In the old days, that is, until about a decade ago, when people wanted to do contribute good to society they looked for a non-profit organization whose work appealed to them. They volunteered for a project or committee, and veteran volunteers mentored them about how the work was done. If they were passably good at their volunteer service, they would move up the ranks, possibly even becoming president. They might repeat this pattern over the course of a lifetime, serve several organizations and, in turn, “teach the ropes” to new volunteers.
In this model of involvement, there was a right way and a wrong way to get things done and one year’s program often served as the next year’s template. This pattern of involvement created predictability for organizations but, over time, unresponsiveness in addressing new community problems.
This serial pattern of lifelong involvement was widespread in the Jewish community, and I still observe some baby boomers in my own community continuing it. For example, there was frequent overlap between those who volunteered for federations and Jewish Community Centers or synagogues and Jewish camps. Organizations often recruited successful volunteer leaders from other organizations into their ranks, a logical practice but one with positive and negative benefits. On the one hand, organizations were more secure in knowing that someone with trusted leadership experience would act responsibly. Yet, this informal rotation of leaders from one organization to the next created the appearance of a privileged club and also fostered a narrower sense of communal vision.
But the days when individuals became leaders of one established organization after another are coming to an end. When Gen Xers and Millenials identify an issue they want to get involved in, they don’t perceive a need to work through a volunteer organization. And why would they? They know how to be their own marketers, fundraisers and communicators, and they can mobilize a global community around an issue on their terms and time frame.
An outstanding book by Beth Kanter and Allison H. Fine captures this shift in how younger generations volunteer and work; it is appropriately titled, “The Networked Nonprofit: Connecting with Social Media to Drive Change.” Just imagine how the next generation will be able to apply social media tools that are native to them to help contribute good to the world.
Boomers at least have feelings for Jewish organizations. They aren’t always positive, but when boomers talk about them, they evoke some emotion. With younger generations, Jewish organizations don’t elicit a response because they are often just plain irrelevant to them. They have no need for them because they are empowered to act individually by the web and social media.
Having lived in the interactive era of Web 2.0 for not quite a decade, we have an understanding about the nature of online community, the need for a vital organizational web presence and the requirement of interactive and dynamic communication with constituents. While still in its early evolutionary stages, I’d like to suggest that we are already in transition to a Web 3.0 environment. Web 2.0 meant that Jewish organizations needed to replicate their bricks and mortar presence online. Bricks and mortar and bytes and click ran parallel to one another. Web 3.0 means that defining principles of online social media, like collaboration, co-creation, improvisation and empowerment must now be practiced in the physical world. In other words, the characteristics of the web that enable individuals to self-direct their lives must now flow back into all organizational spaces: in someone’s home, on the web or inside institutional walls. This is definitely another paradigm shift for organizations.
What are some of the implications for Jewish organizations? A Web 3.0 environment demands that leaders possess an exceptionally crisp understanding of their purpose, their capabilities and the values that inform their work. Because unlike boomers and older generations, today’s and tomorrow’s generations expect to self-direct all aspects of their lives. They often believe that there’s a better way to take care of business then by respectfully following the status quo, and they are often correct. So if Jewish organizations hope to have even a chance of tapping into these generations, they will have to know their mission well and then make space for younger volunteers to work in the way that they are accustomed.
With 5773 nearing, it’s natural for those of us who live and breathe Jewish community to reflect on how to engage younger generations not just in episodic causes but also in a deeper, consistent life of Jewish community. I still believe and hope that younger generations will come to appreciate that while they have the power to perform tremendous individual good, the impact of collective action transcends what they can accomplish on their own. That’s why it’s worth asserting the value of community, as national leaders like UJA-Federation of New York’s CEO, John Ruskay, continues to do. Time will tell whether younger generations will reach this conclusion. But at a minimum, those of us who have been around for some time can recognize that we’re in the early stages of the next organizational shift and lead by embracing it.
Rabbi Hayim Herring is CEO of Herring Consulting Network, a firm that “prepares today’s leaders for tomorrow’s organizations by advancing future oriented solutions for nonprofit leaders. He recently authored “Tomorrow’s Synagogue Today: Creating Vibrant Centers of Jewish Life,” published by The Alban Institute.