Who are some of the educational leaders advancing the day school field? I had the opportunity to meet with some of them during the recent Moving the Needle and iJED day school conferences, where hundreds of day school administrators, lay leaders, and other educational professionals gathered to learn and network. In this series, I will share some of our conversations in the format of interviews and videos describing both their work and current overall trends which are shaping the landscape of today’s day school field.
Effective board governance was one of the major focus areas of the RAVSAK/Pardes Moving the Needle conference. The concurrent Board Leadership Institute drew many lay leader attendees – including participants in SuLaM 2.0, RAVSAK’s intensive Jewish lay leadership development program funded by AVI CHAI and an anonymous donor. The Institute examined board leadership from angles including: Who should serve on the board? How do Jewish values inform the role? What about marketing, affordability programs, and relationships with the head of school? In this interview, Adina Kanefield, one of the attendees and speakers, addressed some of these issues. Adina is Director of Institutional Advancement at the Jewish Primary Day School of the Nation’s Capital in Washington, DC and serves as RAVSAK’s senior development officer as a consultant.
How would you characterize your work to cultivate day school donors?
I look at what I do as a way to share a cause. Maybe it’s just being a Washingtonian, but I see the day school field as a movement forging forward in partnership with lay leaders and donors. In day schools, the constituents are in many cases young families newly engaging in a more formal way in the Jewish community beyond the synagogue. I feel a sense of responsibility for the way I bring people into philanthropy. It’s often the first touch point they have with philanthropy, beyond contributing to a friend’s 5K run or a solicitation call from college. I try to bring the concept of a movement to donors, and I try to make it meaningful and personal for the donor.
How do you describe the impact of a day school education to potential donors?
There are so many things a day school education achieves. In answering this question, I try to think about the person I’m speaking with and what may motivate them to support the school. It could be that they are motivated by the quest for knowledge that a day school furthers, or a concern for the future of the Jewish people.
In my opinion, one of the most compelling elements of the day school impact is that it is not just about student enrollment numbers. The number of children who are affected by day school education should be multiplied by how many parents are brought in, and in some cases grandparents. For many, a day school is really a gateway into Judaism that grooms parents to be active members of the Jewish community. It produces a substantive connection to Judaism – not just a cultural affiliation, but a connection grounded in a solid knowledge base. People from different Jewish backgrounds are brought together to learn from one another and become one people. Then, this knowledge base allows members of our community, students and parents alike, to go forward into the Jewish world and broader world with authenticity and integrity. That is the impact that I love to share with potential supporters.
How do you make the experience of involvement in day school giving more meaningful?
One way I try to make the experience meaningful is through grounding it in Jewish texts, as I learned to do through my experience in SuLaM (a leadership program funded by AVI CHAI). Almost all the outreach work I do has some textual basis. For instance, when I gave a presentation here at the conference discussing criteria to look for in potential board members, I included Maimonides’ listing of the criteria for the Sanhedrin and drew a comparison. Including Jewish sources reminds potential supporters that it is not just about giving money to support their children’s school; it is also fulfilling a core value of our people. This is likewise an important lesson for donor development professionals. The Jewish sources elevate our work and remind us that we’re striving for a larger cause that is connected to Jewish ethics and values.
What advice would you give to others recruiting board members?
Here are three suggestions:
Look at strategic direction first. In building out a board, focus first on the institution itself and what issues it will face over the next two to three years. Look at the “state of the nation” in your community – what trends are you seeing that the board might need to address? These could be internal to the school or relate to independent school or public school options in the neighborhood or the Jewish community at large. Consider that whoever you are bringing on board is going to face these issues. Your board should discuss these issues while taking a fresh look at your strategic plan, or if you don’t have a plan, discuss these issues at a summer board retreat or during the annual board evaluation process. The indentified issues facing your school should inform the decision of who to bring on board.
Focus on qualitative factors, not just filling static requirements. When you begin to find people to serve, don’t merely focus on checking off representation from specific skill sets, or from constituencies such as different synagogues, movements, or neighborhoods. Find those who are influential within each of your constituencies. Who will bring others along, have persuasive abilities, and be viewed as a role model? Other crucial overall qualities of your candidates should include commitment to Jewish education, judgment and discretion, and passion and energy, as well as their ability to make a meaningful gift and to make the organization their philanthropic priority. A diverse board also means having people in a range of stages with regard to the criteria – you need to recognize that some qualities may be emerging, and other established. You need to be cognizant of true potential.
Ask promising candidates to serve and give honor to service. There are two types of board members. Some lay leaders are driven to board service due to a sense of btselem elokim (being created in G-d’s image). Imbued within them is a sense of wanting to go forth and do G-d’s work in the world, and they innately feel that there is honor and privilege in doing so. Others are equally talented but need to receive a calling, like Moshe received from G-d; they need to be asked to serve. The board needs to drive the cultivation of those two kinds of leaders. Board service can be made more meaningful, attractive, and professional through creating agendas, respecting people’s time during meetings, and being open to critical debate and thought. Boards also need to set up committee structures so they can groom leaders for future roles. Finally, creating a sense of kavod (honor/duty) will make for a more successful board.
Adina Kanefield is Director of Institutional Advancement at the Jewish Primary Day School of the Nation’s Capital in Washington, DC. Previously, she served as a board member at JPDS-NC. She has raised over $12 million for the school through annual, capital, and major gifts initiatives, engaging hundreds of volunteers and supporters. She recently began transitioning to her own consulting practice focusing on the Jewish nonprofit sector, in which capacity she serves as RAVSAK’s senior development officer.