Learnings from 2015 – A Candid Look at What Could Have Gone Better

dara 330 2014




This time of year we reflect on life’s big questions.

Is the Maccabeat’s latest Chanukah video better than last years? Is Adam Sandler’s fourth remix of the Chanukah song worthy of the airtime? Where are the new videos by women? (As if by magic, as I was writing this, Jewniverse deposited an answer in my email — a viral Hannukah video “There’s Pot in the Latkes” by MC Flow – Note: the video is not appropriate for children and the foundation doesn’t endorse activities which may be illegal depending on the state in which you reside).

Hey, stop watching those videos and read the rest of this blog post. I’m going to get to the real content now.

I had once been told that teachers tell jokes before studying Torah because it opens the heart; that that sense of Simcha lays a good foundation for that hard work of any introspective process. [Shabbat 30b, Pesachim 117a: Even as Rabbah used to say something humorous to his scholars before he commenced [his discourse], in order to amuse them; after that he sat in awe and commenced the lecture.]

This time of year we reflect on some pretty serious questions. Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah, like many organizations, has a fiscal year end that coincides with the calendar year – which makes it the ideal time to ask ourselves “How are we doing? What went well? What didn’t? Where do we go next?” – The last question my colleague, Jon Woocher, will tackle in a separate post.

Plenty of things went very well this year – we added some terrific new grantees to our roster, we held a series of fruitful conversations exploring how to apply Jewish wisdom, we got our communications up and running, and we piloted an evaluation tool to be able to ask our grantees and partners – how are we doing?

There are plenty of things that didn’t go as well. Some were large and some were small. Not intending to be comprehensive, but illustrative, want to share with you all some things we learned.

  • We pride ourselves on being a learning organization, all of our grants contain objectives about what we want to learn from them and we ask that our grantees be willing to share what they’ve learned with others. But we haven’t yet done a great job of communicating what they and we have learned with the field. In part, it’s because some grants take a while to have results. In part, it’s because we’ve adequately left time to do the work of reflection and communication – which we’re learning takes more time, contemplation, and effort than we prioritized.
  • We’ve tried to keep our grant process flexible and focused on working with our potential partners iteratively to refine the ideas before presenting them to our board, getting preliminary approval, and moving to a full proposal. Sometimes this works great and reduces the work for the organization. Sometimes it results in a lack of clarity about “how many steps” are left in the process and re-work. We try to communicate effectively, but realize we don’t always succeed.
  • Microgrants are awesome! They are effective in other contexts; so we decided to try them out, with a small group of participants from one of the conversations we hosted. And only a few people applied for them. It was great to support a few projects around Applying Jewish Wisdom, but it was hardly the flood of projects we had been hoping for. Perhaps it was the wrong audience (some folks from established organizations who were thinking about bigger projects, others who didn’t have an obvious project to submit), or perhaps we didn’t remind them enough of the opportunity. Just because it didn’t work we don’t think it won’t under different circumstances; we’ve learned a few mistakes to not make again, so we can move on to trying new things and making new ones!

Looking at the three examples – the common thread is communication. The amount of time it takes to be responsive, thoughtful, and clear is something that can’t be overstated. Communicating doesn’t take a long time in every situation, but so often it is the weak point in a circuit.

Since refining our focus two years ago, we’ve looked at this year as one big experiment. It means having patience, living with the discomfort of not always being able to give as definitive an answer as we would like, and recognizing that things will change – due to our commitment to continuous improvement, due to the fact that we’ll refine our strategy and tactics as we learn, and because valuable opportunities present themselves and decisions must be made on the fly. Sometimes we’ll make okay decisions. Sometimes we’ll make good decisions. Sometimes we’ll make better decisions. Learning to live with the imperfections, Shevirah, is a key part of what provides us with the space to accept this discomfort, learn from it, and move on.

It’s a great time to celebrate our accomplishments and our failures. Without those failures we wouldn’t be here and if we don’t celebrate our failures, or – at the least – examine them with curiosity instead of judgement, we won’t try again. Many of these examples are just tactics, but our day is made up of tactics. Some of these we’ll incorporate in different forms next year as our strategy evolves, some we may not try again – not because they are without merit, but because it isn’t the right time.

This isn’t always a comfortable process, but hey, it sure is a lot more comfortable than watching me sing – which is while they’ll be no viral video from me. I’ll stick to organizational analysis.

What might you add to our list of accomplishments and failures?  What would you like to see us keep in our tactical toolbox?  How did we fall short in your eyes?  What might we do better?  We invite you to give us feedback, now as we turn over the leaf of a secular and fiscal cycle, and throughout the coming year.

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