Making Time for Change

by Natalie Jacobs February 1, 2015


jfs planIn recent years, Jewish Family Service of San Diego has gone through many changes, some that have been obvious, and others more behind-the-scenes. In the obvious category, Michael Hopkins came on as CEO to replace retiring chief Jill Spitzer in 2011. But behind-the-scenes, he had a very specific directive. As Spitzer’s tenure was drawing to a close, it was clear to her and the JFS board that it was time to update the nonprofit’s strategic plan, but it would have been difficult to cram the process into the final days of her 26-year career there. Most nonprofit organizations go through this process every five years, in varying degrees of depth depending on the needs of the time. In general, the strategic planning process forces executive leadership, the board, and what JFS calls “key stakeholders” like employees and clients, to check up on, and in some cases completely redefine, the mission, vision and goals that everyone will operate underneath for the next five years.

The last time JFS underwent this strategic planning process was in 2006. It helped JFS determine that the move from its Hillcrest location to its current home on Balboa near Montgomery Field was a necessity. But by the time the next five-year mark was on the horizion, the U.S. economy had fallen into recession and the ability for organizations like JFS to look past the ends of their noses became difficult. There were too many immediate needs to meet in the community, and lots of philanthropists pulling back on donations across the board.

“Even in the interview process, we talked about strategic planning,” Hopkins says from a round table in his corner office. “The right time seemed to be upon my arrival.”

But even then, it still took a few years to get the process going. In Hopkins’ first year with JFS, they had the opportunity to buy the building next door to their relatively new digs. In her tenure, Spitzer had expanded the organization by 40 times, and that momentum was holding steady under Hopkins. There were more than 50 programs, more than 250 employees, a thousand volunteers and countless clients utilizing just one or a whole shopping cart full of services. Expanding JFS headquarters into something of a campus where all employees could work closer together and clients could more easily navigate the maze was irresistible. The JFS board agreed to the purchase and spent the next year or two raising money to fund the project.

“It was clear that we had made the decision to buy the building, we had raised the money, and it was time to begin to do some serious planning for the future,” Hopkins says.

Good things come to those who wait, though, and for the next several months, the board discussed the best approaches for getting started.

“It’s not like Michael came on board and we decided to do a strategic plan the next day,” says Jennifer Levitt, president of the JFS board, also in Hopkins’ office one morning in December. “It was really thoughtful examination by a staff, ramping up to the actual planning process.”

“We were looking for a process of transformation,” Hopkins adds. “We were not looking for one that would be a haircut. We were open to the notion that this was a serious, extensive piece of work and that the outcome could in fact be transformational.”

To start with, Hopkins and the board found a consulting group that specialized in an “open systems model” which invites “all the players” to sit together around a very big table. This included a select group of board members, a few JFS executives, and also a cross section of employees, everyone from program managers to individual case workers, as well as a few clients and other nonprofit executives. In total, there were just less than 100 people who worked on the strategic plan, on top of day jobs and familial responsibilities.

It took one year to write the new strategic plan, a document whose summary is 16 pages long. At the heart of what JFS discovered is what it means to be a Jewish agency and how to keep that at the core of everything they do.

“Historically, we defined Jewish Family Service by the types of services we provided and by who we served. I think that we landed on almost a more robust kind of definition of what it means to be Jewish,” Hopkins explains. “It is for sure who we serve, it is for sure how we serve people, but it is first and foremost why we do this work.”

This realization was aided by a panel of local rabbis who were called to speak before the strategic planning group.

“What we really heard loud and clear from these rabbis is that JFS is positioned to play a leadership role in providing a place where people do good and where people can express their connection to the Jewish community and their Jewish identity through service,” Levitt recalls. “That was a really profound moment.”

With that in mind, the strategic planning group was taken on “learning journeys” to explore how best-in-class organizations beyond the Jewish nonprofit sphere find their success. This took the group to Qualcomm, High Tech High, Planned Parenthood, Sharp Mesa Vista, and Refugee Resettlement and Immigration Services, among others.

“It was enlightening to see other for-profits and nonprofits tackle the same kinds of issues we are trying to tackle,” says Marcia Hazan, a JFS board member who participated in the strategic planning process as part of the Vision team.

The word “collaboration” has perhaps never been more aptly applied to JFS than at this moment. In the past, the workforce has been distributed across the region, and with that, the programs and clients were forced to connect their own dots.

Central to the new strategic plan is an integrated, client-centered approach that understands the interconnected nature of need.

“Going in, we suspected that maybe the breadth of our programming, the fact that we have so many programs that do so many different things, we were looking at that as potentially a weakness,” Board President Levitt explains. “But we found, paradoxically, that very breadth is actually one of our biggest strengths, precisely because we can respond to the multi-faceted nature of people’s lives.”

The scenarios that bring clients to JFS are many, and once people are involved, it’s likely that if a person comes to JFS for one thing, he or she will find a whole host of other programs and services they can utilize. This is what the new strategic plan is hoping to streamline.

“My family and I have been involved with JFS for three years,” says Valentina Sherabi. She is the single parent of three children who comes to JFS for the Family Connection (which includes Supporting Single Jewish Parents, BIGPals and Pachies), Employment and Career Services, and counseling. Sharabi is also a volunteer with the JFS Immigration and Refugee department.

It is with clients like Sharabi in mind that JFS enters into their next generation with the goal of thinking about the whole person and his or her unique road to self-sufficiency. Their new campus, set to open in December, will make this transformation visible to the public, but beneath that surface, clients, employees and volunteers will experience a more cohesive Jewish agency. And if that doesn’t work like they’re thinking it will, then they’ll be back at the drawing board in a couple of years. But if history teaches us anything, it’s that this Jewish agency is very good at changing, adapting and expanding. Learn more about their full list of programs and new strategic direction at

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