Meet the Professionals


A conversation with Alicia S. Oberman, Executive Director of the Jack and Goldie Wolfe Miller Fund


Just before summer’s end when many of us were on vacation, we had the opportunity to sit down with Executive Director of the Jack and Goldie Wolfe Miller Fund, Alicia S. Oberman. As Foundation Director, Alicia directs all of the foundation's programs and operations while serving as the foundation's liaison to its non-profit partners and community. Alicia, who has been the director of the fund for the past 10 years, took a break from her trip to Israel with her daughter to share with us her thoughts and vision. Even though directing a foundation was not her childhood dream, fate has it that she finds herself in a place where she can fully realize her vision and creative powers.


How did you find yourself in your current position?

I am a lawyer by trade and practiced law with a firm initially. Specifically, I focused on corporate law and securities, involving many transactions, long hours and hard work. While the compensation was good, I did not find the work particularly fulfilling nor was I happy with how I was using my time. About 10 years ago, I decided to make a career switch entirely when I took the opportunity to become Executive Director of the foundation, and here I am. I find it interesting that the skill set of being a lawyer is similar to the skills needed in my current position; analysis, perspective, forward thinking, negotiations, and more. Before I started my current position, I would not have anticipated how my training as an attorney would translate and facilitate my work in the nonprofit sector.


How has the organization changed since you took over as director?

When I started at the foundation I realized how my business background could enhance and enrich the operation to ensure larger impact of our philanthropy. The situation when I started could aptly be described by the expression “kitchen table philanthropy,” wherein a foundation’s philanthropic decisions are made during family gatherings, even just over dinner. I was sure we should try do it differently.

Transforming the foundation was challenging. One of the first slides I used in a presentation to the board to begin to change their mindset was titled “It’s not YOUR money anymore.” That didn’t necessarily go over so well at first. But now I use that slide all the time when presenting to other foundations about our process. It definitely gets people’s attention.

For the first 2-3 years of my tenure, I focused on establishing an organizational structure and guidelines involving policies and procedures, budgeting, and reporting requirements. However, the board was used to a more flexible operating structure. Initially they felt that the changes I was trying to implement focused too much on legal issues and foundation bureaucracy, rather than the philanthropy itself. But today, after some time to reflect, they are happy with the end result, because now they can see, feel and measure their impact.


During the past year, the foundation began a new and exciting project in collaboration with Marom Group: the Board Member Institute for Jewish Nonprofits. This initiative aims to empower nonprofit board members to improve operations and amplify the impact of Jewish nonprofits.

Please share your experience of working with Marom Group and what is the story behind your partnership. 

We decided to reach out to Marom for two main reasons. First, due to my day-to-day experience of working with a great variety of U.S. nonprofits, particularly in Chicago, we developed a feeling that there was a strong sense of urgency for comprehensive board member training, yet we failed to find any existing offering addressing the issues we were trying to resolve. While reaching out to influencers in the field, seeking advice and recommendations, I was introduced to Amit Marom, who by that time had launched a board training program in Israel similar to the one we envisioned, and already had built two successful cohorts.

It was obvious that the Israeli experience and format could not be applied directly to the U.S. market. Yet it was important for me that Marom Group already shared our vision and concern, and they showed the ability to be proactive in addressing such a critical issue. So we partnered with Marom Group to capitalize on their expertise to break ground in the U.S.

Second, we wanted to partner with a group that not only does training but implementation and follow-through as well. Most consulting groups’ services are limited to strategic vision, or telling you what to do. We chose Marom Group because we wanted the additional engagement of helping us do what we needed to do.

And finally, I think it’s always helpful to work with someone who brings an outside perspective to the work, especially if they have a knowledge base that would take you years to accumulate. For most organizations, working with such a partner is essential in order to challenge yourself and find new nuances.


How was it to work with a non-American advisor?

From a cultural perspective, working with Israelis was challenging, but in a good way. We have different mentalities and problem-solving approaches. In the US people are more process-oriented and risk-averse. We tend to try to foresee all possible future complications before we get into the process, while in Israel the focus is on action and geared towards the end-goal. With an Israeli sense of urgency, in nine months we managed to create a program that could otherwise have taken much longer to just design. In addition, some of our market analysis has even been cited and utilized as a reference for other research projects, which helps in turn facilitate other initiatives and bring other products to market. The difference in mentality pushed us and forced us to keep moving and maintain momentum.

Personally, I learned from working with an Israeli advisor that the work process is not a marathon or a sprint; it’s both. And it takes nuance and expertise to be able to know when to sprint and when to pace yourself.


On this inspiring note, Alicia and I finished the interview with the conclusion that members of the well-established nonprofit field in the US felt they still had much to learn; namely that nonprofit organizations can evolve and improve by exposing themselves to different methods and models, and that Israeli “chutzpa” can prove to be an advantage in an area I would never have considered - nonprofit America.




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