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.