Home / News / LocalRSS Feed
MJF to shift roles after Strategic Action Session
September 1st, 2011
Following an intense period of study and discussion, the Milwaukee Jewish Federation will shift to a support role, acting as convener and consultant to the people, agencies, and organizations of the Milwaukee Jewish community as they work to meet the community’s evolving needs.
To bolster its success in this new role, MJF will continue and enhance its functions of identifying community needs and fundraising to meet those needs.
This change in direction for MJF was an outcome of its Strategic Action Session (SAS), held Aug. 2-3 at Congregation Sinai. The SAS was a culminating event in MJF’s Reimagining Project, inaugurated last April.
While the Jewish Community Summit, held at the Milwaukee Public Museum June 26-27, worked to ascertain the community’s hopes and dreams for its own future, the SAS focused upon restructuring the MJF itself to better serve the community in achieving its aspirations.
“We did not get that far, to have a detailed, definitive plan,” said Sheryl Primakow, now MJF interim executive director, in a telephone interview Aug. 5. “But we did get clear direction — seeing Federation as a support for the community.”
Less clear, however, was how MJF fundraising might change to accommodate its new role.
“MJF will continue its focus on financial resource development to meet community needs now and for the future,” Primakow said.
“There was strong consensus at both the Summit and the SAS that endowment development is critical for the future financial security of our community and should be a strong focus of the Federation's work,” she continued. “Annual giving was also seen as important, along with developing a new fundraising model that will address annual needs, long-term sustainability and emergency needs.”
“We spent time exploring fundraising models and looking at different ways organizations raise money,” said Daniel Bader, a member of the Reimagining Project’s sponsor team and one of the SAS participants, in a telephone interview Aug. 3. He said that there will be no immediate change in MJF fundraising.
Primakow said the Federation’s move to the new support role means both narrowing and broadening its focus.
“We now try to do as much as we possibly can for the community,” she said. “In one sense, we need to narrow our focus, and not spread ourselves so thin that we can’t carry out our functions well.”
“In another sense,” she continued, “we need to broaden the focus to be inclusive and supportive” of the entire community.
The 19 initiatives that emerged from the Milwaukee Jewish Summit, “told us the extent of the outreach the community is looking for,” Primakow said. The proposed initiatives can be found online at www.thejewishsummit.org.
Primakow said that while the MJF will not undertake all the work required on the initiatives themselves, it will provide guidance and support in the process of bringing them to fruition. MJF will perform the role of “caregiver,” she said.
Key to the organizational transformation sought by MJF was the ability of the 44 SAS participants to open themselves to new ways of thinking about how the Federation might do its work.
“Typically, people want to make changes based on what they already know,” said Leslie Marquard of Marble Leadership Partners Inc., Chicago, a consultant to the Reimagining Project, in a telephone interview April 4. “We intentionally design exercises that take them away from what they know, to force them to think differently.
“At the SAS, we [divided the 44 participants into smaller groups, and] asked each group to design an MJF based on a different organizational model.”
For example, one group was instructed how a venture management company conducts its business, and was then asked to design an MJF that worked that way. Another was asked to apply the consulting firm model; and another was to design an MJF according to a media firm model.
“It was one of the most important exercises we did — I loved it,” said Andrea Schneider, a member of the Reimagining Project’s sponsor team, in a telephone interview Aug. 5.
“My group had to see Federation as a design firm,” she said. “That led us first to outline Federation’s products and services, and then to ask the question, ‘Who are Federation’s customers?’ We identified its customers as the agencies, the donors, the community, Israel and Jewish communities abroad.
“To me, it was an ‘aha’ moment. I said to myself, ‘Oh, yes, we could structure Federation this way.’”
The exercise “forced you to look at old ideas through new lenses,” said Jerry Benjamin, MJF president, in a telephone interview Aug. 3. “It was a fresh look at the (MJF) organization on every level you can imagine. And it was creative people taking that look.”
Marquard emphasized the need for flexibility as MJF begins to take on its new role. She said the SAS participants came to realize that the old pattern of creating a goal and then “going for it,” was no longer a relevant approach.
The new process, she said, would instead involve moving forward by “taking a step into the unknown, finding if you like it — if it’s doing what you want it to do, then making adjustments, ultimately even choosing to embark on a different path.”
She called this “evergreening,” a process in which the community participates, and in which its feedback is sought and taken into account all along the way.
Primakow said it would be a challenge to make this process “a core part of how we operate.”
“We need to give ourselves permission to fail,” she said. “I think we won’t fail a lot, but if that happens, we need to look at it as learning. You move to do something new; you learn from that; you move again.”
Benjamin confirmed that SAS participants agreed with the importance of bringing the community into the process of deliberating about and participating in changing approaches to meeting community needs.
“We want to remain open to fresh ideas,” he said, “and convening the community [to elicit those new ideas] can be built into the Federation of the future.”
Schneider suggested that social media, like Twitter and Facebook, might prove useful. “It could be a way of listening to the community,” she said, “of hearing from the community and gathering information on the ideas that are out there.”
Schneider also envisioned other possible initial steps that might be taken to open communication between MJF and the community.
“Federation might restructure its relationships with the agencies — both its constituent agencies and agencies outside the organization — by having conversations with them on how Federation can best serve them,” she said.
“We could also work more closely with congregational rabbis, assisting in thinking about their projects. And we could keep up an ongoing effort of outreach to those in the community who are unaffiliated or uninvolved — reaching out to anyone who self-identifies as Jewish.”
Bryan Coffman is director of InnovationLabs LLC, based in Orlando, Fla., a second firm consulting on the Reimagining Project. In a telephone interview Aug. 4, he said he felt optimistic that the MJF could handle the task of continuing its current operations, while introducing new ideas and ways of working, and making the transition from old to new.
He said he had been impressed by the ability of the participants in the Reimagining Project to hold strong views, and still be accepting of change — not common in his 25 years of experience doing this kind of work.
“They were impressive in the depth and breadth with which they allowed themselves to think,” he said of the participants. “As far as I could see, there were no hidden agendas.”
Coffman said that although those involved in transforming MJF now had to figure out exactly what to change, it was important that they recognize they have the skills and abilities to embrace change.
“They understand that effective change does not come from rushing through it with abandonment,” he said. “But they also know that there’s no shying away from it, either.”
Coffman also emphasized that “once you start down the path of change, it’s most important to retain the ability to re-adapt along the way. That’s the hard part.”
Range of participants
Reimagining Project chair Judy Guten, in a telephone interview Aug. 4, characterized the SAS as “a bold two days.” She said participants confronted their disagreements, in many instances through “passionate conversations,” and “worked through their differences.”
Guten said she appreciated the diversity of the group of 44 SAS participants.
“There were representatives of a range of age groups [18- through 79-year-olds attended] and of every level of [religious] practice,” she said, “and they stayed with it, from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. both days. They took it seriously because they knew it would affect them and [for many] their children.”
Brian Schupper, 38, was one of the younger SAS participants. He said in a telephone interview Aug. 4 that he saw the group as a cross-section of the Milwaukee Jewish community and “a cross-section of experience.”
“Levels of involvement differed, from none to deep involvement” in Federation and the community, he said. “And this made for rich conversation.”
Schupper said he feels “extremely optimistic” about the prospects for the project’s success because “it was not about individuals — everyone was willing to examine what we need to do for the community.”
In a telephone interview Aug. 4, Sarah Hwang, 40, another of the younger participants, said she viewed SAS as taking the community’s dreams and “providing a road map” for moving the dreams closer to reality.
“Change will take the form of small steps at first, many of them not truly transformative,” she said. “But transformation will come, and the community will be involved. Federation is there to empower the community to help make change happen. I would love to stay involved.”
Ginny Gendelman, who said in a telephone interview Aug. 3 that she had not, until recently, been involved in the MJF, expressed a positive view of her participation in the Milwaukee Jewish Summit and the SAS.
“It was very successful,” she said, referring to the SAS. “It’s very exciting to be a part of this — to be in it at the beginning of change.”
Benjamin observed that the older, more involved SAS participants, such as himself, Mark Brickman, Betsy Green, Judy Guten, and Gerald Stein were also clearly “open to change and willing to embrace it. We were serious about expecting real structural change.”
Dreams to reality
Guten emphasized the importance to the SAS of the prior foundational work, including the collection of data on the hopes and dreams of the local Jewish community, both through cascading appreciative inquiry (AI) interviews and discussion among community members at the Milwaukee Jewish Summit.
The strategy employed to keep the hopes and dreams of the Milwaukee Jewish community in the forefront of SAS participants’ minds was continuous reference to the 32 “dream statements” from the Summit.
“When we walked into [Congregation] Sinai’s social hall [for the SAS], there they were, all the dream statements put up on the back window,” Bader said. “We read them all, and then referred back to them throughout the two days.”
Bader said there was a prevailing sense that a newly-conceptualized Federation “needed to reflect the common themes in the dream statements.”
Those themes included the hope for an inclusive Jewish community that would foster open and effective communication, not only among Jews of different social and cultural backgrounds, but also between Jews and non-Jews, and among the various institutions of the community, such as the schools and synagogues.
The statements emphasized the importance of education. They called for volunteer and mentoring opportunities; support for all aspects of family life; legal and financial services for those unable to afford them; and recognition and respect for the talents of individual community members. They shunned the lack of financial resources as a barrier to participation in the community.
They also called for support of Israel, including a wish that the community provide educational, camping, and travel experiences there for its young people.
From the dream statements, and the initiatives to which they gave rise, “we heard loud and clear what people in the community cared about,” Guten said.
Marquard said she thought MJF was fortunate in its leaders, calling Primakow “the right leader for the right time.”
Primakow was named MJF interim executive director after Richard H. Meyer’s resignation from that position was announced July 28. Meyer had served MJF in the executive role since 1989. Primakow took over his duties on Sept. 1.
Marquard said it was clear to her that Primakow thoroughly understood the process and the objectives, and was well-equipped to lead MJF’s transformation.
Said Marquard: “Sheryl is open and honest. She is not rattled by the process. I saw her take flight at those sessions, and I saw 44 people supporting her.”
Primakow said that among the top items on her current agenda was to work with MJF staff members to effect a change in thinking.
“The process of change requires us to engage in rethinking our own attitudes about how we do our work,” she said. “How do we communicate, listen, and partner — how does each one of us begin to think differently.”
She envisioned this rethinking as a process that will engage staff members through this year, and said the important message was “not to be afraid of change, but instead to embrace the excitement of change.”
Primakow acknowledged that the details of how best to engage the community still needed to be worked out.
“We have described our role as convener, consultant and supporter of the community,” she said. “But we need to further examine what it means to convene. Do we have gatherings around topics with community groups on a regular basis? What should conversations with our constituent agencies, as well as outside agencies and organizations such as synagogues, look like?”
In this sense, the work of effecting change is just beginning. Benjamin said it would not happen overnight.
“But we’ve recognized the need for MJF to be welcoming and to engage with the community, and we’ve emerged from this reimagining process with rich veins of creative ideas,” he said. “We can now pick it all up and run with it. We can and will change the organization and the way it understands and responds to the community.”
Benjamin said he saw the SAS as having “provided material, energy, determination, optimism, and belief in the future and in the ability to move forward.”
“We’ve started our engines,” he said.
Lynne Kleinman, Ph.D., a retired teacher and journalist, is currently working with a group developing “Jewish Neighbors in Wisconsin: A Web-based Curriculum,” a project of the Wisconsin Society for Jewish Learning, Inc.