Tilling the Soil: An Interview with Allison Fine

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:

  1. Providing training and support for new leaders to serve on the board and on our task forces.
  2. Unhooking ourselves from the assumption that the number of members is the most important measure of our success.
  3. And remembering to have fun together!

You can download and read Allison's full case study here.

 

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. 

 

Becoming the Leader of a Networked Nonprofit: The Jewish Enrichment Center

Right before Thanksgiving, Caren Levine (Darim’s Learning Network lady extraordinaire) suggested that I write a blog post about how we think about out work at the Jewish Enrichment Center as a networked nonprofit. We are not a networked nonprofit, I thought. At least not yet. But now, months later, I can see that we’ve come a long way.

Early in our planning, a few of us read The Networked Nonprofit: Connecting with Social Media to Drive Change, by Beth Kanter and Allison Fine. I was inspired by the book’s vision of a nonprofit that’s connected with its volunteers, transparent in its business, and nimble – able to shift internally, quickly, to meet emerging needs. “Do what you do best, and network the rest,” Kanter and Fine told me. As a startup with limited resources, it sounded heavenly to have a community of volunteers sharing the workload. I was hooked.

But I'm not naturally a network person. I'm the kind of person who reclassifies emails as unread, pretending I’ll answer them someday. At the time I read the book, I had never written a blog post, was never chosen by my family to take pictures (who wants a blurry, back-lit photo?), and couldn’t imagine why facebook was a good use of my time.

But Kanter and Fine had held out this tantalizing vision of what the Jewish Enrichment Center could be, and I was certain we COULD realize it in our community, if only I’d learn some new skills – online and off. So I applied for help through Darim’s Boot Camp. How would my much younger sister-in-law put it? Oh, yeah. Best. Decision. Ever.

Here’s what I’ve learned so far about being a networked nonprofit:

  • Listen. The most important thing I can do is go out and listen, online and on the ground. I’ll find out what people in my community care about. I’ll discover where parents are already online talking with each other, and I can join in the conversation.
  • Permanent beta. It’s a gigantic (and rewarding!) task to create an innovative new model of Jewish enrichment. Our mindset has to be permanent beta: what matters is that we stay true to our vision of partnering with children in Jewish exploration. The logistics of it all – they’re fluid. So we experiment, trying new ways to partner and new online tools to build relationships around Jewish engagement. We embed regular reflection into all aspects of our work. And when something doesn’t work, well, it’s frustrating, but also okay, because we knew from the start that not everything would sparkle. We move forward.
  • Be transparent. Speak authentically. As nervous as I was about opening up our work to the public, creating a blog that details our day-to-day partnership with children may have been the single most important step we took in connecting with our community. Those pictures of children really DO tell a thousand words. Parents, grandparents, folks local and national – all can get a true taste of what it’s like to be part of the Jewish Enrichment Center.
  • Listen harder. Because our deepest human desire is to be seen, to be known for who we are. I want every child, every parent, every person who interacts with the Jewish Enrichment Center to know that their contribution matters.

The response has been extraordinary. It seems that the more we share and the harder we listen, online and in person, the closer people grow to the Jewish Enrichment Center and to each other. When I share our needs or struggles (now THAT took some getting used to), people offer their help. Or at least their empathy, which I appreciate, too. We seem to be developing a communal sense that we’re all in this together. Our success is shared success.

We still have a long way to go. I want to do a better job facilitating relationships around Jewish engagement, and I don’t yet understand how to use our Facebook page and tweets to keep in-person conversations going. I also want us to be braver, making even more parts of our organization transparent. For example, I love this dashboard at the Indianapolis Museum of Art and wonder how we might make our own finances and stats more transparent (and generate a little more financial love in the process).

What have you learned on the path to becoming a networked nonprofit?

Rabbi Rebecca Milder is the Director of The Jewish Enrichment Center, and was a participant in the Social Media Boot Camp for Educators, which is generously funded by The Covenant Foundation.  She tweets at @remilder

Free Agents: Insights from #TakeBackThePink

I had pre-ordered Beth Kanter and Allison Fine’s book, The Networked Nonprofit, and read it within 48 hours of it arriving on my doorsteps. Yet I am amazed by how what I learned from it continues to mature over time, rather than become outdated or irrelevant. Like a good wine or well aged cheese, it just keeps getting better. Of particular interest to me lately is the concept — and value– of free agents.

Free agents are individuals who are working outside of organizations to pursue the mission — organizing, fundraising, energizing. They aren’t on staff, or on the board, or hold any formal volunteer position. They’re just enthusiastic fans who believe in the purpose. In the past, they have been dismissed as either novices who are not committed to working with the system, or risky because they aren’t signed on to “tow the company line” so to speak. In today’s connected world however, each free agent is able to not only spread their message far and wide, but are able to organize and create real impact. While they may believe in the mission wholeheartedly, they also want to be free, creative and engage on their own terms.

The recent Komen/Planned Parenthood debacle provided an interesting experiment through which to reflect on free agents and their work specifically in a fast paced situation. [Note that my participation in this effort was personal, as a free agent, not as a representative of Darim Online. However, I believe that my experience and reflections can provide import insight for the Darim community and thus are worth sharing here.] After hearing the news, my colleague Allison Fine started a Facebook Cause called “Komen Kan Kiss My Mammogram” which has raised over $17,000 as Alison, her friends and their friends passed around the link, enabling people to turn emotional outrage into action. Shortly thereafter, the free agents began to circle and convene. There was a big opportunity to make a difference here. What impact did we want to make, and how would we do it?

Enter #TakeBackThePink, a campaign which, briefly, was designed to highjack the #supercure Superbowl campaign to keep the riled up country focused on taking action to combat the real enemy: breast cancer. We have documented the campaign and our reflections here. Beth Kanter has blogged about it here, Allison Fine here, Amy Sample Ward here, and Lucy Bernholz here. Stephanie Rudat was also a critical member of the team. It was an honor and privilege to collaborate with these brilliant women, and many many others who added their voice, energy, personal stories, heart and brain to the effort too. We were passionate, and we had fun doing it. We were free agents. We were coordinating among ourselves, feeling out emotions, boundaries, strategies, division of labor. And while we were so attentive to each other, we were not also dealing with the politics or policies or pace of any institution. We were free free agents. No strings attached.

At a few points, our potential collaboration with organizations did rise as an option. For example, soon after we clarified that #TakeBackThePink was not anti-Komen but rather pro-women’s health, we sought to spread the word and build partnerships in a way that’s very consistent with our networked approach to working. We learned that Brian Reid had compiled a list of statements from local Komen affiliates in many cases distancing themselves from the mothership, or articulating their freedom to making their own local funding decisions in their region. To me, it seemed quite powerful to align with them — it may have helped add legitimacy to their local brands, and would have helped our message grow roots and spread further. Yet while many of the fighters and survivors (or friends of survivors or victims) in our group felt strongly that Komen funds important research and is not all bad, others wanted nothing to do with Komen. And aligning with us may have been risky for those affiliates as we are (to some degree) unknown free agents, with rapidly evolving goals and approaches, and they were in a risky situation to begin with. As much as our goals may have been aligned, there were too many strings attached for all of us. And in a rapidly moving blitz that was evolving hour by hour across the country, any strings were too much, too slow, too compromising.

The lesson I learn here is that there are different kinds of free agents: regular free agents (those who work fairly independently but in conjunction with organizations) and then there are really free agents who have no organizational alignment whatsoever, but can have massive influence nonetheless. There are also long distance free agents who work on an ongoing basis to make social change, and there are sprinter free agents who pour a ton of energy and time into short term, high impact opportunities to make social change. Interestingly, in the recent Komen uproar, Planned Parenthood found they were long on sprinting really free agents, and it (literally) paid off.

Leaders of today’s organizations should educate themselves about free agents (read The Networked Nonprofit for starters) and think deeply about how to work with free agents on an ongoing basis, and in fast paced environments as well. Millennials in particular are well positioned to be free agents, and as they continue to mature, their modes of engaging and supporting organizations may look more and more free-agent-y. As Ben Wiener said at the 2011 Jewish Future’s conference, “We don’t meet, we tweet.”

Do you think about how you engage with your free agents? What can organizations and leaders do to make their missions and work more free-agent-friendly? As a free agent, what organizations make you feel like you can run and soar? How do others take the wind out of your sails?

Networked Nonprofit Book Club

I pre-ordered The Networked Nonprofit and cracked it open the day I received it last summer. Authors Beth Kanter and Allison Fine are gurus of nonprofit social media and the implications for organizations, and I was eager to continue to learn from them. What I didn’t realize is that the book would provide both conceptual and tactical frameworks for advancing any organization’s work, regardless of where you are starting from. While I’ve recommended the book to many, here at Darim we were eager to really engage with others about what this means for Jewish organizations, their leaders, and the community as a whole. On Monday, we’re launching Darim’s Networked Nonprofit Book Club. Based in the new Facebook Groups, we’ll be posing discussion questions from one or two chapters each week. We hope to learn what you’re thinking, doing, learning, and struggling with. And we hope to learn from each other, help each other solve problems, and also get a sense of where Darim’s efforts could make an important difference for you and others. We’re also learning, as this is our first book club adventure and our first large scale experiment with the updated version of Facebook Groups. So far, 137 people have joined — which has far exceeded our expectations! Even authors Beth Kanter and Allison Fine are on board. We hope the opportunity will help participants learn the “ins and outs” of this new tool along with us, and consider how it can be useful in their communities too. We welcome your input, suggestions and reflections on it — leave a comment here, in the group, or email us at [email protected] to share your thoughts. Want to join us? No cost – just swing on by: http://on.fb.me/netnonbookclub We have posted some initial info and guidelines for the Book Club. In the interest of sharing and encouraging others to experiment with Groups, book clubs, and online community facilitation, we’re posting the information here (see below) and will be sharing updates in future blog posts. Everything on this blog will be tagged "bookclub" and "#netnon". Tweeting? Use #darim and #netnon (which is the hashtag for the book in general). Hope to see you there! It kicks off Monday, though you’re welcome to swing by and join the conversation anytime. How We’ll Work Together We will focus on one or two chapters each week beginning January 10. Each week, Darim staff will kick off the conversation with one or two questions per week that relates to themes in that chapter and implications for Jewish organizations. Together, we will reflect on what that means for our work as Jewish professionals and lay leaders. Respond to our discussion questions by commenting on that post. You can also pose questions to the group, or share links or other information by posting your own status updates to the group. We encourage you to participate in ways that are most meaningful to you. Feel free to jump into – and even initiate – conversations, and to post relevant links and resources to share with the group. If you prefer to dip in and out of the discussions, that’s cool too! There are no preconceived expectations — we want you to learn, experiment, share and connect with others. Tips for Using Facebook Groups Notification settings: BY DEFAULT, You will receive any status that is posted to the group. If you comment on it, you will also receive notifications of any additional comments on that posting. If you’d prefer NOT to receive these notifications, you can click “unsubscribe” next to that specific posting. If you’d like to receive notification about a posting that you haven’t commented on, you can click “subscribe” next to it. To change your default settings, please visit “edit settings” in the top right corner of the group. Adding members: You probably noticed that you can add your Facebook friends to the group if they are on Facebook. Please feel free to add anyone who would like to join – we only ask that you check with them first to see if they are interested. You will find the “Add Friends to Group” link under the Members photos on the right hand column. You can also email them the link to our Group so they can opt in if they’d like. http://on.fb.me/netnonbookclub Group Chat: You can chat with group members who are online in real time by clicking on the “Chat with Group” link under the Members photos on the right hand column or by clicking the tab at bottom of the page. This is a fun way to make a personal connection with others in the group. When the chat box opens, you’ll see photos of group members — those with a green box are currently online. You can elect to have group chat messages sent to you going to “edit settings” and selecting that option. Living Room Policy: While we have very few rules, we do want to make the Book Club experience as fun, useful and efficient as possible for everyone. Thus, we ask you to abide by the Living Room Policy, which is basically this: If I were to invite you into my living room, I would expect you to be courteous and sociable. You are welcome to disagree or challenge me or anyone else, but you must do so respectfully. Also, vibrant discussions require good listening and asking questions or others, not only talking about yourself. Finally, please refrain from using this as a platform for marketing unrelated products or programs. And if you have any questions, please feel free to ask us at [email protected] It may take a little time for you to determine your personal preferences and customize them to fit your needs. Don’t be afraid to take them out for a test ride, tweak as needed, and/or ask us if you need help. Interested in more technical details? You can learn more about Facebook Groups here: http://bit.ly/fvSAor Resources for the Book Club If you have not already done so, please be sure to order your copy of The Networked NonProfit by Beth Kanter and Allison Fine. Here is a link to Amazon: http://bit.ly/aOa6nX And please feel free to view the recording of the recent Darim webinar with Allison Fine and Lisa Colton in which they discussed networked nonprofits and Jewish organizations: http://bit.ly/c8Iudm Are you tweeting? #netnon is the hashtag for the book, and #darim is for our community. Want to learn even more?! Join us at NTC in DC! Join us at NTEN’s annual Nonprofit Technology Conference (NTC). And by “us” we mean a whole bunch of Jewish leaders like you – in addition to the fabulous NTC program (where top notch thinkers like authors Beth Kanter and Allison Fine regularly speak), the Schusterman Family Foundation and Darim Online are hosting a series of events for our members. Click here to learn more about it: http://bit.ly/igDAzB – we hope to see you there!

Need A Hanukkah Gift For Your Boss?

YScreen shot 2010-11-19 at 3.34.26 PMou’re looking for the gift that keeps on giving, right? I’ve got just the thing for you. Pick up a copy of Beth Kanter and Allison Fine’s book The Networked Nonprofit. A fun read with great stories and case studies, this book will help any nonprofit leader better understand the impact and opportunities of working in a networked world. THEN SIGN UP FOR OUR ONLINE BOOK GROUP! That’s right. Starting in January, we’ll be hosting a free online book group to discuss the concepts and their application to our work in the Jewish community. Bonus: experience the joys of the new Facebook Groups feature while you’re at it. You can join the book group now, and we’ll kick off discussion in January. That gives you just enough time to get copies for your co-workers, plus one for yourself, and read it in mid-December while everyone else is still scrambling for that other holiday, or by a cozy fire, or on the beach in Hawaii or where ever you might take a winter vacation… Have you read the book yet? What are you interested in discussing? What ideas grabbed your attention?