By Laura Porter
WORCESTER – Sometimes the best way to move forward is to stop and take a look around.
It’s a simple but clear explanation of the strategic planning process in which the Jewish Federation of Central Massachusetts is currently engaged.
“All Jewish organizations and Federations around the country are asking the same questions at the same time,” says Natalie Rudolph, president of the JFCM Governing Board and chair of the strategic planning steering committee. “How do we continue to serve the Jewish community and keep it relevant?”
In any healthy organization, strategic planning is an ongoing process, and the present endeavor is essentially a continuation of an assessment that began in 2005 and was updated in 2012.
A year ago, Rudolph asked her immediate predecessor as JFCM president, Howard Fixler, to chair a committee that would review the remaining priorities from 2012.
“We looked at how to fund them, what was going to be the economic engine, and the methodology for raising money,” says Fixler, whose group worked from March to September 2014.
“We asked, ‘once we define three-to-five year priorities, what would the organization’s structure be? What would we look like as a Federation if we were to do these things?’” The intention in this first phase of the strategic planning process was to sketch broad strokes rather than to determine specific details.
His committee’s work resulted in a report to the JFCM board in December that presented three “high-level recommendations,” he says.
They were: 1) To devote more attention and focus on the general topic of financial resource development, or FRD. In other words, says Natalie Rudolph, to examine “more broadly how we raise the money we need to look after the Jewish community;” 2) To look at how JFCM can use new relationships and partnerships with other organizations in the community and other federations nearby to deliver essential programming as effectively as possible; and 3) To explore the possibility that JFCM might need a new organizational structure – or changes in its existing organizational structure – to facilitate whatever recommendations come out of Phases 1 and 2.
Taken together, the recommendations provide a map for a general assessment of how well the Federation’s model is working in real time, for the Central Massachusetts community as it exists today.
It’s an essential process, says Abbie Averbach, who is vice president of the JFCM board and sits on the strategic planning steering committee as well as one of its task forces.
“We have to always be taking in new inputs, recognizing trends, and constantly make sure that we’re not looking to completely change our goals,” she says. “Our overall mission isn’t changing, but it’s the strategies that we take to get to that mission that have to change with the times.”
To determine what those strategies might be, the strategic planning steering committee has set up three task groups for Phase Two of the planning process: Priorities, Business, and Leadership and Organization Structure.
The groups are charged with “drilling down” to the specifics of how to assess and implement the three recommendations from Phase One.
Each group is chaired by a Federation board member and includes board members as well as representation from the community.
“We are blessed with such great leadership,” says Rudolph. “There are terrific people so committed to this community who are really stepping up to bring their expertise and abilities.”
Jason Epstein heads the Priorities task group. Its purpose will be to consider ways to implement some of the changes suggested in Phase One as well as the impact of those potential changes on the community.
“Our initial thought is twofold,” says Epstein. “First, to hone in on what the focus of Federation needs to be in the times we’re living in and moving forward. Second, to establish a set of criteria with which we can prioritize programs and analyze holistically.”
It’s more than a financial evaluation, he stresses. Rather, the intention is to look at the specific programs that JFCM offers, to evaluate them for efficacy and to decide if, in some cases, the community might be doubling up on its efforts, with more than one agency or organization covering the same ground.
The goal is to ascertain “the actual reach of our programs and how we prioritize them and how we fit them into the focus of Federation,” Epstein says.
Sharon Krefetz chairs the Business task group, which also has two key concerns.
“We are tasked with doing an assessment of what our Federation’s fundraising and financial development capabilities look like going forward and what risks there may be,” she says.
Furthermore, she continues, the Business group will “frame some options for different possible structures for JFCM.” To do that, they will examine the experiences of other Federations, including those with similar models as well as those who have changed models, merged, or chosen to share some functions with other Federations in their own geographical areas.
She emphasizes that the information they come up with will be data-driven rather than impressionistic, based on “comparisons with what other similar organizations are doing and what their best practices are.”
Finally, Merilee Freeman will chair the third task group, Leadership and Organization Structure. Based on the recommendations that emerge from the other two groups, this last group will conduct more research to figure out how to bring them to fruition.
Feedback from the community is a crucial part of the entire planning process.
“Any time you try to make a change, you have to evaluate the impact of that change,” says Rudolph. That means listening to the concerns and interests not only of all of the major stakeholders in the community but also from the many groups that JFCM supports.
This approach reflects a recognition that people connect to the Jewish community – locally and globally – in a myriad different ways, whether it is through religion, cultural life, religious education or social interactions.
“We need to look at this not just from a business or programmatic perspective, but also a Jewish perspective,” says Epstein. “And the Jewish perspective is remembering that there are people involved; we have to be respectful of one another, we’re all part of the greater body. While we do have to take into account many factors, we have to make sure we’re being the best individuals and groups we can be. So we can stand in front of our community and say, ‘this is for you, this is with you, this is you.’
The national organization, Jewish Federation of North America, has already provided vital support and counsel in the planning process and will continue to do so.
Gail Zucker, a senior consultant for JFNA, met with Howard Fixler’s committee to offer guidance in Phase One. More recently, she and Reuben Romirowsky of JFNA were both in Worcester during the third week of February, conducting one-on-one interviews with community leaders, including the JFCM Leadership Council, as well as focus groups from a range of ages, interests and backgrounds.
During that week, 63 people from a broad representation of the community took part in an ongoing conversation about “how Jewish Federation can position itself for future success,” says Rudolph.
The JFNA perspective is especially helpful, providing an objective conduit for Federation leadership to take the temperature of the Central Massachusetts community while, at the same time, sharing a vast knowledge of what is being done in Federations across the country.
JFCM has also been fortunate to have in its executive director, Howard Borer, a dedicated advisor who knows the community well and has been of great assistance in the planning process.
The timeline is aggressive: the task groups are to provide recommendations in the three key areas at the May meeting of the board of directors, with hope for a board vote then.
That said, notes Rudolph, the board understands that there needs to be “a balance between getting the right amount of input without its taking longer than we think we have.”
Nor are these first recommendations the end of the process. Indeed, in many ways, they are the beginning.
“We need to take this step by step,” she says. “We may need another period of study where we look in more detail.”
Those questions and many more will emerge in the next few months as those involved continue to gather information about how to shape JFCM to best serve Central Massachusetts.
“There will always be a question, a change, a movement,” says Jason Epstein. “We’re a community, and Federation’s mission statement is about the welfare of the community both locally and globally. That says it all: this is about the wellbeing of our community.” N