Dropping a Pin: Finding Professional Development in Unexpected Places

Dropping a Pin: Finding Professional Development in Unexpected Places

Geography is not my strong suit. In fact, the blue Trivial Pursuit wedge represented the category that usually kept me from winning that famous ‘80s board game. Like many American Jews of my generation, my life and classroom experiences left me under informed about most places on the globe other than the United States, Eastern Europe and Israel.

You can imagine my enthusiasm when I learned our professional team would have the opportunity to accompany our foundation’s trustees and rising trustees to the little known country of Malawi in south-eastern Africa. Our site visit with a new grantee, Innovation Africa, gave me the chance to add a new country to my shortlist of spots I could find on a map. It also gave me a chance to answer this key question: why would a foundation committed to proliferating Jewish wisdom and values in the contemporary world deploy such a large delegation to visit unknown villages in Africa, so far from the heartbeat of Jewish education and outreach?

Innovation Africa is an Israeli nonprofit bringing innovative solar and water technologies to remote African communities. Before our trip, I understood the merit of this grant, which occupies a relatively small position in our overall funding portfolio; it was an extension of our foundation’s commitment to Israel and our history of supporting vulnerable populations. What I did not yet understand is just how incredibly well-aligned this grant is with our mission. This site visit deepened my understanding about our mission by illuminating multiple ways of expressing it: creating outcomes that are a kiddush Hashem/sanctification of God’s name; honoring the belief that all humans are created B’tzelem Elokim/in God’s image; and fulfilling the Jewish people’s responsibility of chosenness by pursuing what is just and right for all peoples of the world.

Did this site visit give me a new perspective on the mission of the foundation where I’m honored to work every day? Absolutely! However, as a career Jewish communal professional, I took away something else equally as powerful. This experience offered me fresh insight on how to grow and improve my work in the nonprofit and philanthropic sector. Here are a few of the reflections I marked in my mind:

  1. Take a step back; it may bring you closer to your priorities and values—Cue up the feeling of surprise best captured by the proverbial screech of a record player. I was stunned by an epiphany shared by one of my colleagues as we walked between buildings at the health clinic our grant had powered with solar panels and new medical equipment. This career Jewish professional acknowledged that this moment felt more powerful and defining as a Jew than any of the tzedakah-related programs enjoyed over five decades in the Jewish community. We often think about tzimtzum/pulling back in relation to Rabbi Luria’s explanation of God making space after creation for people to put back together the shattered pieces of the world. Now I see the value of pulling back ourselves from the community we have created—and those we most closely relate to.

  2. Document and discuss site visits—Digital documentation offers concrete visuals to verify what you thought you remembered seeing—or not. Video, in particular, gives another opportunity to process the moments that matter so you can explore new questions, ideas, concerns or optimism about the impact of the work. And don’t ignore the value of scheduling debriefing time with key questions both immediately and again shortly thereafter. There is no replacement for dedicated time to reflect, think, explore and question together; it adds tremendous value to your work and could surface opportunities otherwise unmined.

  3. Invite outside perspectives—Today more than ever we operate in our own echo chambers, as people and as organizations. Those of us in the philanthropic and nonprofit sector are not immune. On this site visit to a new beneficiary whose place in our funding portfolio was unclear to some, our trustees had the wisdom to include confidants who also were uniquely positioned to offer our team a new lens on this work. Engaging others who have a clear handle on your mission and the impact you hope to create will likely offer you distinctive, invaluable insight that can enrich your work.

  4. Look for human commonalities to identify opportunities for impact—Hidden in plain sight are the essential emotions and experiences that connect all people. We’re conditioned to look for our differences—politics, religion, sports team affinity, etc.  And that’s exactly the time to look deeper. Look deeper into what makes life and human relationships important. Ask questions that will unleash your emotions, struggles, hopes and fears to recognize how much we do share with all people. Tapping into the essence of the human condition can enlighten your appreciation for the impact you could make in someone’s life, and you may be surprised that removing those barriers in your mind strengthens your own growth, too.

The blue wedge of geography may continue to prevent me from winning Trivial Pursuit, but thanks to the people of Malawi, Innovation Africa and our trustees, I understand something new about this big world—something  that will forever be a compass guiding my work.