From the Professional Team

Reflecting on Growth and Learning While at the Jim Joseph Foundation

– by Seth Linden

June 10th, 2019

I stepped into the Jim Joseph Foundation office for the first time as a Jewish philanthropy professional around 7:45 am on Thursday, October 15, 2015. On Friday, June 7, 2019, I exited the office for the last time as a Program Officer for the Foundation. Many of us come and go from various jobs and professions, so we know what it’s like to start work, do the work, and end the work. I was honored and privileged to work here, and part of what I loved so much was the opportunity to reflect and to learn. In fact, if there’s one thing I enjoyed and appreciated most about my funder colleagues, my grantee-partners, my peers in secular philanthropy, and our trusted consultants, is how much they taught me over the past three-and-one-half years.

One of the first assignments that I received upon donning the role of Program Officer was to meet with and speak with dozens of program officers from other foundations to hear their stories: What led them to where they are now? What challenges do they see in the field of Jewish education? What opportunities on the horizon excite them? For those who know me, you can imagine this being an assignment I relished. Set up coffee dates with those wiser and more learned than me? Sign me up! I was skimming through some of these notes recently, and I must have had 30-40 conversations in those first few months to get me up to speed in the vernacular of Jewish communal life (this was, after all, my first Jewish professional job, and my first job in philanthropy. My previous 10 years had been spent running a K-12 tutoring company, and before that I was a high school math and science teacher).

My first Jewish Funders Network conference was an exciting blur of camp-meets-summit, continuing to meet new colleagues, re-connect with folks I had met virtually, and connect with a few legends in the field who my assigned first-time mentor, Jon Woocher, z’’l, made sure I met: Cindy Chazan, Joni Blinderman, and Yossi Abramowitz. As I was already starting to carve out distinct portfolios in my grantee and project work, these three helped introduce me to the worlds of Jewish leadership, early childhood education, and educational technology.

As I progressed, my feet sank deeper into learning more and more about leadership programs: What’s out there, and what works? Who are the key players? Where does the Jim Joseph Foundation currently invest, and what might a more focused leadership investment strategy look like? I remember the first presentation and discussion I led with my Foundation colleagues, based on researching our current and previous grants in the space, creating a rudimentary leadership rubric to determine which grants are “leadership grants,” and proposing a few high level ideas to inform strategic investments going forward. While some of those early ideas stuck (we led a successful Leadership Retreat in summer 2018, and are considering leadership capacity grants), others are still in formation (what would it look like to provide a coach or mentor to every Jewish professional? What would it look like to fund CEO sabbaticals?).

From this initial research, I was encouraged to explore secular leadership programs and strategies, while also continuing to dig deeper into the concept of “Jewish leadership.” Similar to my listening tour to better understand Jewish foundation professionals, I embarked on a series of conversations, focus groups, conferences, and think tanks that explored leadership from myriad angles. I met Phil Li, President & CEO of the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation, whose approach to networked leadership led to the creation of the Sterling Network to bring together cross-sector leaders in New York City. I met Claire Peeps, Executive Director of the Durfee Foundation, who provides leaders in Los Angeles with a Durfee Sabbatical, and other leaders with a longer Stanton Fellowship to support them to think deeply about a complex challenge. I met Holly Delany Cole, Director of the Flexible Leadership Awards, a Haas, Jr. Initiative that provides supplemental funding to core grantee organizations to more deeply invest in customized leadership capacity solutions. These three colleagues, and many others in the Leadership Funders Group, as well as Fund the People, helped nourish my soul and quench my thirst for knowledge, introducing me to new ways of thinking and new people to meet, all of whom focused their attention squarely in the leadership space.

There are too many books, articles, blogs, and publications to recount that also informed my thinking and helped me on my journey as a foundation professional learning about leadership. But a few that sparked lasting ideas around effective leadership investing are GEO’s Investing in Leadership Strategies, HBR’s On Leadership, and Bridgespan’s Leadership Pipeline Alliance Report, which led to the formation of Leading Edge. I am indebted to my friends and colleagues at the Schusterman Family Foundation and Wexner Foundation, for their continued teaching and meta-leadership in this arena. I will always be thankful to my friends and colleagues at the Jim Joseph Foundation for their patience with my numerous questions and their desire to also think big with me. And especially to the Jim Joseph Foundation’s two senior leaders with whom I worked—Chip Edelsberg and Barry Finestone. They each mentored and coached me in their own distinct way; I am eternally grateful for the opportunities they gave me.

This July, my family and I are moving to Long Beach, where I grew up, to be closer to our kids’ grandparents. It is a very bittersweet transition, not only to leave my colleagues here, but to leave my community in San Francisco, where I have lived for nearly 25 years. We will surely grow new roots in Southern California, with the gracious and generous help of our parents, friends and relatives. I feel good about the work we’ve done together. I remain optimistic about our future. The Jewish people are strong. We are resilient. We are creative, and innovative, and educated. We are not wont for leaders or leadership—they are sitting and standing among us. I know that the skills and relationships I have formed here are without a doubt some of the strongest I have made in my lifetime, and I will carry them with me into this next phase of my career. They are built on curiosity, on humility, on vulnerability. And perhaps that is what leadership must teach all of us—to be curious, to be humble, to be vulnerable—with ourselves, and with each other.

Godspeed, my friends.

Seth Linden was a Program Officer at the Jim Joseph Foundation for 3.5 years. He is now a philanthropy consultant focusing on board culture and governance, leadership and talent development, and designing and facilitating learning retreats. He can be reached at seth@gatherconsulting.org and you can read more at www.gatherconsulting.org.