Table for Two

A new series of interviews published in the JCYS Alumni Newsletter, Table for Two brings together a current and former Board Member to discuss the past and future of JCYS. For this issue we sat down with Past President and Board Alumna, Phyllis Tabachnick, and Board Member At Large, Liz Roberts.

Myah Blazar: Phyllis and Liz, thank you for taking time out of your schedules for this interview. It’s wonderful to have the opportunity to sit down with Board Members and Alumni in an informal setting. Let’s get started! Please share with me how you became involved with JCYS.

Phyllis Tabachnick: I came onto the board in 1994 and served as President in 1999 and 2000. At the time, Presidents often left right after their terms but I wanted to stick around as Immediate Past President. At that time, I was asked to chair Gala which was truly a more significant experience than I had expected.  Currently, I’m only involved as an Alumna.

M: Great, Liz, how about you?

Liz Roberts: I got involved in JCYS when I moved to Chicago in 2010. I started at Cresa and one of our managing principals, Al Rogoway is a JCYS Past President. I had been involved in a couple of nonprofits focused on children in my hometown, Philadelphia. Another one of our Past Board Alumni, Rachel Grey, now Rachel Weiss, also worked with me, so I had her influence at the time as well. I joined and became a designate in May of 2010, and from there went on to chair the Camp Committee, joined the Executive Committee, and worked very closely on the acquisition of our new site for the new Michael R Lutz Wicker Park facility. I co-chaired Gala with Jenny Gartenberg and Charlie Friend a couple years ago.  Now I am co-chair of the project committee for the new Michael R. Lutz Family Center. I continue to be a part of Exec, served as VP of Operations for the past few years, and continue to be very much involved in different aspects of the organization. It’s been great.

M: Phyllis, you were the first female President of the Agency. Can you talk about what the board felt like at that time? What does it mean to have been the first female President of JCYS?

P: When I had my first Designate interview, the Executive Director said, ‘you could be president of the agency one day!’ It was a very motivating idea to think of being the first woman president of what was formerly Young Men’s Jewish Council. Once I got involved and met the people who were actually leaders, I thought, ‘Oh, I don’t know if I can do that’, but as time went by I realized that I was actually becoming a leader myself and the idea of being President was exciting. I still remember my speech at the Annual Meeting. I pointed out that this transition was not about gender, it was about evolution. The face of this important organization was changing.

M: Speaking about evolution, can you both speak to how you believe the Board has changed?

L: Over the past three years, I think there’s been a lot of change in terms of the makeup of the board. When I started with my first run on Exec., I was the only woman in the room.  Now, there are three of us on the committee.  It’s nice not to be the only female voice in the room! There are a lot of Board members who come from a legal background and they have been invaluable in regards to some of the difficult decisions we’ve made over the years. Now, you definitely have seen a transition in terms of professional backgrounds of our Board Members. For example, I work in commercial real estate. We continue to branch out into different areas, recruiting board members from diverse professional backgrounds.

P: I think over time the board makeup often reflects the economy. There are several lawyers now, and in the 90’s, there was many investment professionals and technology people. We were flush with real estate professionals in the mid 2000’s. Board recruitment is an opportunity for any organization to sit down and really look at who we want on the board and how can we be strategic about new members.

L: We’re very focused on improving the designate experience and making it a little bit more formalized in terms of the type of training that they receive and to your point, Phyllis, being very deliberate about who it is that we would like to join the Board. And frankly, we are definitely targeting people with certain backgrounds that we think would be beneficial to the agency. For example, I know we have a new member of the designate class who has a marketing background, which I think is great and new to the agency.

M: Share with me how your JCYS experiences have impacted your professional lives.

P: I think Board Members rarely appreciate the actual skills that they develop while involved with JCYS (I know I didn’t). Those experiences of dealing with both positive and challenging issues and working with people help increase confidence. It’s often easier to take risks in a nonprofit board room than it is in your workplace. This process enables you to better understand yourself: where you’re comfortable pushing and what you’re comfortable prioritizing. The skillset of running a meeting and being an effective and efficient leader are directly applicable to much of what goes on in the “real world”, for lack of a better phrase. As a Managing Director at JP Morgan, the people that I have worked with through JCYS have sometimes become clients but,  more importantly, the skills related to teambuilding, prioritizing, and communicating have helped me to build my business and to mold me into the Jewish professional that I am proud to be.  When the JCYS experience ends and you realize you’re ready to continue the momentum, you look for something else in the non profit world that resembles your time on the board, and that’s the challenge. The agency helps you set a bar for yourself that is higher than it would be without your JCYS experience.

L: I agree with that. I think especially from a confidence building standpoint. Most board members join when they are at an early point in their careers and a lot of times they are reaching transitional points in those careers. The confidence boost is invaluable.

P: I came to JCYS because I was a camp person and I wanted to be involved in programs. I did not consider myself a finance person which in retrospect is funny,  and I certainly didn’t consider myself to be a fundraising person  -- which is even funnier! I never wanted to be a part of gala and I was not interested in taking a leadership role in the ad book. And now, fundraising is so much of what the community sees in me. I’m involved in organizations and I’m very comfortable being out in the field talking to donors and raising money. But that skill grew out of my falling in love with what JCYS was all about and then finding it very easy to talk about it in a targeted way that gets people to want to help. And those fundraising skills are, in the end, transferrable in real life.

L: I remember when Tom Field asked me to be Gala Co-Chair. I was hesitant because I didn’t grow up in the area, I was still relatively new to Chicago, and he was asking me to take on a role that was very fundraising heavy and it was daunting.  But, it helped me to improve my skills and confidence and I hope to take on more of these challenging roles. From a budget standpoint, I have never done the kind of budgeting that we do here at JCYS but I really learned the nuts and bolts of the organization after participating in a complete budget cycle. It gives depth to the decision-making process.

P: Budgeting is truly about how an organization prioritizes. It’s not just about how much something costs but about what the organization determines as necessary during the rotating cycles of the organization.

L: The budget process morphs. As the economy faces highs and lows there are certain external forces that dictate how we prioritize the best way to approach something. It evolves. It forces us to think through why we are making certain decisions, which definitely transfers to the “real world”. Especially with the new Family Center in Wicker Park, we are relying on the theoretical and there are big decisions around this. We don’t want to get ourselves in a situation where we assume enrollment will be a certain number and we will be bringing in X number of dollars, and then we miss that mark.  We have to have a methodology to how we make our budget and pro forma decisions. I think it’s a really good learning tool for people who aren’t involved in it on a day-to-day basis.

M: Phyllis, was there a major decision that you made on the board that really sticks out as challenging?

P: I’m going to change the question a little bit. We built an incredible facility in Buffalo Grove and we had amazing staff and programs in place. We believed that since there were thousands of kids in the area that could benefit from the program that we would end up with donors to take care of that initial debt. This assumption was clearly a mistake. I think we all wished we had raised the dollars prior to building the building. I am proud of the fact that I put the mezuzah on the door of the Buffalo Grove Family Center, but I am now gun-shy when organizations want to build before all of the dollars are raised.

L: We’ve learned from that. We’ve changed our approach and the ways in which we made decisions for the Wicker Park Center (Second Century Capital Campaign).

P: And that’s why I’ve tried to be helpful with this campaign because I feel as though it’s a better approach to successfully building new facilities.

L: Phyllis is helping us close out the Capital Campaign. I think what we’ve managed to do, especially in the past 12 months, in terms of capital fundraising has been really fantastic. We’ve stuck to our guns and tried to solicit as much help as we can get from our Alumni. It’s been way more successful because of that.

M: Let’s discuss the network of JCYS Alumni. How do you see the working relationship between Board Alumni and current Board Members?

P: It’s amazing to me that I’ve been off the board for more than 10 years! I walk into the Library at the Standard Club and still feel the emotion and tension that I felt when I was President. It was an exciting time for me and for the agency and it puts me in the position now to be involved in an Alumna capacity. I love talking to Board Members and Designates because although circumstances change over the time, there is such an underlying consistency to the Board experience.

L: JCYS, aside from the service aspect, is about the personal relationships. There is something really great about the Board/Alumni partnerships.

P: Those relationships are like nothing else. As Board Members, we roll  up our sleeves with our colleagues and go through great times as well as more difficult times together.

M: Let’s talk about the future of the agency. What do you envision for JCYS?

P: I believe that the agency needs to remain Jewish. I think this is what keeps it great and what attracts people to JCYS. I believe this is so core to the agency and that is truly what I want to continue supporting about the agency. That being said, I believe that the leadership development component of our mission is as important as the service we are providing to families and kids. That leadership experience should not be taken for granted. Leadership doesn’t just randomly happen because there are great people on a board in the same room. I think JCYS has clearly shown the ability to develop leaders and could potentially structure a slightly more thoughtful, strategic program around leadership development that could be a mainstay of the board experience.

L: That’s definitely something that we are investing in. Through our strategic plan, there’s been a deliberate shift towards making sure that we are focused on developing professional, Jewish civic leaders. We want to be a training ground for all of the other nonprofit organizations so that our board members are desirable to other Jewish and secular nonprofits alike. That is the future of the organization, to formalize the leadership development program and continue to mold the next generation of Jewish civic leaders.