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JCF Blog

An End to the Zero Sum Game

Posted by: Jewish Community Foundation of Greater Hartford on 2/13/2017

I’m going to start with a confession: I believe that collaboration is the pathway to a more successful, more vibrant Jewish community. That collaboration, despite its challenges, complexities and nuance, is worth every ounce of effort it requires. In fact, I would go so far as to say that collaboration is one of the most important tools we have for positive social change in our currently divisive world.

Collaboration isn’t easy, and we face a powerful obstacle that makes the task even harder and holds our community back: the cynical belief that the world is a zero-sum game. The belief that if another organization “wins” a donation, that I have somehow “lost” that donation – a world in which the only thing that matters is the success of my organization or program, not the success of the community. 

This view isn’t universal, of course. But I am reminded that it still exists each time I hear someone note that it’s a “shame” that a donor made a large gift to another institution. 

I find this attitude challenging and frustrating on many levels. To begin with, how can we possibly lament someone’s generosity? That someone has the kindness of heart to embrace the important work of a nonprofit organization is something to be universally celebrated, no matter the size of the gift. What’s more, the donor has a right to give in whatever way he or she chooses. You may not agree with my passion for end of life hospice care, but who are we as a community to say that it doesn’t matter?

I believe that the zero sum view of the world largely stems from our failure as organizations to keep our mission front and center in our thinking. 

Sometimes, I believe we get lost in the thought that our purpose is solely to assure organizational or programmatic continuity. Instead, I would argue that the mission of each Jewish nonprofit is to sustain the Jewish people and its values. To create inclusive, vibrant Jewish communities based on the values that we have held close for centuries: repairing our broken world, living a life of loving kindness and pursuing social justice among others. 

Clearly none of us has a monopoly on these values nor can any one of us alone build a vibrant, strong and successful Jewish community that lives these values. By definition,vibrancy means “pulsating with vigor and energy.” It’s hard to imagine this state of being without a variety of diverse and strong institutions – an outcome that seems much more likely if we’re working collaboratively.

When we see only ourselves or our favorite organizations at the center of all things good, we set ourselves up as competitors rather than collaborators. We have to remind ourselves that our community is comprised of all of us – with all the disparate, differing and unique points of view that this entails.    

Every time that someone makes a gift to our community, finds a passionate commitment to a cause in our community or gives of their time and talent it is a victory to be celebrated – no matter where that passion falls. It’s time for us to stop thinking of our world and our community as a zero-sum game.

In a world where our connection to younger generations of the Jewish community is tentative at best, it is time for us to embrace the idea that a victory for one of us is a victory for all of us. If there ever was a moment to stop thinking “me”and start thinking “we”, this would be it.

Michael Johnston is the President & CEO of the Jewish Community Foundation of 
Greater Hartford.

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Beth Appelman
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Well put. How lucky we are to live in a community that supports and celebrates Jewish life in all its facets.
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