Compass

Sustainability Building - A Challenge for European Jewish Grassroots Organizations

Activist: 

About 2 ½ years ago a small group of young laypeople came up with the idea to set up a grassroots organization called Jewish Experience, something that never existed before in Germany. We wanted to create a sort of a hangout where young Jews could meet, have a good time and by the way learn something about their ‘Jewishness’.

In literally no time we ended up with an intensely huge program including weekly classes, Shabbat celebrations etc, lots of publicity, kudos from the local Jewish community and a budget of €100K+.

 And this is where it got really difficult … Don’t misunderstand me – it is great to see the fruits of your labour, but none of us anticipated what it meant to run a nonprofit. While we wanted to have a good Jewish time we ended up dealing with legal stuff, marketing, fundraising, event management and accounting, just to name a few of the tasks. We tried to keep up with the constantly increasing complexities and rising expectations of our participants, while dealing with the overwhelming amount of paper work. Slowly but surely we became managers instead of visionaries; clerks rather than role models. In constant limbo between euphoria and despair, we were all at risk of becoming totally worn out.

One day we heard about grants to enhance sustainability, being offered by the Westbury Group and we understood that this touched exactly on the problems we were facing. We recognized that we need this ‘sustainability’ to survive. (No one knew then exactly what the term meant but it sounded like these guys knew what they were talking about). Interestingly, we discovered that there are several other Jewish grassroots organizations in Germany who were dealing with the same issues, also without having a solution at hand.

To cut a long story short, we successfully applied as a consortium for this grant. We already had a 2-day workshop about nonprofit management where we learnt that to become sustainable can be pretty simple; You only need to find/educate/manage your volunteers in a proper way, hire or source out the administrative work, develop the board and finally start running your start-up in a professional manner.

This all makes sense of course, the only problem was that each of us would probably need to quadruple the amount of work we were already investing into each of our organization in order to survive in the long  term. (Getting an MBA degree would also be of advantage; just to better understand the structures and how everything fits together.)

Despite the amount of work we all need to cope with no one is willing to give up their dream of shaping the Jewish future in Europe and in particular in Germany. But we could use some help.

Today, the Jewish world is desperately looking for innovate concepts on how to get young Jews connected to their local communities and Israel, how to give them a sense of Jewish identity and Peoplehood.

You may disagree, but I feel that grassroots initiatives like ours, struggling to survive, carry the most potential to innovate and change the Jewish landscape if given the resources needed. Not only have we got proven abilities to execute and a track record of successful activities, but we also the best understanding of local Jewish needs.

Unfortunately, especially in Europe we do not see (any) funders willing to support grassroots initiatives long enough, to allow them to professionalize their internal structures, improve the operational, efficiency, build-up the excellence required from their boards along with a steady stream of revenue.

Most grassroots initiatives end up in a "death valley" before they can take off and make a real difference. As you see in Figure 1 – Sustainability building is exactly taking place at the stage when a grassroots organization fights for its survival. Certainly, this is a topic funders will need to deal with in a future.

What is your opinion on this? Did your organizations experience the same issues? And most importantly, which are the concepts and best practices to overcome them?

Thanks for listening to the kvetch - and keep up the great work!

Meir Lisserman

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