Building “Us” in an Age of Wii
My kids love playing Wii. Well, yes, I love it too. But I have to admit that I cynically use the power that—as a parent—the Wii confers me: “If you don’t at least taste the broccoli, there’s no Wii tomorrow.” And while thinking about this article, I had a bizarre epiphany. I suddenly realized what a deep meaning the name “Wii” has, and how revealing it is about the “zeitgeist” of the early 21st century. We live in such an individualistic time that “we” becomes “w-i-i.” Even the pronoun that denotes the collective is spelled with an emphasis on the “I.”
Am I reading too much into a commercial name? Maybe, but even if I’m pushing the metaphor, the reality is there. We live in a time in which the relative weight of the collective and the individual have shifted dramatically. It is the age of the hyper-empowered individual. In an egg-or-chickenish loop, the changes in technology transform the ways in which we see ourselves, the ways in which we interact with others, and the ways in which we organize ourselves.
Peter Berger, the sociologist who studied the changes that modernity brought to the human mindset, speaks about “the heretical imperative.” Berger reminds us that the origin of the word “heretic” is the Greek word for “choice.” A heretic is one that chooses his own way, that aspires to create a distinct path for himself, breaking free from societal norms. Today, Berger says, we are all heretics. Moreover, we are forced to be heretics. We are obliged to choose our own path.
For some time, the modern ideologies occupied the place that religion had in the Middle Ages, but those ideologies that served as “meta-narratives” that explained and organized the world have since been dethroned as well. Post-modernity is defined as the “skepticism towards meta-narratives.” We are left alone to build our own meaning, to navigate the uncharted waters of the 21st century with no compass beyond our own heretical imperative. We live in a world where we build our identities “a la carte.” We hyphenate our identities ad infinitum and we create ever-shifting ideological patchworks, at times beautiful, at times monstrous.
This is indeed scary, unsettling, but utterly fascinating. We have unleashed the creative power of the individual to heights never before attained. We have witnessed an explosion of creativity covering every aspect of the human experience; a world that opens up to us in the pixels of a screen; an unprecedented opportunity to connect, to be heard, to reach thousands. This is the world in which a kid can start a revolution with a text message, where a dictator in Egypt discovers that tanks can’t stop Facebook.
But what happens to collective action in this brave new world of hyper-empowered and hyper-connected individuals? How do we create a bridge between the sovereign self and the common good? How can one mix oil and water?
The answer is networks. In a network, the individual retains his dynamism and his entrepreneurial spirit but he is linked to others in a series of multiple loose connections. The network is the bridge that allows individuals to act together without demanding a total belonging or a life-long identification. It is a model of collective action that is radically and essentially different than the 20th century paradigm.
In the Jewish community this is particularly acute. The collective dimension is an essential part of what being Jewish is all about. Mainstream Jewish organizations are all about the collective. During the 20th century, American Jewry created mechanisms for collective fundraising, collective planning and allocating funds. We created “central addresses” that don’t necessarily fare well in a world of networks, because a network has—by definition—no center.
In fact, a network differs from a traditional collective organization in a number of critical ways:
While the traditional organization is top-down, the network operates from the bottom up.
Instead of being centralized, it is decentralized, having nodes of independent, yet coordinated activity all across the network.
Leadership is not an organizational position but a quality that is distributed across the different nodes.
While the traditional organization is built so that there’s a single line of command, in a network there is a multiplicity of connections between the different nodes. Information flows freely in all direction and not following the organizational hierarchy.
If a traditional organization is mechanical, working like a machine, the network is organic, working like a living organism, evolving and mutating all the time.
While the multiplicity of lines of communication and different nodes of independent action are destructive for a traditional organization, it is the central strength of a network.
A network is based not on bosses but on connectors. The most important actors in the network are the ones with the most connections. In our times, a network is what makes “w-i-i” sound like “we.”
Certainly, the traditional 20th century organization has its merits. After all, those organizations created unprecedented prosperity and reached heights of organization that had never been attained before. Indeed, they are great when we need to deal with issues that have well defined answers and known solutions. But they are not equipped to deal with complex issues fraught with uncertainty. They aren’t nimble enough to cope with the unexpected; they aren’t resilient, because—by definition—they lack the plasticity of a network.
For me, all this is not just a theoretical disquisition; it is the underpinning of the work that we do every day at the Jewish Funders Networks. At JFN, we believe that the future of philanthropy lies with networks. The 20th century was about the collective, the “central addresses” (federations, community centers, major Jewish agencies): organizations that used a 20th century paradigm to cope with 20th century challenges. The 90s and the 2000s saw the explosion of “independent philanthropy.” It was the “do it alone” model, where entrepreneurial funders could create—and fund—a program that would have enormous impact in the Jewish world.
And yet, in the last few years, we are seeing the limitations of that model. The issues facing the Jewish world are too complex, too new, too intractable for a single funder to tackle them alone. Impact requires collaboration, and network is the best platform for collaboration. In the 2010s, funders need to share information, think together and form “coalitions of the willing” to solve societal problems. The network is the platform that allows them to produce the change they want to see in the world. It’s a synthetic form, which combines the independence of the individual and the possibility for collective action.
Funders have realized that, as big as foundations may be, they aren’t big enough to solve problems on their own. And even if they had the money, in a world without easy answers they are extremely unlikely to find the “silver bullet” that will solve an issue. A network allows them to try different options, to learn from failure and to be flexible enough to create a panoply of solutions. From Birthright to Arab-Israeli integration, from Jewish education to the environment, networks of independent funders are now the main vectors of change in the Jewish world.
Of course, operating in a networked way is easier said than done. Even foundations that are the product of postmodern times are deeply embedded in the paradigm of the industrial era. Some still believe that controlling information is more important than sharing it. Many still think that proprietary software is better than open source. Some don’t yet grasp that, in a network, what you have is what you share.
As we said before, operating in networks requires a different approach that, in many cases, is counterintuitive. It requires also a level of trust that needs to be fostered. The questions and issues that networking pose to funders are very concrete: Are we ready to be transparent about what we fund and how? Are we ready to share credit? Are we prepared to share information? Knowing that networking requires process and trust-building, do we have the patience for it? Funders understand now that networking is not just shmoozing at the JFN conference. It is also not a fancy version of “you scratch my back I’ll scratch yours” (meaning, you fund the project I care about and I fund yours). It is a new approach to confront the issues and the challenges facing the Jewish people.
As funders operate more and more in a networked fashion, they demand the same of their grantees. Once they taste the benefits of networking, they have less appetite to fund organizations that refuse to embrace the benefits of collaboration and networking. There’s a subtext in many of the conversations between funders and grantees that says, “If we share, collaborate and think through issues together instead of competing, you should be doing the same.” In times of scarcity and with many requests from all fronts, funders are losing patience with duplication and avoidable waste. They reward collaboration among nonprofits.
When analyzing grant requests, I see more and more funders asking the question, “How do you collaborate with others organizations in your field?” Frankly, I even encourage them to ask that question. With the “central organizations” weakening, funders are more aware of the responsibility that falls on their shoulders. They take it seriously, and they believe that avoiding the waste of resources through duplication and lack of collaboration is their responsibility. That is not to say that they are allergic to competition. Most know that competition is sometimes healthy, but they want smart competition.
What is true for companies, for funders and for nonprofits, is certainly true for schools, especially independent ones. Schools have a lot to gain from embracing a networked approach. The problems facing schools, from affordability to leadership development, from curriculum development to government relations, are too big, too complex and too difficult to be solved by each school individually, especially when those schools don’t have the backing of a “movement” behind them. Certainly funders will reward cooperation among schools—anything from central procurement, to shared administrative services, to collaborative curriculum creation, to full-blown mergers and strategic alliances. Indeed, schools that cooperate will raise more money.
But this cannot be seen as merely a trick to raise more funds. Organizations need to do what is right, and money will follow. Networking needs to be embraced as a way of producing change in a system that badly needs it. While innovation abounds in the school system, it hasn’t solved the major issues facing the field. It hasn’t fixed the unsustainable business model of the Jewish day schools and it hasn’t produced the steady influx of professional talent that the system needs. For me, as a parent of kids that attend a community day school, these issues are far from being purely academic.
Maybe the solution(s) to many of the issues of the field can be found in the formation of creative networks that involve school, funders, independent practitioners, academic institutions and more (remember, the wealth of network is measured in diversity of connections). For that, schools need to ask themselves if they are ready to challenge some of their basic ways of operating; if they are prepared to look at competition and collaboration in a completely different light; if they are ready to change their approach to information, ownership and sharing; and if they are willing to embrace the risks—together with the benefits—of the network paradigm. Making “w-i-i” sound like “we” isn’t easy, but I’m afraid we have no choice.♦
Andrés Spokoiny is president and CEO of the Jewish Funders Network. He can be reached at Andres@jfunders.org.