is a bill that people are expected to pay, unless they're struggling and then they have to go through the humiliating process of asking for relief. Everyone should pay their fair share, but they should be treated as adults who can decide for themselves what that amount is, and if synagogues can't make the case that they provide value, that their continued existence is important and relevant to the lives of their congregants, well, then they won't survive. But I think we will, we just have to flex some communication and relationship muscles we've never had to exercise before.
5) What congregations (or other organizations) and/or leaders have you looked to for inspiration and support as you've been pioneering this new approach to congregational life? What have you learned from them that's been applicable to your synagogue?
As we wrote in the Networked Nonprofit, I found the most exciting aspect of this moment in time is that traditional organizations across issues areas, service organizations and advocacy groups, are remaking themselves as social networks. They are taking down the walls and engaging with their communities, building relationships rather than turning the turnstiles of transactions. And synagogues and Jewish day schools are just beginning this process. The most important part of this journey for traditional organizations is for leadership to have the courage to make themselves uncomfortable by working different, more transparently, learning more about what their community wants from them, engaging them as full partners in problem solving, treating them as smart, generous people not names in a database. It's a very exciting time!
6) You've clearly made a lot of progress during your tenure as board chair. What does the congregation need next to continue this trajectory?
I'm not sure where we will be in a year much less three to five years, but I think we've made some progress in changing the relationship between the institution and our membership. The three most important things I see us doing in the future are:
- Providing training and support for new leaders to serve on the board and on our task forces.
- Unhooking ourselves from the assumption that the number of members is the most important measure of our success.
- And remembering to have fun together!
This post is part of a blog series on Connected Congregations being curated by Darim Online in partnership with UJA Federation of New York. Through this series, we are exploring what it means for synagogues to function as truly networked nonprofits. Connected Congregations focus on strengthening relationships, building community, and supporting self-organizing and organic leadership. They are flatter and more nimble, measure their effectiveness in new and more nuanced ways, allocate their resources differently, and use technology in a seamless and integrated way to support their mission and goals. We hope these posts will be the launching pad for important conversations in our community. Please comment on this post, and read and comment on others in the series to share your perspective, ideas, work and questions. Thanks to UJA Federation of New York for supporting this work.
UJA Federation of New York has recently made investments in helping local congregations collect and analyze data in order to make strategic, data-driven decisions about their work and their future. The results of the project have been extraordinary, ranging from leaders learning how they need to collect different kinds of data, to learning how to use databases for more than contact management, as well as how they can shape their programs and culture to build a sustainable future.
Following this important work, which was lead by Measuring Success, SYNERGY at UJA Federation of New York has released a very informative and readable report, which can be downloaded for free on their website. It's worth downloading, and sharing with your synagogue staff and board members. It's illuminating, and accessible.
The congregations in the project helped leaders examine their assumptions not based on anecdotal evidence or gut reactions, but with hard data. In many cases, the difference was profound.
“We had tried social programming in the past but never got the turnout we hoped for, which led us to conclude (wrongly) that people did not want to make social connections through the Religious School. Measuring Success helped us develop a targeted follow-up survey to probe deeper about social connections. That led to an “aha moment” when we learned that people do want to make social connections, they just do not want us to add new events to their calendars. When we realized that, we took steps to build socializing and community-building into existing events," reported Barri Waltcher, Vice President and Chair of Religious School Committee, Temple Shaaray Tefila.
“Our congregation’s leadership engages in ongoing discussions regarding how to best spend our resources to fulfill our mission. I now understand that we have been acting in a bubble, often divorced from the needs, desires, and perspective of our membership," shared Rabbi Michael White from Temple Sinai of Roslyn Heights. They now have greater focus on where they should be making investments to achieve their goals, and ultimately strengthen their financial sustainability too.
On October 17, 2012 leaders from congregations involved in the Sustainable Synagogue Business Models program will be sharing insights from their experience. Learn more about the lunchtime webinar (12pm-1pm eastern) and sign up here.
Over the past six months Matan, founded 12 years ago, launched the inaugural Matan Institutes for Jewish Educators. In March, 18 Education Directors came together for two days of intense learning related to Jewish special education; in August, 40 congregational school teachers spent one day with Matan learning how to make their classrooms accessible to all learners.
What we love about special education is that in actuality, it is simply really good education. Special educators pay close attention to the learning styles of each of their students – whether their preferences are visual, oral, tactile or kinesthetic. These teachers plan their lessons making sure there are elements within that will reach every type of student. In the 21st century classroom, technology is a remarkable tool that helps students access information in the ways that work best for them, often bridging the divide between different types of learners.
And so, when Matan was accepted into Darim’s Boot Camp for Jewish Educators, we saw a remarkable opportunity to combine the best of what special education and technology have to offer. We made a conscious decision to focus our time with Darim on the educators that we train, with a particular eye towards the launch of The Matan Institutes. In so doing, we have had the unique opportunity to model the use of technology with educators looking to increase their skill set for engaging children with special needs, thereby impacting over 8,000 congregational school students across the country. In “social media speak”, Darim and Matan went viral.
Matan modeled various techniques we learned from Darim, and we will continue to do so with future cohorts of educators. Among the most well-received: a thumb-drive for participants containing every presentation, every handout and lists of relevant resources (in addition to printed and screen-projected documents, because every adult also learns differently from one another); the use of Poll Everywhere (never before seen by Matan’s participants and a great way to engage tweens and teens in the classroom); and tweets that highlighted the messages of our nationally-renowned speakers with a much wider online audience.
Perhaps most importantly, we have the opportunity to continue working with these educators through webinars (a skillset learned from Darim), thereby making Matan the first Jewish Special Education organization that provides ongoing support and mentoring to the educators we train. Having the ability to move beyond “one off” professional development sessions provides Matan with the opportunity to truly change the landscape of how children with special needs are included in Jewish education. Thank you, Covenant Foundation! Thank you, Darim!
Meredith Englander Polsky is the Director of Training and Advocacy at Matan, and, along with Orlee Krass, Matan's Director of Education, participated in the Social Media Boot Camp for Educators, which is generously funded by The Covenant Foundation.
Part of the Connected Congregations series
Point of clarification: your list is not a network.
I sometimes hear organizations talking about the number of people they have involved with their work - their network - and then reference the people who have signed up to receive their email updates. That’s great! It’s wonderful that so many people are interested enough in your work and the difference that you’re making that they signed up to get your communications. That can be really important and powerful. It’s just not (necessarily) a network.
Below is a graphic outlining the qualities that make a list a list, and a network a network. Take a look, and think of it as a checklist. Where are you working with lists, and where with networks? What points could you focus on to make your efforts more networked?
Some definitions for the above chart:
Node: A node, or vertex, is any point in a network. It could be a person, place (like a city), or thing (like a computer).
Link: A link, or edge, is what connects two nodes. If the nodes are cities, the links may be something tangible like a highway system. If the nodes are people, the links may be more ethereal, like friendship, family, or professional relationships.
This post is part of an ongoing series on developing a social media policy for your organization. To download the Social Media Policy Workbook for Jewish Organizations, click here.
The phrase “social media policy” tends to bring a couple possibilities to mind:
- a long, legal document gathering dust in a file cabinet along with the other “policies”
- a punitive list of “thou shalt nots” that sucks all the fun out of social networking
Neither option need be the case!
An effective social media policy is a living document, one that gets re-examined in light of new initiatives, new technologies, staff turnover, or just the passage of time. The nature of the social web demands regular reflection and evaluation, an advantage that often gets overlooked in light of the overwhelming speed and excitement of technology. But it is just that frenzy that should move us to think about the digital fingerprint we are creating for ourselves and our organizations. How are we representing ourselves online? Does it reflect who we are - and who we want to be - on-land?
As to the second point - those “thou shalt not” lists - this is where a solid values statement really comes in handy. Social media policies are about setting boundaries, yes, but those boundaries are intended to act the same way as lines on a basketball court or the different variations of movement for chess pieces - they are the guidelines that make play possible, fair, and fun. A social media policy entirely devoted to “how we respond to negative comments” is like a game of soccer where the only rule is “don’t touch the ball with your hands.” Ok, but what CAN we do?
Your values statement is the guide to begin answering this question.
Here’s an example: the Schechter Day School Network recently began answering this question for themselves. Since going through an ambitious re-branding campaign, the schools have begun focusing on their efforts on understanding and engaging social media platforms, and they knew developing a social media policy would be crucial.
One of the values that emerged in the re-branding campaign was curiosity; Schechter schools are devoted to empowering their students to become global citizens, to be as curious about the world around them as the school’s namesake, so it was a natural choice. The teachers and students are already working hard to bring a sense of curiosity into their learning community - how could they bring that same spark of curiosity online?
The schools came up with several ideas they could weave into a policy. They suggested that they could:
- Be curious themselves: This may come through as posting regular questions to their community that demonstrate genuine curiosity.
- Show curiosity in action: Share examples of students’ (and teachers’!) curiosity through pictures or other documentation of the learning.
- Encourage curiosity: Perhaps the schools will use their social media outlets to host contests or scavenger hunts that engage their followers and friends, and get them to begin thinking like the students do every day.
Approaching social media in this way can make a huge impact on how you engage with these powerful tools. What would it mean to literally have a policy of curiosity...or acceptance, or klal yisrael, or transparency, or individuality, or any number of values your organization may hold dear? How would that change the way you think about your role in the world of social media?
The Workbook includes other examples of organizational values and how they can be reflected online. I encourage you to download it, gather your team, begin thinking about how the core values of your organization could be genuinely reflected in the digital world, and let us know how it goes! Let your values show!
(Do you have an organizational values statement? If not, now’s the time! Our partners over at Big Duck have some great ideas about why that’s important, and how you can make it happen.)
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Richard D Solomon, PhD