Working With a Challenging Mega Donor
One of my proudest triumphs in Jewish leadership may sound insignificant to some, but I am acutely aware of its impact. Wearing my lay leader kippah, I became the president of the JCC of Greater Ann Arbor in May 2014. Upon my installation, the wealthiest donor in our community approached me with a promise. The donor is a good man, enormously successful in his professional pursuits. He believes that, no matter how much the world may have changed in the last 70 years, Jews are vulnerable in the face of a sure-to-happen second Holocaust. He also believes that, in order to survive, Jewish boys need to know how to defend themselves — with weapons, if necessary — and the only organization capable of training them is the Boy Scouts of America. The donor’s promise was to completely fund the creation of a Boy Scout troop wholly sponsored by the JCC. He also promised me that, if I did not accept such a gift, he would remove his support from the entire community (including 10% of the Federation budget). Fearful that his job was vulnerable, the Federation exec implored me to create a BSA troop. Other members of the community, however, pleaded with me to refuse the money in light of the BSA’s policy prohibiting gay troop leaders.
The choice felt Solomonic to me: create a Boy Scout troop to sustain the community or say no to the donor and be responsible for communal ruin. I exerted my keenest leadership skills in speaking with the donor, Federation and JCC lay and professional leadership, other key donors in the community and my trusted Wexner colleagues. It took confidence and smarts, both of which I developed as a Wexner Graduate Fellow and continue to hone as an alumna. The skills I drew upon included active listening; strategic thinking; crisis management and problem solving; persuasive communication; team building; agility and adaptability; and, most importantly, humility. Once I was able to hear what the donor really wanted—to create a self-sufficient generation of Jews—I could get down to the business of leading.
In the end, the executive director and I worked together and ultimately got the donor to understand that an affiliation with the BSA, while its current policy remained in place, would cause a huge schism in the community wherein no one would win. We also earned the support of all other parties involved to move forward with development of an exciting and ambitious non-BSA scouting proposal. Fast-forward a few months: the new scouting troop debuted with more than 60 boys (and girls!) enrolled; divisiveness is gone; and, the donor continues to support local Jewish communal organizations. He was so pleased with the outcome that he made a significant contribution to the JCC to honor the success of our scouting initiative. Even now, with a change in BSA policy, the donor remains pleased with the model we developed. To be sure, he is quietly vocal about wanting a BSA troop but he is okay with change as a process. For now, he enjoys hosting our JCC scouts at his home on the lake and teaching them outdoor survival techniques.
I am indebted to The Wexner Foundation for providing me with the leadership skills to find adaptive answers to even the most vexing communal challenges.
Robin Axelrod, a Wexner Graduate Fellowship alum (Class 8), serves as Director of Education at the Holocaust Memorial Center in Metro Detroit. In that capacity she works to create educational materials and opportunities that foster an understanding of the Holocaust and other genocides throughout the world, such that discrimination, bullying and intolerance for others are anathema to a just and peaceful citizenry. Robin also maintains an active consulting practice focused on professional development and supervision as well as curriculum development. She is a sought-after public speaker and mentor. In addition to her professional work, Robin has served on numerous local and national boards, including current leadership positions with the Jewish Studies Program at Eastern Michigan University and the Jewish Community Center of Greater Ann Arbor. Robin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.