3 Lessons for Successful Field-Building

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Photo Credit: Shulamit Seidler-Feller at Focal Point 2019 at Pearlstone Retreat Center

What do an Israeli nonprofit that cures neglected tropical diseases in Ethiopia, a Mexican organization that works on disaster relief in Latin America and a British charity that offers volunteer opportunities in Ghana have in common?

At first glance, not much.

But when you dig deeper, all three are Jewish and/or Israeli organizations serving vulnerable communities in developing countries and share similar challenges and opportunities.

When OLAM was first founded as a field-building entity in 2015, people wondered: Why bring together global volunteering, international development and humanitarian aid organizations under a shared umbrella? Aren't these separate domains, each with its own best practices and vocabulary? What's the value in connecting multimillion-dollar legacy organizations with struggling startups? Aren't the issues they face so vastly different?              

Today, however, the fundamental question of whether there is value in defining and building out the field of global Jewish service has been largely put to rest.

OLAM’s latest Partner Survey, conducted by Rosov Consulting using 2018 data, tells the story of a growing, diverse, interconnected community of individuals and organizations working together to engage the Jewish world in global service and international development.

Last year, OLAM's 51 partner organizations worked in 90 countries, had a total budget of over $146M, employed almost 2,000 salaried staff and engaged close to 2,500 volunteers in meaningful work overseas.

In the survey, a majority of OLAM’s partner organizations underscored the importance of networking with and learning from fellow organizations, and how much it meant to them to feel like they were contributing to a larger field. 

Of course, OLAM's partners did more than just talk a good game about communication and collaboration. They also went out and made it happen.

On average, each partner was in contact with 11 other partner organizations during 2018 to collaborate on projects, learn from one another and, in some cases, to refer applicants to each other’s volunteer or academic programs.

Some of these touchpoints and collaborations were facilitated by OLAM while others came about organically.

There is still a lot more we at OLAM can do to bring our partners together. In the meantime, here are three lessons we have learned over the past few years about what it takes to build a cohesive field amid a vast array of independent parts:  

1. Accentuate similarities and acknowledge differences.
There's tremendous diversity among the organizations OLAM brings together—from their age (80% were established after the year 2000, 9% before 1990) to their budgetary scope (ranging from under $50K to over $50M) to their programmatic focus (community development, women’s empowerment and gender equality, education, volunteering and service-learning, youth empowerment, etc.). When we plan OLAM's in-person and virtual convenings, we are sensitive to these differences but also strive to establish common ground.

We try to find a balance between topics that are relevant to all partners—e.g., how to work in developing countries using the highest ethical standards or how to speak about our work using language that resonates with Jewish stakeholders—with those that speak to specific subsets of our community, such as how to engage alumni of global volunteering programs or how to best coordinate relief efforts in a time of crisis. 

2. Invest in relationships.
How many coffee dates does it take to build a field? While this may sound like the start of a corny joke, we've discovered that investing in relationships—between OLAM and our partners and among our partners—is crucial to building the trust and collaborative spirit that are the building blocks of a field.

Despite our limited staff capacity, we prioritize attending our partners' events to show support for their work, meet regularly with partners for one-on-one consultations and mutual updates, consult with partners before launching new programs, and ask for feedback after a program’s completion. We encourage OLAM staff to proactively make connections between partners even if there's no immediate or tangible reason for doing so because we believe that introducing talented people to one another will lead to wonderful, unanticipated outcomes.      

3. Act with humility.
Without the hard work of our partners, OLAM wouldn't have a field to build. Our role is to support and amplify their efforts. When there's a choice to be made between shining the spotlight on ourselves or our partners, we opt for the latter. 

We have secured press mentions for our partners knowing that OLAM wouldn’t be cited, and arranged for our partners to keynote at large-scale Jewish conferences instead of inserting ourselves onto the speakers' list. We also strive to act with humility in even more subtle ways, including responding to partners' emails quickly and fully; doing our best to meet partners where it's most convenient for them; using our social media platform to share partners' successes, and so on.

By acknowledging our partners' similarities as well as differences, investing in relationships, and acting with humility, we have been working to support and strengthen a cohesive field. And, our partners have responded in turn. With relatively little fanfare and to an extent that has surprised even the OLAM staff, they are sharing information, turning to each other for expertise, and collaborating on projects big and small. This is good news for the field and, ultimately, for the vulnerable communities it serves.      

Dyonna Ginsburg is Executive Director of OLAM, a diverse community committed to engaging the Jewish world in global service and international development as an expression of Jewish values. Learn more about OLAM's partner organizations and read the full 2018 Partner Survey.

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The Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation is proud to empower emerging leaders to explore their values, identity and new ways to strengthen their communities. We believe that as we work together to repair the world, it is important to share our diverse experiences and perspectives along the way. We encourage the expression of personal thoughts and reflections here on the Schusterman blog. Each post reflects solely the opinion of its author and does not necessarily represent the views of the Foundation, its partner organizations or all program participants.