Play to Win!

View from an airplane window at the wings and flying over a scenic landscape of green hills and rivers

About one year ago, it was reported in my community that the 100-year-old Jewish Community Center was going out of business. Membership–the lifeblood of the organization–was plummeting, philanthropy was down, the economy was killing the organization, the facility was in growing disrepair and lacked modernity, and a new YMCA in the town was competing fiercely. The organization’s programs, leadership, and mission were completely out of alignment. No one was talking about it openly, but there is also a Jewish communal “cannibalism” taking place where organizations are directly (or indirectly) seeking to damage one another to advance their own agendas. All in all, this was a pretty typical scenario for JCC’s in many communities across the country (and frankly, quite common in other religious and other service areas). Open on Monday, out of business by Shabbat!

I have been very critical of the JCC and its management. I have written about it on this blog several times before. This JCC has been an incredibly good example of how not to do things on many levels. It would be easy to be a sideline critic–this JCC has had many of those–but I became increasingly more frustrated because I had been trying to volunteer my professional fundraising skills and coaching service to help the JCC for a couple of years and had been rebuffed. Really! Mine was one of the hundreds of stories just like it. Architects and managers of a failure run for cover, triggered by the enormity of their problems and overwhelmed by the options to reverse the failure. In this case, closure is easy!

I wasn’t present, but I have heard several versions of the story of the board meeting the night the decision was being made to close the J. The rancor and upset, the accusations and the finger-pointing. My favorite: “It took 100 years to destroy the institution beloved by so many!” What a waste! And what emerged from that fatal night was a completely different scenario: Some courageous (some have said crazy) volunteers said they would reinvent the JCC for its next 100 years, raise the funds, make the tough operating decisions, hire, fire, risk, defy, and imagine. In no way, under the watch of this group of focused volunteers was the J going to close. There were people in the community, many who were part of the problem leading to the near closure, who said “Show Me!” These volunteers stood before the powerful voices shouting for closure and accepted the philanthropic challenge of a generation!

Challenge accepted, success in the works!
The story has not been fully written just yet…how it happened that a small community and a group of volunteers saved their JCC from closure. But many new chapters have been written. I can highlight a few things, though:
  • Skewer the sacred cows! The JCC model (and the YMCA and the United Way and the Jewish Federation and the list goes on) is broken and must be reinvented for a new generation. Having a Facebook page and sending clever Tweets on Twitter does make your organization current. Go deep. And then go even deeper to find a fresh way of delivering your mission. If you are afraid to take on the very core of who you have always been (like membership or payroll deduction), chances are you are in the presence of a sacred cow.
  • It’s about philanthropy! Even a member who pays a fee for a service is a (potential) donor. Even a client who receives services at your organization can be a donor. Every single person you come into contact with can be a donor…if you ask. If you call the people in your non-profit world anything other than a donor, you will fail!
  • Generational shift is real. This is not about age as much as it is about the way in which we think. Never before has our world changed so fast (and continues to…daily) and we must respond. That which forces us to change will occur overnight! Our response rate to the forces of change will often take months. It is often too late! We must become far more adaptable, and faster. The days of “non-profit” being an excuse to be slow, inefficient, unaccountable, un-measured, poor performing, unlicensed, un-credentialed, lacking resources, etc., etc., are over. Get in front of your own truth, experience, and narrative!
  • Change the language! Our JCC is not in the clear yet, but it isn’t out of business. In fact, it appears that it will be in business for a few more years, years which will be spent growing in new ways and becoming sustainable. This JCC is back…and better only because of words like bold, new, fresh, accountability, measurement, benchmarking, donors, and efficiency leading the conversation.
  • Unpack what is conflated. In the new world, risk doesn’t have to be bad. Bold doesn’t have to be scary. New ideas do not have to be youthful inexperience any more than history has to be an anchor into a failed past. The decisions this board has made are risky and smart! We are in control of how we package, view, and promote our actions and beliefs.
  • Don’t Under-capitalize! It takes money to make money. Spend it. I think there is a non-profit version of dying with tons of money in the bank, having never been on a vacation, remodeled the house, or given to charity. A non-profit can afford expert professional staff, cleaning crews, upgraded computers and software, and expert consultants. The list goes on. Businesses fail because they are under-capitalized. Non-profits are businesses! Capitalize! Again, the conflation piece–being cheap does not mean you are being efficient.
  • The Titanic Conundrum. Sometimes leadership (or lack of it) looks like a deck chair rearranging on a sinking ship. New paint does not fix problems; it just freshens the place up until people look deeper. A spiffy website does not elevate the quality of classes promoted. Adding member benefits does not convert these people to being philanthropists. Rewarding bad work does not make bad workers work better. It’s not about the deck chairs; it’s about the ship taking on water and the number of lifeboats!
  • No Drama Zone! Declare it. Get on board. Match the hard work; don’t make more hard work. Drama is what you do in your home or office away from others. Problem-solving, and re-strategizing is what you do in a committee meeting or staff meeting, or board room. Be aware of your impact.
  • Stay relevant. ‘Nuff said!

The JCC board approved a sweeping reinvention plan last week. It is bold. It is not without risk. It is exciting. It is a bright hope for a brighter future. And it has reminded me of why I do this work. Our work in philanthropy is about changing people’s lives and making our world and communities better. It can be a job, but it also has to be a mission in life…a purpose-driven life. We can never be okay with charitable organizations going out of business; the impact on the people who rely upon them is too great. The hole left in the heart of a community is gaping.

Most non-profits are an un-renewed grant award or a struggling annual campaign away from closure. Before the real crisis hits you, what can be done today–with your leadership and your programs–to stay ahead of the crisis? The people who rely upon your existence are counting on you to know. Today!

P.S. I finally became actively involved. That moment happened about six months ago when I was invited to join the volunteers who were saving the J, as a member of the leadership task force and then as a member of the board of directors. Talk about putting my skills and my ideas and my expertise where my mouth is. Get off the sidelines. Jump! Higher. Now. What an amazing volunteer experience I am having. I’ll keep you posted on our progress.


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Gary M. Groth, MS, PCC, CPCC

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