Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Community is Dead. Long Live Community.

We all know the story. It used to be that the social norm was that you had to belong to a community: a country club, dare I say a synagogue. That was all well and good. But today, everyone has multiple identities, and that means that the idea of "belonging" to one place exclusively (yes, even any one online place) has fallen a bit out of style.

Here's the funny thing, though: we still yearn for community. We rebel against being labeled; against being committed to one place or the next. Yet we can't quell that part inside that wants to feel connected, to be part of something larger than ourselves with shared values and purpose.

At a recent event, I heard someone talk about how, as a teenager, he thought he was going to be connected to the Jewish community as an adult. Now, in his thirties, he looks back and sees that his life has taken different turns. He isn't attracted to the organized Jewish life in his locale. Nor has he really found community of another sort. He seems wistful about this. Clearly, he isn't actively trying to pursue such an elusive concept; indeed, he doesn't know what he could even do, if he wanted to. But, on some level, it seems to bother him.

I feel like a lot of us in my demographic are in this boat. Then again, as I shared at the same event, I happen to be obsessed by the concept of community, and therefore happen to have extremely high, not to mention idealized, standards for what it is supposed to be (which may explain the vicissitudes in my personal attempts to try to find it). I have continued to insist that community is simply a function of humanity - that it is the obvious answer to some of our most basic needs as human beings. How could something like that simply go out of fashion?

But the truth is that lately I have begun to believe that we are just setting ourselves up for failure. Yes, there are those who live in communities that have certain standards in practices, beliefs and patterns of behavior that are universally accepted and observed. For those of us outside such communities, I'd like to argue that it's not just that there are recognized patterns and routines of community which are not observed. It's that they don't even exist anymore to begin with.


Tuesday, September 24, 2013

When a Scarf Should Be a Scarf: Organizations and Network-Weaving

Cross-posted on The AVI CHAI Blog.

Increasing buzz around networks and their power to influence people, draw out passion and excitement, and spread ideas has left numerous Jewish organizations wondering: What bearing do these concepts have for us? And if this is relevant – what should we do?

In the recently concluded network-weaver training pilot HaReshet, I worked with Jewish organizations to explore exactly that. My experiences emphasized the unique nature of established organizations– even those which easily converse with those outside of their walls and are tech- and social media-savvy – when compared with grassroots networks.

Networks surround us, and there are many kinds. Some exist for social and “networking” purposes. Organizations can and do help foster these kinds of networks. However, there is a role for network-weaving as a means to help organizations better achieve their missions. While grassroots efforts can profoundly impact cause-based issues, non-profit organizations play an important and unique role in the Jewish sphere, as well as generally in society. Non-profits are often the most effective way to provide critical social and educational services. They can serve as vital hubs in the community, particularly for the storing and transmittal of information, data, and communal memory. Network-weaving is one strategy that can help organizations not only survive in the networked age, but also actually better serve in these critical roles for our community. But to execute network-weaving effectively, it will have to be approached as is appropriate in an organizational context.

Let’s look at this through a metaphor. Just like the physical act of weaving, network-weaving is made up of lots of different threads (or people), linked together through the purposeful act of weaving (or through forming meaningful relationships) to make a beautiful piece of craftsmanship (or a community). Now let’s say that you are a skilled craftsman embarking on the creation of a new item. What is it going to be? If you are an independent entrepreneur, or if you are weaving for fun, you may start weaving just because you love the thread, without a particular product in mind, and see what emerges as it goes (grassroots weaving). Or, you may head toward a scarf, only to find that the weaving starts speaking to you in a different way and it ends up as a hat. If you are a weaver for a company (or organization) which produces scarves – you probably know all along that the resulting object better be a scarf.

In short, the root of the uniqueness of network-building for organizations is that they are a) mission-driven; and b) go about achieving this mission within an organizational context.

Being mission-driven means that organizations have specific and explicit goals from the get-go as to what their work in the community is seeking to accomplish. For instance, organizational missions represented in HaReshet include: supporting established day schools using online and blended learning (DigitalJLearning) and generating Jewish educational research that is properly funded, beneficial to, and well-used in the field (Consortium for Applied Studies in Jewish Education – CASJE). As with any strategy organizations may be considering, network-weaving should be undertaken only if and in a way that can help achieve their goals.

The necessity to focus on goals and results plays out in what needs to be done to build the network. We all know that relationship-building is time-consuming, and takes time to develop. In a mission-driven organization, time is a precious resource, to be deployed where it will have the maximum impact on generating results for that mission. Therefore, an organization must network-weave in a strategic way. This means focusing relationship-building efforts on those who are both passionate and can most effectively achieve the mission – such as Ramah alumni for Reshet Ramah, Hebrew language teachers for TaL AM, or heads of schools who have participated in the Day School Leadership Training Institute (DSLTI) for the DSLTI alumni network (to use more HaReshet examples).

The fact that the organization should expect and require these strategic efforts to actually lead to results necessitates mission-driven network-weavers to undertake a careful balancing act. They need to engage network members in a way that empowers, excites, and concretely benefits them. At the same time, they must remain focused on the intersection between possible engagement activities and those that will advance the organization’s agenda. If done properly, this kind of network-weaving has the potential to leverage the time, skills, and resources of those outside the organization to achieve more than those inside the organization can currently.

Network-weaving within an organizational context must also contend with a host of questions affecting its process which need to be addressed differently than they would in a grassroots context. For instance, personnel: amongst a staff infrastructure, whose role is it, exactly, to be the organizational network-weaver? In HaReshet, four out of six of the organizations found that multiple staff were implicated and therefore involved a team of two or more in this work. For instance, the Jewish New Teacher Project (JNTP) benefited from the participation of Debbie Feinstein, who has a deep knowledge of the JNTP network from her longtime involvement leading programming, as well as Yael Bailey, who handles its communications and database work. Aside from supporting network-weaving strategies from multiple perspectives, the added benefit of this approach is the ability to apply the concepts of network-weaving to the organization internally: creating opportunities for learning together, information-sharing, and ultimately synergy amongst staff.

Another point of departure from the grassroots perspective is around the issue of trust and control. Organizations build themselves as credible institutions by having high standards and clear messages apparent throughout their work in the community. For network-weaving to help uphold and communicate these messages requires thought about: What will be the approval and oversight process for this work to make sure it stays on message and on mission? What should be the role of leadership? How will metrics be tracked and regularly reviewed in order to determine whether the network-weaving work is actually helping to accomplish the organization’s mission?

Network-weaving can be a highly valuable strategy for an organization to engage and activate people – and achieve concrete results. As with any other strategy, it begs careful consideration in all stages of its planning and implementation. In subsequent posts, HaReshet participants and chevruta partners will be sharing some of the lessons they have learned through this work. I look forward to hearing from others in the field as well as they experiment in this arena.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Network-Weaving: Why You Should Take That Risk

This piece is cross-posted on eJewishPhilanthropy.

In Hayim Herring’s recent article on network-weaving, he suggests organizations take a close look at their mission and governance so as to mitigate the risk that network-weaving will not be successful. I certainly agree that a clear articulation of an organization’s cause can inspire a grassroots network to action. I also agree that the organization’s structure critically informs its work, and – particularly if it is hierarchical – has the potential to be a roadblock to a network’s decentralized, fast-paced efforts.

On the other hand, the fact remains that many large, long-established Jewish organizations serving our community currently do have widely encompassing mission statements, arguably due to their wide-ranging work. Many also do have hierarchies, some as a result of their long histories and the era in which they were founded, or else as a management philosophy. While it is important to be aware of these factors in an organization, this does not mean they cannot benefit from network-weaving.

In HaReshet, a network-weaving training program working with grantees of The AVI CHAI Foundation which I wrote about here, I have spoken of network-weaving as one strategy that can help organizations achieve goals. It need not be employed in all the aspects of their work which are covered in their mission statements. It is rather about unlocking the potential of relationships – of mobilizing volunteers or members – to increase involvement and enrich the results in certain areas of the work. While it is hard to get all constituents excited about everything all the time, it is possible to get constituents passionate about something achievable – and then to achieve it. For instance, HaReshet participant Gary Hartstein at DigitalJLearning – an initiative under the auspices of the Jewish Education Project – has the goal of helping Jewish day schools implement online/blended learning. This goal could be achieved solely through Gary working one-on-one with each school. But Gary is also using networked strategies such as cultivating leadership amongst schools who have useful experiences to share, particularly around a specific topic within online/blended learning.

Likewise, network-weavers need to understand an organization’s overall structure – and to get buy-in for using a networked strategy in a particular area or aspect of the work. It is also critical to build in check-in points where organizations can assess the work and its alignment with the organization as a whole.

While organizational factors may pose risks to network-weaving, I actually find that a major danger to network-weaving is the failure to take the risk to try it to begin with. This idea is described best by Miriam Brosseau, HaReshet chevruta partner (coach) of the Consortium for Applied Studies in Jewish Education (CASJE), and Lisa Colton, chevruta partner of TaL AM, who talk about the concept of “na’aseh v’nishmah,” translated as “We will do, and then we will listen/understand.” Just as the Jewish people accepted the Torah with these words, the best way to learn how to network-weave is probably to dive in and try it yourself. After obtaining the support of your organization, you can start with small, low risk steps at first and evaluate what works, and what does not. Then, you can build on that to understand: Where is your organization’s structure a sticking point for your network, and what can you do to work within that structure to achieve results? What is it about your mission that is most exciting and inspiring to your constituency? While such questions can be discussed in the abstract, the practical reality of engaging in network-weaving may give you the answers you seek. You just need to make sure you keep asking the questions as you engage in the work.

Last week TaL AM – a Hebrew language and Jewish studies curriculum – launched their Facebook group for their curricular users to connect with one another. In one day, they reached 250% of their goal in number of group members. It seems Hebrew teachers are hungry for this opportunity to meet online and share resources with each other – and they wouldn’t have known unless they tried.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Launching HaReshet at AVI CHAI: Pilot Program in Jewish Network-Weaving

This article is cross-posted on The AVI CHAI Foundation blog and on eJewishPhilanthropy.

A year ago, I set out on a journey to understand how Jewish professionals are acting as network-weavers. I started by interviewing trailblazers who are activating their organizations’ constituencies towards common goals. I met community organizers advocating for causes from new educational models to environmental consciousness in the Jewish community. I encountered group facilitators sparking conversation on best practices in using technology in day schools and growing vibrant synagogues. I spoke with those engaging alumni, young Jews, and other target populations to become active, lifelong Jewish learners. Some of these interviews were featured here on eJewishPhilanthropy. These conversations led me to realize that Jewish professionals working with networks in a diversity of settings would benefit tremendously from resources on network-weaving within and beyond a Jewish context – including one another. I first wrote here about the idea of providing this through a training program for network-weavers.
In my role as Director of Communications for The AVI CHAI Foundation, I am creating a laboratory for experimentation around how network-weaving can be applied to improve the effectiveness of Jewish organizations in engaging their constituencies. From November 2012 to August 2013, in HaReshet (“The Network”), a pilot group of AVI CHAI grantees are learning together about network-weaving; developing and practicing skills in a guided and reflective way; and benefiting from sharing lessons with one another along the journey.
Grantees were selected for this pilot program based on two criteria. First, they see the value of their organizations as networks working toward a particular goal. Second, someone is currently on staff with time allocated to work with this network and help it achieve its potential. These criteria match the intention of HaReshet to help expedite the work of organizations who will regardless be exploring the frontier of building networks this year. I am truly excited to be working with the following participants:

HaReshet brings alive a vision of how network-weaving is not just new content to be learned. Rather, it is a mindset and approach, which the program itself embodies. Instead of top-down lectures, blended in-person and online webinars accommodating participants both within and beyond New York City enable the interactive discussion of network concepts. Instead of passive learning, participants are required to actively apply the material through exercises between the monthly webinars.
Also critical to network-weaving is the belief that learning is not unidirectional. As the Jewish chevruta model recognizes, there is tremendous value in learning – and in learning together. This concept is particularly relevant to the emerging field of network-weaving, where some may have more experience in working with networks, but we all stand to learn from one another. In HaReshet, each participant is paired with a chevruta partner experienced in network-weaving who will coach him or her to achieve specific personal and professional goals. Our esteemed chevruta partners are: Miriam Brosseau of The Jewish Education Project/ Darim Online (See3), Caren Levine of Etheoreal, Lisa Colton of Darim Online (See3), Liz Fisher of Birthright NEXT, Naava Frank of YU Institute for University-School Partnership, and Sara Shapiro-Plevan of Rimonim Consulting.
Ultimately, in a woven network, the discrete components add up to a whole which is greater than the sum of its parts. The AVI CHAI Foundation in North America invests in a wide range of initiatives that further Jewish literacy, religious purposefulness, and peoplehood/Israel at Jewish day schools and summer camps. While grantees are united around these three core values, they each represent a different path toward making them come to life. Given that AVI CHAI is sunsetting in 2020, it is especially important to the foundation to leave a legacy of strong organizations that can consciously articulate and promote the values to future generations. Part of this work may be to bring together grantees who perceive themselves as operating in very different contexts and helping them understand the ways in which they are working toward similar goals. HaReshet hopes to enable the individual participating networks to grow and each network-weaver to achieve greater confidence and mastery in acting in this role. It also may be one place where grantees can benefit not only from the value of the program, but also the value of access to one another. In doing so, they may begin to think about how they are a part of and can enhance a bigger picture.
At the same time, I have realized the deep importance not just of network-weaving as a concept, but of the individual network-weavers themselves. Their skills, personalities, and dedication greatly influence the ways their networks develop, and are in many cases what enables their networks to take off. I am privileged to work with and learn from so many passionate and talented network-weavers, and look forward to what we can achieve together.
Deborah Fishman is Director of Communications at The AVI CHAI Foundation.