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Friday, August 06, 2021
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“I’m better than you!”

“No, I’m better than you!”

“I know more than you do!

“No, I know more than you do!”

Sounds like bickering among children. Remember this one: “Sticks and stones...”? You know the rest.

So, what am I referring to? With slight hyperbole, but with seriousness, I refer to the unspoken but palpable tension that exists between lay leaders and professional fundraisers. “Some,” not all.

In “Ethics of our Fathers” there is a well-known truism about “derech eretz,” which literally means the “way of the land,” but is lost in the translation. What it means is proper conduct, good manners or good behavior. The saying found in Pirkei Avot 3:17 is: “Without derech eretz there can be no Torah, and without Torah, there can be no derech eretz.” In my opinion it means respect, and the saying demonstrates the profound importance of interpersonal respect among sentient beings. For lay leadership and professionals to successfully collaborate, there needs to be a profound mutual respect. Without it, failure becomes the only option.

My experience is one of often finding unhealthy tension between these two worlds: tension I have experienced, as well as tension I have seen others go through. Regrettably, I have observed it with Jewish federations, Jewish community centers, Jewish family service agencies and other Jewish nonprofits.

Let me recount one story that happened to me.

It is my unambiguous feeling that when an organization hires a seasoned professional with a track record of success and the requisite due diligence has been performed on the individual hired, then it’s time for lay leaders to stand down and allow the professional to do his/her job. Don’t confuse this with not conducting proper oversight. Of course, when it comes to governance, that is a necessary component of a board’s responsibility.

No, I refer to the undesirable habit of some board members to micromanage, a major source of unhealthy tension. Some lay leaders regularly pursue this course of action, and it is only to the detriment of the organization—and certainly undermines the sense of mutual respect both lay and professional entities need in order to be successful. My philosophy isn’t one shared by all lay leadership, but that’s understandable because it works the other way, too.

In my view, micromanagement is disrespectful and unacceptable unless the professional grossly mismanages his/her job. It also is one short step away from bullying.

Let me cite an example.

I was hired by a highly respectable nonprofit that knew of my fundraising abilities and acumen. They had gone through a lengthy process of recruitment and were fortunate to hire me (if I conceitedly say so myself). Micromanagement and looking over the professional’s shoulder, however, were immediate telltale signs as to why this organization could not consistently retain its senior executives.

One Passover, my wife and I flew to Florida to celebrate the holiday in Boynton Beach. It is important to keep in mind that there are certain times of the year when most Jewish philanthropists arrange to leave home and go elsewhere for the holiday. Trying to solicit donors in-person at that time of year is truly an effort in futility. For example, the last two weeks of August also is a traditional time when fundraisers usually face a vast fundraising wasteland, because most philanthropists disappear into the netherworld—a vacuum called vacation.

And so, one Passover when normally I am away, I get a call from the chairman of the board. I had the lay leader on loudspeaker when he thundered into the phone: “How dare you leave now? How can you do this to the [name of the organization]? You had no right to go away. What chutzpah,” and on and on and on. My wife had just entered the room and was horrified by the tone, language and attitude of this leader. Mind you, the organization had been informed that I am always away for the major holidays.

There is a code of conduct—derech eretz—that should always exist between lay leader and professional. It’s important for coexistence. This was one time when it was egregiously violated. And I will never forget it.

While that was an intimidating experience, I was resolved not to let it slide. My advice to veteran professionals—all professionals—is to engender an atmosphere of mutual respect. When something like this happens, the professional needs to artfully “push back,” preferably when it occurs but always, even if only eventually. The communication should be done assertively but not aggressively; appropriately but not disrespectfully. Language and tone should be moderate but to-the-point. Otherwise, the professional will always be pushed around, and that doesn’t make for a healthy work environment.

It is said, “Derech eretz kadma l’Torah.” Respect even precedes the study of Torah. No one is immune to this mandate—neither lay leader nor professional.

And remember this: “… but words can never hurt me.”


Norman B. Gildin lived in Teaneck for 34 years and fundraised for nonprofits for more than three decades, raising upwards of $93 million. He is the president of Strategic Fundraising Group, whose mission is to assist nonprofits raise critical funds. He can be reached at [email protected]

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