Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Collective Impact in Jewish Life

I spoke with a great teen today, Jessie, for a BBYO project I get to evaluate. As she described what Judaism means to her, she emerged as uniquely articulate about her Jewishness. Her answers were precise, complex. She described programs that she had planned for BBYO. They were creative and educational, not unlike programs I had planned as a Jewish educator, but when I was a decade older. Jessie shared that she went to Jewish summer camp. Of course she did, I thought. Of course she did. I can't know that her camp experience elevated and prepared her for her BBYO experience, but I would not be surprised if it is the combination of these experiences, the synergy of each playing off the other, that helps Jessie's ideas to be so mature.

When I was in the planning department of a large-city Jewish Federation, I was involved in supporting a number of remarkable investments in Jewish education, working on congregational education, and overnight camping, and day school subsidies, and the engagement of Jewish teens, and more. Each project was creative, valued by stakeholders, and possibly even effective. Still, we approached each area discretely, as a disparate activity, even while one learner or one family could have been involved in many of them. It was up to the learner, the family, to negotiate the varied approaches that different organizations took, to find Jewish activities, to translate the ways that each organization considers Jewish life and living. But this might have been, might still be, too much for uninitiated (or even initiated) Jewish learners. To begin to build bridges among our projects, to make this easier for potential participants. we began an educational havurah, a community of practice where we traded ideas, discussed goals, and tried to create a common language. It wasn't easy to bring together the organizations' executives, and some sent others in their stead. Still, I knew we had something special when one Executive Director - one who sent her assistant director to the meetings - shared with me that she had been taking time to read the meeting summaries and that she appreciated them. Something sticky, something interesting, was happening when we got together. Something valuable. But when I left Federation, the project left with me. At the time, non-profit practitioners weren't rewarded for this kind of work. We were fitting it in, in between the effort we made toward the successes that counted in annual reports. It was easy to let this relationship-building and community-building exercise go.

Jewish education is quite the loosely coupled system. (I love this graphic of loosely coupled systems.) Jewish educational organizations are not connected immediately or directly, and we cannot facilitate change in the system by legislating it from a supervising organization. But educational organizations are still unified into a system: by common resources (Torah) and practices, by common clients who move from institution to institution, by common practitioners who also move among settings. Learners and practitioners bring expectations and ideas from one place to the next. They talk with each other, sharing ideas. Moreover, the same future awaits us all: If North American Jewish life grows, so does each of our programs. If it fails, so does each of our programs.

Still, the institutions themselves are not coordinated. It is perhaps not news to suggest that most of the time, actors in the Jewish educational space do not behave as though we have one fate or one body of work. Too often, instead, we are competitive for participants, funds, and mindshare, as though any of these things is limited, as though participants and learners win - gain something - by participating in only one of our organizations.

A midrash (Leviticus Rabbah 4:6), a Biblical commentary, relates:
Rabbi Simeon Bar Yohai taught: This may be compared to the case of men on a ship, one of whom took a drill and began boring a hole beneath his seat. His fellow travelers said to him, "What are you doing?" He replied to them, "What does that matter to you, am I not boring under my own place?" They said, "Because the water will come up and flood the ship for us all!"
We are, literally, in the same boat. We have an opportunity to rise together when we share participant lists, piggyback on each other's projects, or create a series of opportunities that are married together. I recently received my son's first PJ Library book, related to Tu B'Shevat. I sat reading it to my son (he chewed on it, but I'm pretty sure he was listening raptly) and realized that we should totally celebrate Tu B'Shevat as a family - we should go hiking, or create a family seder, and one day go on a tour of our local recycling plant. I got excited about the holiday. I wasn't before. What if there had been with the book an invitation to a JCC event, or a sample seder for doing at-home, or a reminder of our local minyan's Tu B'Shevat dinner? There are reasons that this idea is complicated - a book is less threatening than an invitation to an event, and we want to lower barriers for people, not raise them - but we have let excuses like this get in the way of real collaboration for too long.

Philanthropic advisors have developed a language that frames this idea of the communal whole being greater than the sum of its organizational parts. Collective impact work is happening in some places in Jewish educational life (namely, the Jim Joseph Foundation's funder collaborative supporting Jewish teens) but from my perspective, we can't talk about it enough. In the spaces in between organizations and practitioners lies the synergy that we need to help Jews be maximally engaged in Jewish life, moving seamlessly from one opportunity to another, the collective opportunities constituting a robust, not an episodic, Jewish life.

Through empirical research, conditions have been identified under which collective impact initiatives thrive. The infrastructure that's needed - a backbone organization, shared measurements, mutually reinforcing activities - might be a long-term agenda for Jewish education, requiring trust, relationships, and even infrastructure that cannot be legislated or built overnight. In the short-term, we can learn from the ideas that ground collective impact: that it will take an interconnected web of organizations to create real change, that the work of engaging Jews in Jewish life belongs not to one organization but to many.

We can also, in the short-term, start to talk about collective impact and its implications for Jewish organizational life, getting used to the idea of collaboration, breaking down barriers. Imagine a project, a conversation among community agency and program leaders, that explores any of the following:
  • What is your operating definition of Jewish education? How does that definition differ across community agencies and programs?
  • What is the total Jewish educational experience you hope individuals and families have in your community? How can that experience be seamless?
  • What are the potential connections among Jewish educational opportunities that could exist in your community?
  • How do learners move from opportunity to opportunity? Do they have enough knowledge to move fluidly? Does each opportunity launch them into new opportunities, into more?
  • Can the curricula of different organizations complement other curricula? How?
  • What kinds of guidance can you offer learners as they try to negotiate the Jewish educational landscape in your community? What might a concierge offer learners and families? (See this program in the Bay Area and this program in New Jersey.)
  • What would the process of building a collective impact project in your community look like? What would your goals be? What stakeholders would be involved?
  • What are your shared measures of success?
Collective impact can begin to be constructed. Organizational leaders can start talking, even generally and without seeming deliverables, in order to develop trust, a common language, and a sense of mutual purpose. We can create psychic rewards for such collaboration, even actual rewards, and even if the immediate results are not obvious.

We often bring institutional loyalties into our work and tend to see strategies as organizationally bound. The real potential of collective impact likely will come in the ways that we co-sponsor, and partner, and contribute our best resources toward joint projects. And it will come when we begin to ask different kinds of questions, when we see the unit of change, our focus or our project, as the learner and not the organization, and all players around the table as being present to serve the learner together. It will come as we together begin to take collective responsibility not for our programs but for a robust Jewish experience for all Jews.

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