Philadelphia — Andres Spokoiny, who was tapped this week to become the next president and CEO of the Jewish Funders Network, says he would like nothing less than to change the narrative of the Jewish people.
Introduced to the 325 attendees at the two-day annual conference whose theme this year was “What’s Your Story? The Power of Narrative to Drive Change,” the current CEO of the Jewish Federation in Montreal said in an interview Monday that “our story is no longer about kinship or the Holocaust; it’s not about the past.
“It’s about the future,” he said. “It’s about changing the world.”
Spokoiny’s more immediate goal, though, is to receive a U.S. visa to allow him to work in the U.S., and then to set about on an “active listening” campaign, meeting and talking with leaders and members of JFN, an organization “dedicated to advancing the quality and growth of Jewish philanthropy,” according to its website, and made up of independent philanthropists, and foundation trustees and professionals.
Largely unknown to the membership of JFN, Spokoiny, 42, is an outgoing, energetic man with a quick smile and a wide range of interests. He has experience in business, Jewish education and international Jewish affairs, and is fluent in English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Hebrew and Yiddish.
Spokoiny was chosen to succeed Mark Charendoff, who stepped down at the end of 2010 after nine years at the helm of JFN, widely credited with helping it expand into a major international organization with offices in New York, California and Israel.
At the opening plenary on Sunday afternoon, Spokoiny said he was “honored and humbled” to be chosen for the top professional spot, and pledged to lead the much-needed process of change in a post-modern world.
He said JFN is poised to play a major role in “shaping Jewish history and defining the future” by first exploring its core values, asking questions and “challenging our limits rather than limiting our challenges.”
In the interview, Spokoiny said that although he was born in Argentina under a repressive military government, the local Jewish community was “a vanguard of innovation.” With assistance from the community, he attended Jewish schools and received a bachelor of arts degree from the Conservative Rabbinical Seminar in Buenos Aires and a master’s of business administration from the University of Buenos Aires. He worked for IBM before becoming a regional director for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee in Paris for 12 years, and then taking on the professional leadership of the Jewish Federation of Montreal two years ago.
Along the way he did post-graduate work at Hebrew University’s Melton Center in Jerusalem.
Attending his first JFN conference, Spokoiny said in the interview he was impressed with the collegiality of the members and “the free exchange of ideas.” He noted that there was little if any mention at the conference of the word “crisis” in discussing the economic and philanthropic situation.
That was a healthy sign, he said, a recognition that “this is the new reality.” He and others here noted that there has been an increase in collaboration among funders as a result of the recession.
“The last couple of years have been tough for Jewish philanthropy,” he said. “We are seeing a return to normal, but it’s a different normal,” a recognition that the heady days of financial hubris are gone. He added that “the economic crisis humbled us in a good way,” with funders still willing to risk failure but now using “more discipline, measurements and clear objectives.”
Spokoiny said he sees his role as “a catalyst, to hasten and facilitate the process” in a proactive way in working closely with funders.
While noting the large attendance at conference sessions on new media and technology, he said areas that could use more attention include follow-up efforts to engage young people returning from Birthright Israel trips, involvement for baby boomers who will be retiring but still living long, productive lives and programs for people with disabilities.
Spokoiny talked of JFN becoming “a vector of change in the Jewish world” in helping to achieve the larger vision of creating a community of “inter-connectedness, compassion and creativity.” He would like to see the network become more global, attracting Jewish funders in Australia, South Africa and European countries.
He is set to leave his post at the Montreal Federation in June and is hopeful he will receive his visa to allow him to begin work at JFN by then.
A highlight of this year’s conference was the opening plenary talk by communications expert Andy Goodman on the importance of storytelling as a powerful tool in fundraising. He asserted that personalizing the narrative is far more effective than presenting numbers and statistics, and that leaders must be able to convey three stories: why am I called to this work; how is my cause your cause, too; and why inaction is no longer an option.
Picking up on the theme, a Monday morning plenary featured four panelists who were asked to discuss “the power of narrative to drive change.”
Lisa Eisen, national director of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, described how Lynn Schusterman conveys her own story of how she became involved in Jewish philanthropy, listens to people she wants to serve (with an emphasis on youth), and combines compassion with data and hard facts in making decisions.
Lisa Lepson, executive director of the Joshua Venture Group, spoke of some of the successes of young social entrepreneurs whom the group supports.
Guy Rolnik, founder and editor of The Marker, an Israeli business publication, showed a clip of a fascinating interview he had last week in a car ride in Korea with Warren Buffet, who asserted that in some ways it is more difficult to succeed at philanthropy than business. But Rolnik then went on at length to promote The Marker’s business conferences in Israel that seek to promote public sector involvement.
Frank Luntz, a communications expert, offered an aggressive critique of Israeli hasbara in getting its message across, noting that the first official communiqué from Jerusalem after the flotilla episode was that “the current regime over Gaza will be maintained.”
He offered up lists of phrases that are effective in telling Israel’s complex story, and told of a focus group session in which Jewish students from Harvard and MIT sat in silence, unable to counter charges by pro-Palestinian students aimed at Israel.
“If we’re all doing such a great job [of promoting Israel], why are we losing our young people?” he asked.
For more reporting on the Jewish Funders Network conference, check Gary Rosenblatt’s blog on our website, www.thejewishweek.com.