May 18, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

“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 children bickering. Remember this one, “Sticks and stones may break my bones…” Well, 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 often exists between lay leaders and professional fundraisers. Some, but not all.

In Pirkei Avot (Ethics of our Fathers), there is a well-known truism about derech eretz, which literally means “way of the land,” but the intended meaning gets slightly lost in the translation. What these words refer to is proper conduct, appropriate manners or good behavior. The exact 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.” This refers to “respect,” and the saying establishes the profound importance of interpersonal respect among sentient beings (bein adam lechavero). For lay leadership and professionals to collaborate successfully, there needs to be profound mutual respect between them. Without it, failure becomes the only probable outcome.

My experience is one of often finding unhealthy tension between these two worlds—the friction I have experienced, as well as the conflict I have witnessed others go through. Regrettably, I have observed it in 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 impression that when an organization hires a seasoned professional with a record of success and the requisite due diligence on the individual was performed, it’s time for lay leaders to stand down and allow the professional to do his/her job. Don’t confuse this with neglecting proper oversight. Far from it. Governance is a necessary component of a board member’s responsibility.

No, I refer to the undesirable quality some board members possess to micromanage, which is a major source of unhealthy stress. Some lay leaders regularly pursue this approach, and it is only to the detriment of the organization. It certainly undermines the sense of mutual respect both lay leaders and professionals need to succeed. All lay leadership do not share my philosophy, but that’s understandable because it works the other way around, too.

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

Let me cite an example.

A highly regarded nonprofit that hired me knew of my fundraising abilities and acumen. They had worked through a lengthy recruitment process and were fortunate to hire me (if I may say so myself). Micromanagement (constantly looking over the professional’s shoulder), however, was an immediate telltale sign of why this organization could not consistently hang on to its senior executives.

One Passover, my wife and I flew down to Florida to celebrate the holiday. It is imperative to remember that there are certain times of the year when many Jewish philanthropists leave home and embark on exotic getaways for the holiday. Trying to solicit donors in person at such times of the year is truly futile. Also, the last two weeks of August, and even December, are traditionally times when fundraisers face a vast fundraising wasteland. This is because most philanthropists disappear into the netherworld—a vacuum called vacation.

And so, one Passover when normally I am away, I got a call from the board chairman. I had the lay leader on loudspeaker when he thundered into me: “How dare you leave now! How can you do this to us? You had no right to go away. What chutzpah….” and on and on and on. As my wife entered the room, the tone, language, and negative attitude of this leader horrified her. Just so you know, I previously told the leadership that hired me I would always be gone for this holiday, so the understanding was that I would always be away for this Yom Tov.

There is a code of conduct—derech eretz—that should always be extant between lay leaders and professionals. It’s a necessity for peaceful coexistence. This was the one time when someone egregiously violated it. And I will never forget it.

While that experience was intimidating, I resolved not to let it slide. My advice to veteran professionals, actually all professionals, is at all times to engender an atmosphere of mutual respect. The professional must artfully “push back” when something like this happens, preferably immediately, but even eventually. Choose the right time. The professional should communicate assertively, but not aggressively. Language and tone should be moderate but to the point. Otherwise, the professional will always face being pushed around, and that doesn’t make for a healthy work environment.

We learn “Derech eretz kadma l’Torah.” Respect even precedes Torah study. No one is immune to this mandate, neither a lay leader nor a professional.

And remember this: “… but names will never hurt me.”


Norman B. Gildin is the author of the popular book on nonprofit fundraising “Learn From My Experiences.” He is the president of Strategic Fundraising Group, whose singular mission is to assist nonprofits to raise critical funds for their organization. His website is www.normangildin.com.

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