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Jewish Journal

A break in the pipeline

by Shawn Landres

August 26, 2009 | 7:10 pm

They say a good mensch is hard to find. Without the Professional Leaders Project (PLP), the Los Angeles Jewish community might never have met mensches like Gabe Halimi and Ari Moss (“L.A.’s Top Ten Mensches,” The Jewish Journal, Dec. 31). Or innovators like Elishia Shokrian Bolour, who launched the Society of Young Philanthropists here in Southern California and is expanding it to Dallas. Now that PLP has announced it will suspend operations, who knows how many prospective mensches will never be discovered?

What appears to be the end of the PLP story next week will mark a milestone in the history of the Los Angeles Jewish community: the first time in recent memory that a major nationwide initiative was born here in Southern California, grew and thrived for a time, and then closed its doors. PLP, one of several L.A.-based organizations that have helped to define the innovation ecosystem nationally, has become the premier independent entity for developing and educating the next generation of Jewish leaders, both volunteer and professional. Thousands of people will carry the lessons they learned through PLP to organizations old, new and yet to be born.

PLP founder Rhoda Weisman and her team understand well the fluid nature of nonprofit leadership in the 21st century, recognizing that individual leaders, and the relationships between them, lie at the heart of effective innovation and advocacy for change. The values they have instilled in PLP’s programs are applicable throughout Jewish organizational life: institutional independence, the recognition that volunteer and professional leadership are intertwined and often interchangeable over the course of a person’s career, and, most importantly, not only a genuine belief in and commitment to the process of innovation and renewal, but indeed the explicit acknowledgement of the real contributions that new leaders bring to the missions and institutions they serve.

More practically, the Jewish community is losing a critical clearinghouse for the entire nonprofit workforce pipeline. This is not a trivial need. As the NonProfit Times reported on Aug. 13, the senior management gap in U.S. nonprofits is a matter of growing nationwide concern. The Bridgespan Group, a nonprofit human capital think tank, predicts that overcoming this “leadership deficit” will require a commitment “to attract and develop a leadership population 2.4 times the size of the total number currently employed” (Finding Leaders for America’s Nonprofits, 2009).

This issue is only magnified in the organized Jewish community, where according to a recent study for the Jewish Funders Network and The Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies (ACBP) entitled “Executive Development & Succession Planning: A Growing Challenge for the Jewish Community,” retirements by long-serving baby boomer executives will create succession challenges at as many as 90 percent of Jewish organizations over the next decade. As the only independent initiative dedicated to identifying, recruiting, nurturing and mentoring new volunteer and professional leaders regardless of their institutional affiliation, PLP has played a vital role seeding the Jewish ecosystem with human capital.

PLP’s absence will have an immediate impact on the hundreds of young leaders who have been a part of its networks and participants in its leadership development programs. These include hundreds of emerging leaders from around the nation who were recently recruited for PLP’s LiveNetworks 2009, a yearlong seminar series incorporating leadership development, Jewish learning, analytical tools, coaching and mentoring.

Especially pressing is the question of how to honor the commitment made by the newest members of the LiveNetwork hubs here in Los Angeles, as well as in Chicago, New York City, San Francisco and Washington, D.C., 20- and 30-somethings who signed up (and even were willing to pay) for training, networking and mentoring as volunteer and professional leaders in 2009 and 2010. They now have nowhere to go. Our community cannot afford to let their energy go untapped: We must find alternate ways for them to engage their passions and skills. For example, we could imagine local agencies in each of the five cities adopting the LiveNetworks members, either by creating new programs for them or by absorbing them into existing next-generation training projects.

Earlier this summer, in these pages, we challenged the Los Angeles Jewish community to establish a common strategy and comprehensive support system for local innovation (“Let’s Bring Innovation Into the Fold,” July 10). PLP’s suspension of operations only adds to the urgency of our task, opening a critical gap not only locally but indeed nationally. Los Angeles still can be a vital source for the current wave of Jewish creativity and innovation, but sustaining that energy will take vision, hard work, and, most importantly, collaboration across and within our community. We should feel great pride in PLP’s homegrown success story, deep regret at its departure and a strong sense of responsibility to carry on its mission of turning Jewish leadership over to the next generation. It’s what a mensch would do.

An earlier version of this op-ed, co-authored with Joshua Avedon, appeared on eJewishPhilanthropy.com.

Shawn Landres is the co-founder and CEO of Jumpstart, a think tank, catalyst, advocate and support system for sustainable Jewish innovation.

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