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Seeing the Water in the Glass

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This story comes to us from TAMID, an organization that develops the professional skills of undergraduate students through hands-on interaction with the Israeli economy. As the Executive Director of TAMID, Yoni Heilman is responsible for organizational growth, resource development and strategy across TAMID's 29 chapters. 

Below, Yoni shares his reflections on the Schusterman Foundation's recent Tzimtzum gathering, which brings together the executives of several grantee organizations for three days of learning, discussion and networking.

Let’s face it: crisis sells. It turns out volunteers in droves, encourages donors to take out their checkbooks and leads the headlines of every top media outlet. Not to mention electing presidents: as we enter election season, it seems like every candidate is searching for a slogan that subtly suggests the world is ending.

I’m not denying the power of using crisis as a motivator. The challenge is that the Jewish sector has allowed the crisis concept to seep into our roots. Maybe it’s the high percentage of worrying Jewish mothers in our community...but we are so used to using ‘the sky is falling’ as a way to raise funds and motivate external stakeholders that we are adopting that mindset inside our organizations as well—choosing to focus on problems and seeing crisis in a way that is undercutting our ability to make headway on the most important challenges facing the Jewish community.

A few weeks ago the Schusterman Foundation convened the directors of 20 nonprofits it supports for its annual Tzimtzum Conference—an opportunity to bring together Jewish professional leadership for collaborative discussions, peer coaching and, this year, to discuss change leadership. Dan Heath, co-author of the recent book Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard, guest-led a workshop at the conference focused on scaling change, which underscored the detrimental impact of a constant focus on the negative.

The truth, as Dan Heath pointed out, is that despite all of the crises we face, some things are actually working. Most of the time there is in fact a silver lining. The reason we sometimes get stuck facing seemingly insurmountable challenges is that we are focused so much on where things aren’t working that we miss the fact that in some areas, they are.

Dan shared the example of Jerry Sternin, who as the head of Save the Children traveled to Vietnam in the ‘90s to try to address the problem of child malnutrition. After hearing about the extent of the crisis and the insurmountable obstacles standing between him and reforming the economy in Vietnam, Jerry took a more granular look at one village and discovered that, despite widespread poverty, poor sanitation and a general lack of resources, there were a handful of families that were able to provide for their children sufficiently. 

Instead of focusing on the vast majority that were undernourished, Jerry scrutinized the families able to subsist in these adverse conditions and, once he understood what they were doing different than everyone else, he replicated it across the village. In less than six months child malnutrition in the village had plummeted.

Two months ago I took over as executive director of TAMID, a nonprofit that connects college students to Israel through hands-on engagement with the Israeli economy. Through elements like an educational curriculum, remote consulting for Israeli startups and a summer fellowship in Israel that incorporates full-time work at companies from early-stage startups to established accelerators and venture capital firms, we provide students with the opportunity to build their professional skills and in so doing discover an inspiring side of Israel.

I joined TAMID at a particularly exciting time: as an organization that is largely student-led and student-driven, TAMID has been expanding from campus to campus rapidly, with 29 chapters now and over 20 more in the pipeline. Far from facing crisis, TAMID is enjoying not only quantitative growth but qualitative growth as well, as we see our programs having a real impact on both our students and the companies and startups we work with. 

Yet building new chapters comes with its own set of questions: how do we take new campuses and help them meet the bar that has been set by established campuses with years of experience? As Dan Heath demonstrated, it was easy to fall into the trap of focusing on the new campuses where the most work was needed. ‘Crises’ aren’t just easy to find; they demand attention, like a student who needs extra help or a salesperson not meeting their quota.

Taking a page from Dan’s book, however, we were able to take a step back and realize that, among our 29 running laboratories, we have quite a few that have achieved unbelievable success in specific areas. There is the campus that turned its educational curriculum into a semester-long VIP speaker series; the consulting team that developed a biomedical device and saved their client $100,000; and the chapter that has successfully recruited more than 100 students, each putting ten hours per week into their TAMID consulting project. More importantly, we found little correlation between our most active campuses and the amount of time they had been a TAMID chapter—with one of our most engaged campuses only in its second year.

So we are not focusing on bringing new chapters up to speed. We are focusing on our greatest successes—understanding what is common to our best programs and sharing those lessons across the organization. It is more than teaching best practices—it is understanding that sometimes the people on the ground have found their way around the roadblocks to incredible success, and knowing that effective change sometimes requires focusing on the bright spots rather than the crises. The glass is half-full, we just have to realize it.

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.