Why Jewish Organizations Have a Retention Problem

by Natalie Jacobs April 26, 2017


jpro-print-res-atruax-photography-9908There are an estimated 10,000 Jewish organizations operating in the United States and Canada that employ about 80,000 people. This is according to JPRO, the Jewish professional network that has 15 local chapters throughout North America, including a two-year-old group in San Diego. Their goal is to create professional development and networking opportunities for professionals working in the Jewish nonprofit sector.

“If we can help people who are early in their career expand the diversity of their network, it would be helpful for all kinds of things that would buoy the sector,” says Ilana Aisen, JPRO’s freshly minted executive director from her homebase in Toronto, Canada. She says the scale of the sector, when looked at from the lens of North America broadly, offers opportunities to invest in professional development that isn’t usually seen at individual nonprofits.

“It’s hard to invest in professional development one synagogue at a time,” Aisen says, “but if you add it all up and there are 500 or 1,000 people employed in that community, all of a sudden you can do great stuff.”

As with all sectors, the nonprofit workforce is aging. The Jewish Funders Network estimates that 75-90 percent of Jewish nonprofit CEOs plan to retire in the next 5-7 years. Look to other stories in just this magazine alone – San Diego’s Jewish organizations are already experiencing this. Aside from the top positions, research on the nonprofit sector as a whole (not just Jewish) from the National Center for Charitable Statistics finds that 80,000 new senior managers may be needed at nonprofits imminently.

Foreseeing these workforce shifts, San Diego Jewish organizations got interested in starting up a local JPRO chapter. Marjory Kaplan, then CEO of Jewish Community Foundation, and Michael Sonduck, who will retire from Jewish Federation of San Diego next year, tapped Kara Jennings to spearhead the effort as part of her role as senior development manager at Federation.

Since then, the group has tried different ways to engage young Jewish professionals in San Diego. First it was breakfast events aimed at networking, but now it’s more about sharing job openings through the nationwide JPRO network, and offering opportunities for professional development. The idea is to give Jewish communal workers more reasons to stay in Jewish communal work.

“People feel that in order to grow in their careers they need to get out of this sector and go to another nonprofit and then come back.” That creates a pipeline problem, says Jennings, née Liederman, for senior level positions.  “So the idea is how do you keep things competitive within our sector so that we have the next generation of leadership?”

That problem is called attrition and it can come from a variety of factors. A main one, offers Jennings, is burnout.

“You are wearing many different hats in the nonprofit world and you have to carry out things that are great,” but are sometimes at a scale larger than the staff and resources available, she says.

Jennings herself has worked backward from the attrition trend. She started her career in personal banking in Chicago where she says she learned how to have tough conversations about money, which is helpful for her current job as a fundraiser. But in nonprofits, the emphasis is on long-term relationship building. The scope for large gifts, in her case, is three to five years.

“When you keep having attrition and you keep having employees coming in and out, you’re not getting that three- to five-year relationship-building that you need in order to, sometimes, get a really large gift,” she says. “That hurts the organization as well.”

For nonprofit fundraisers, there is the Association of Fundraising Professionals that offers networking and professional development. But Jennings says that membership is costly and events come at a steep price too. JPRO San Diego, by contrast, costs very little, often nothing at all. Their ability to do that comes from tzedakah on the other end – professionals from outside the Jewish communal sector donate their time to workshops for the group.

One highlight for Jennings was an event with Pat Libby, creator of the nonprofit MBA program at the University of San Diego.

“She’s Jewish,” Jennings says, “[and] she wanted to give back to the community and share all the things that she teaches people at a master’s level.”

JPRO San Diego also hosted the CEO of Scripps Hospital to talk about how he flipped the organizational and management structure of his hospital from vertical to a horizontal system that has proven to empower individual managers and create operational efficiencies within the hospital.

“Our end goal,” says Jennings, “is to make sure that the Jewish community is benefitted by having strong Jewish professionals who stay here.”

Glenda Sacks Jaffe is a local Jewish professional who bucks the attrition trend too. She has been with Hillel of San Diego for 10 years, after spending 11 years with Federation. In that time, she says she’s experienced a shift in what it means to work for a Jewish nonprofit.

“Now there’s a feeling of being a Jewish professional versus I just work for a Jewish organization. … I don’t know if it’s just my perception or if it’s real, but I feel that there’s more pride and more recognition.”

Even with her years working within the Jewish community, she is energized by her involvement in JPRO.

Meeting people from other organizations, she says, “makes you feel proud of what you do.”

Sacks Jaffe is a regular at JPRO events, which are now happening quarterly, and a few months ago the group gave her an extra opportunity to participate in an education course offered through the Shalom Hartman Institute. It’s a text study program led by Rabbi Philip Graubart, formerly of Congregation Beth El, about Israel. For Sacks Jaffe, who is in the throes of launching a new Hillel at USD, it’s an invaluable learning experience. Her job puts her at what many consider the frontlines of anti-Semitism today. Learning about Israel in this way, she says, helps her to answer questions from Hillel donors who insist the group should be doing more to combat anti-Israel efforts on college campuses, and the students who find themselves in dorms and study groups with people who are spreading controversial ideologies but still need to be interacted with on a daily basis.

“It’s a very delicate balance of our opinion and that of the students of that year,” she says of the challenges her organization faces. “That’s why the more knowledgeable we are, the better we can represent the organization publicly.”

This aligns with what Aisen is focusing on for the JPRO group at large. She says there’s an interest in a range of education topics from “Judaism 101” to opportunities for deeper Jewish learning.

“I’m hearing from a passionate and large minority of people who say ‘I want opportunities to deepen my Jewish learning. I sometimes feel a bit of a fraud because I’m supposed to be leading Jewish learning and I don’t feel knowledgeable enough.’”

While Jewish nonprofits focus time and money on serving their constituents, opportunities to invest in their employees are often left off the table.

For Sacks Jaffe, professional development is important “so that you can do your job better.”

Spend any time with the Jewish organizations in San Diego and you’ll likely hear that they’re already good at breaking down “siloes” and collaborating on all sorts of programs and initiatives. Jennings sees JPRO as “a microcosm of what’s happening with the CEOs throughout all the agencies.

“It’s just inspiring to work here,” she continues. “It’s not competitive, it’s [about] how do we make everything better and be more efficient?”


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