Boot camp for Jewish leaders? While typically only the wealthiest nonprofit organizations have adequate resources to professionally hone the skills of future volunteer leaders, last year the Jewish Federation of Orange County started the Jewish Leadership Network to season volunteer board members.
Facing a looming leadership shortage within its own ranks, it started the boot camp on a $10,000 shoestring budget and invited some 30 synagogues and Jewish agencies as well.
"Let's create a resource we all can share in," said Phil Kaplan, explaining what led to the year-old Jewish Leadership Network, which he co-organized with fellow Federation board member, Marc Miller.
One of the most popular topics at Reform movement conferences is how to organize an internal leadership training program, said Dale A. Glasser, synagogue management director of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. Participation in these programs generates prestige and sharpens skills useful outside the synagogue, Glasser said, adding, "That's one of the carrots to dangle."
Volunteers often feel unprepared to shoulder the authority and responsibility of board membership. Also contributing to the dearth of leaders is a syndrome common to fragile organizations: volunteer burnout.
Miller and Kaplan's solution was to develop a curriculum similar to a graduate school management seminar, which would demystify the subject by relying on real-world case studies as its text. Topics, more applied than academic, included volunteer recruiting, evaluating compensation, nonprofit finance, team building and running a meeting. Presenters included organizational professors, consultants and professionals who offered their expertise without charge.
"It gave us real life experiences at no risk, so you are better prepared to handle them when you do," said Paul Vann, a financial planner and veteran board member, who in April became president of Irvine's Congregation Beth Jacob.
Scenarios ranged from a leader publicly belittling a team member to firing a volunteer.
"When one person came up with a good answer, someone else would come up with another one," said Cecily Burke, 54, of Newport Beach. A newcomer to the Jewish Family Service board and chair of its fundraising, she said she gleaned insights about board culture from her fellow participants.
Having worked for Jewish organizations as both a volunteer and a professional, Bunnie Mauldin, the Federation's executive director, can attest to the value of network sessions devoted to identifying personality types.
Redirecting high-powered volunteers is sometimes a prickly task.
"They do try to bring what has made them successful professionally, and I've had to tailor that," she said. The decision-making traits of an executive are ill-suited to a committee chairman, Mauldin said. "They don't understand the value of consensus building. They get bored. They cut off discussion."
The network also helps fulfill a secondary Federation mission of building community. Its genesis was a common security need by Jewish organizations after the 1999 shooting at the North Valley Jewish Community Center in Granada Hills.
"No one was talking to each other or working with each other," Mauldin said. "It was such a duplication of effort."
The intifada spawned another common goal. The Federation mobilized local agencies and synagogues that support Israel into the Israel Solidarity Task Force, which brought honey to Israelis and Israeli merchants to Irvine.
Mauldin saw the Federation was not alone in its leadership predicament.
"Many leaders in synagogues or agencies are not willing to take the presidency," she said. "I attribute that to misconceptions. We've tried to show them how to work smarter not longer."
Even so, not every organization jumped at the opportunity.
"We had a little bit of a sales job to do," Miller said.
Some agencies were hesitant to burden their board members with another task. Other groups questioned whether the Federation would cherry-pick their plum volunteers. By May, Aliso Viejo's Temple Beth El had started its own program, chaired by a former president and board member, Cindy O'Neill and Susan Shalit, respectively.
Among those sharing expertise with the leadership network was Doris Jacobson, development director of Irvine's Tarbut V'Torah Community Day School. She wears a second hat as president of Anaheim's Temple Beth Emet.
Already, network organizers believe their efforts with the first 13-member class are paying off.
"Every single person is stepping up their involvement with their organization," Kaplan said.
"Right in front of your eyes you see a group coalescing and see people talk about ways to work with agencies in a collaborative way," Miller said.
Planning to double enrollment next year, Kaplan and Miller have already received expressions of interest from members of Hadassah and the Jewish Community Center.