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How to Lead in the Nonprofit World

Course Taught by President Joel Offers Students Firsthand Lessons in Leadership

Always take the blame—but be sure to hand out credit. Answer all your mail. Have a lot of ideas—but remember, not all of them will be great ones.

President Richard Joel introduces Stephen Trachtenberg to his “Leadership in the Nonprofit World” class.

These were just a few helpful pointers guest speaker Stephen Trachtenberg, former president of George Washington University, offered Yeshiva University students during class on a chilly Wednesday night in December. Trachtenberg noted he usually gives that advice to newly-appointed university presidents—not undergraduate students, per se. However, in the Sy Syms School of Business course designed to place students squarely in the shoes of nonprofit greats, his remarks provided insight into a question the group had been considering for almost a semester: What does it mean to be a leader in the nonprofit world?

Taught by YU President Richard M. Joel, “Leadership in the Nonprofit World” delves into that question from a series of angles, exploring issues of management, team building and vision. It includes everything from overarching themes, like how to navigate conflicting values, to the daily nitty-gritty, like building professional or board relationships.

“As University president, I talk a lot about how important it is to know that as Torah-informed Jews, our students have a responsibility to matter,” said Joel. “In a class like this, the practical side of what it means to matter is very important.”

Trachtenberg, former president of George Washington University, was one of several nonprofit leaders to speak to the class.

To that end, case study and text-based discussions are often augmented with scenarios drawn from Joel’s real-life experience as former president and international director of Hillel, the Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, and his time at YU’s helm. Guest speakers like Trachtenberg; Dr. Henry Kressel, chairman of YU’s Board of Trustees; Rabbi Menachem Genack, CEO of the Orthodox Union Kosher Division and a rosh yeshiva at YU-affiliated Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary; and Dr. Phillip Ozuah, executive vice president and chief operating officer of Montefiore Hospital, bring their own unique perspectives to the conversation, providing students with a multidimensional view of leadership in a range of industries.

“I think the process of education is only enhanced when students are exposed to people of accomplishments who can share their experience,” said Joel. “There’s something to seeing how different people who occupy positions of leadership manage its common challenges.”

But the conversation goes both ways. After Joel delivered his first State of the University address on September 12, students in his course shared their reactions to it and analyzed its content as a work of leadership. That direct connection is something Joel values. “I love teaching and have wanted to teach from the beginning, but the scheduling burden of the presidency made it unfair to impose that uncertainty on a class,” he explained. “This year, I wanted to get back to having that relationship with students. You can better identify with the university you lead if you spend some time in the classroom.”

“This course has been a revelation,” said Joshua Fink, a Yeshiva College senior majoring in economics who has been interested in the nonprofit world for several years. Studying the topic in-depth with Joel has helped demystify that world and make it accessible to him. “President Joel engages us in discussion about relevant problems and practical situations that come up in nonprofits and even the business world at large,” said Fink. “I’m learning how important communication and having a dedicated and trustworthy team around you is.”

Sason Gabay, a senior majoring in accounting at Sy Syms, has found his role as a teaching assistant in the course especially interesting. “My favorite part has been the opportunity to sit down with the President after class and really see different situations through his eyes,” he said. “I’m learning that it takes a lot of commitment and passion to be the head of a nonprofit. If you don’t have that set of values, you might make a great Fortune 500 CEO, but you’ll probably fail leading a nonprofit organization.”

For Joel, that takeaway is key. “I hope my students walk away with the sense that leadership is not about power or glory, but taking responsibility,” he said, adding: “I don’t take lightly the privilege of being in a university classroom. The interchange between us, that process of enlightening and being enlightened, is everything.”