Op-Ed: Groups have options to secure their future

JERUSALEM (JTA) – There is hardly a Jewish organization that has been left untouched by the recent economic downturn. The dearth of philanthropic dollars coupled with a drop in fee for service revenue has forced many organizations to evaluate their situations and often make radical plans for the future.

In choosing their future steps, two approaches have emerged. The first calls for “demolition” and radical innovation; the second calls for “renovation.”

The first approach was articulated recently by a number of community stakeholders who believe that the future of a vibrant Jewish community lies in the promotion of innovative start-ups that can provide goods and services in a much more economic manner, giving far greater accessibility to the target market.

The champions of this approach believe that the economic downturn is an opportunity to re-evaluate the community structure and make the necessary organizational changes that will guarantee the future of the Jewish people.

In contrast, the second approach believes in building upon the current infrastructure. Renovation calls for changes that will make the structure far more accessible and productive without destroying the historical foundations. In this approach there will be cutbacks in staff and a redefinition of staff positions. Furthermore, junior personnel may be employed at the expense of veteran high-wage earners, thereby lowering personnel costs of the organization.

The two options are encountered by Jewish day schools, which feel pressured to decide whether they will close departments or modify current ones; by JCCs, which must decide whether they will close their educational departments or refurbish them; and by Jewish federations, which similarly must decide whether they will close their bureaus of Jewish education or reorganize and modify their functions.

What considerations should the organizations contemplate if they decide to choose between the two approaches? The first may solve the problem of today, a saving of budget dollars and hold a promise for a few years time. However, given the vacuum, meeting the needs of tomorrow is in peril. Furthermore, there is no guarantee that the innovative solutions will be effective.

In addition, the organizations must bear in mind that innovative organizations require long-term funding commitments to enable them to pilot and fail in order to ultimately succeed.

The second approach may only partially solve the budget problems of today, yet has the potential to guarantee tomorrow since the core infrastructure has the know-how to deal with future challenges. However, in adopting this approach the organization may be compromising an opportunity to pilot an innovative process that can guarantee its future.

In deciding between the two approaches, many organizations consider first and foremost their financial ability and the needs of the target market. It is critical that a third variable be considered as well, i.e. the dearth of qualified Jewish personnel who comprise our “Jewish civil service.” Our ability to surmount this crisis ultimately will depend on the professionalization, passion and commitment of our personnel.

Those who adopt the demolition and innovation solution will stand to lose top-quality workers who may be forced to leave the Jewish civil service in order to survive financially. However, it must be acknowledged that if we forsake innovation, we may miss the opportunity to recruit highly creative personnel who are knocking on our doors because they have been locked out of other sectors that also are facing a financial crunch.

There is a third approach that is worth consideration — “conservation.” This approach calls for increased staff dedication and decreased compensation, and as opposed to the other two approaches calls for retaining all personnel. Those who follow this approach believe that the economic challenges are temporary and the challenges of survival and consolidation are paramount.

In the belief that the current work force is the “A team,” proponents of conservation will do everything possible to retain their current staffs. This will require a commitment of dedication by staff members to work far above their current work quota, to be flexible in the tasks they are asked to perform, and to reduce salaries and expenses. This approach nurtures a high level of staff morale, enabling the organization to stretch itself to the full in this time of economic crisis.

In navigating between renovation and innovation, it is important that Jewish organizations consider conservation. This approach has the potential to weather the storm of today and to guarantee tomorrow. Its proponents believe that when we reach calmer waters, we will be able to seriously contemplate the future.

(Dr. Jonathan Mirvis is a lecturer at The Hebrew University’s Melton Centre and teaches social entrepreneurship to MBA, nonprofit management and education students.)

 

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