Barb Windham: Beth Am Women President 2010-12 | Congregation Beth Am

Barb Windham: Beth Am Women President 2010-12

Barb Windham: Beth Am Women President 2010-12

Watch Barb's video interview or read the edited highlights from her interview below:

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How did your marketing background help you in your role as BAW president?
My marketing experience was influential in several of the initiatives that we took on to make people feel more included when I was president: a survey that we did and the start of targeted outreach efforts. Also my marketing/business experience came in handy when planning BAW Board meetings. During my presidency, we actually changed the way BAW ran board meetings: increasing discussion of strategic issues and minimizing tactical distractions, as well as initiating the practice of distributing written pre-meeting activity reports so meeting time was less about background and more about discussion of issues.

Tell us about the survey you created for Beth Am Women.
The Beth Am Women’s survey was a new kind of project for us. We wanted to understand what Beth Am Women members were interested in, what skill-sets they had and what kinds of commitments they wanted to make. Really, the survey came about when I was thinking of joining the BAW Board. I started asking people, “What are some of the problems?” because if you don’t know what the problems are, it’s hard to make a difference. And if you’re going to serve on a board, it seems like it makes sense to try and do something that makes a difference.

So there was an interesting dichotomy: On one hand, members on the board were saying, “Well it’s a real problem getting new volunteers to show up.” Or, “Whenever I come up to my friends, they’re walking away because they’re afraid I’m going to ask them to volunteer for something.” It was like pulling teeth to get volunteers. On the other hand, I would talk to people who were just members at large, and they would say, “Well, the same people are always doing everything, and so I don’t really feel connected.”

One major part of the survey was to identify specific skill-sets: the things that people want to do. It’s no longer pushing water uphill if you ask someone to volunteer for something they want to do, especially if you can find a way to fit it into their existing life-styles and the times that they wanted to be available. So, for example, we found out what activities people wanted to be part of. We found out what skills they had—many very untraditional skills for a sisterhood—everything from traditional envelope-stuffing, baking brownies and serving on committees to writing press releases or maintaining Excel databases, graphic design, legal or shopping for supplies—a pretty broad range of things. But we also asked, “How frequently would you like to volunteer?” For people who want to volunteer once or twice a year, great—find them a one-time task. Someone who wants monthly engagement or more is perhaps a future board candidate. If they’re interested, say, in doing an Excel spreadsheet, great—but don’t ask them to go bake brownies. If you can find a fit between what people want and the skill-sets you need, it makes things very easy for women to get involved in ways that are interesting for them.

We wanted to make it easier for people who are organizing events to broaden the range and reach and involvement of people who could participate. We also wanted to reach out and create a warmer, more inclusive sisterhood. If you always have the same people doing things, it’s hard to build a broad base of involvement. We built a volunteer database and populated it with over 300 people, so we could match people’s needs and interests to the needs of people who were doing recruiting.

Equally importantly, we learned about which activities were particularly interesting. There were activities that we’d been doing for years that some people didn’t even know about. So this was also a way of educating people about the breadth of activities that Beth Am Women was organizing. Also, rather than bombarding everyone all the time with every single event that was ever going to happen, we could target our marketing to you as being interested in a specific event. That had never been done before at Beth Am because people didn’t know who was interested in what or who wanted help with what. That’s what the survey was meant to do and it succeeded.

What did you find that was surprising?
One thing that was very surprising was the interest in a drop-in cooking class, because we’re in this era of professional women and many of us are working, so we were surprised by how many people were interested in cooking and baking. That was a very unexpected thing. One of my predecessors, Jane Marcus, used to say, “This is not your mother’s sisterhood.” And by that she meant people don’t want to just sit around and cook and bake, they want to advocate for specific political causes, and do tikkun olam, which obviously people still want to do. It was surprising that some of the traditional things that sisterhood had previously abandoned were also now of interest. My guess is that because women have moved so far to working in a co-ed world, that it’s really nice to get together with a bunch of women and chat and be creative, whether it’s cooking, or writing poetry, or knitting, or whatever it is that people are doing in our small groups: to be creative together and have a chance to just visit and bond over something that they like to do.

One of the things that we were trying to do while I was president was to help build communities of people who were interested in similar things. This was a strong personal belief of mine—sisterhood should not just be about having a bunch of big events where lots of people show up. There should also be small communities built around particular shared interests. Then you get deeper engagement, because people who share interests find lots of interesting things to talk about. And yes, you may initially meet by going for a BAW hike together, but then as a result when you come to the synagogue for some large event, you have connections already with the people who you went hiking with.  

Did you make close friends here at Congregation Beth Am?
Yes. Congregation Beth Am is a big community and the question is, how do you plug in and find community? Whether it’s serving on the Beth Am Women Board or serving on a committee or helping to plan an event, whenever you roll up your sleeves and work with somebody, you learn things about them and you become bonded. It’s just the way things work. It’s much better to get involved in making something happen or doing something together than to just sit in the audience together at an event, because then you actually get to know people better. And that’s how you forge the relationships that ultimately create a community. Getting to know people and helping others feel connected in our community is an important reason for me to be at Beth Am. It’s something the survey told us a lot of people wish they had more of at Beth Am. Any ways that Beth Am Women can help create that is great.

What do they want to have more of?
People wanted things that didn’t necessarily take a lot of planning, work or organizing on their part. They wanted activities that they could attend if they were available. People said that they wished we had a hiking group, so we started a drop-in walk and lunch group.

We also discovered that a lot of people really love the idea of a retreat. We had run retreats before, but frequently people didn’t have the availability to take off for a whole weekend, which is what the retreats had been in the past. People wanted to do something creative, so as a result of that and some of the other feedback we got in the survey—that there was a lot of interest in the creative arts, whether it was cartooning, drawing, or dance, or music—we created a one-day Creative Salon. People attended, took classes and spent the day in community building relationships with other people who were interested in the same thing.

What are some of the things you initiated that have become a more permanent part of Beth Am Women?
I hope that listening to the needs of our members has become part of our ongoing process. It’s more important that whatever events continue are those that meet the needs and interests of what people want at any given time. I hope that the more efficient, effective, strategic board meeting format continues.

Another of the things that I started that I hope continues is the sense of reaching out and trying to make more people feel welcome. That is at the core of what Beth Am Women should be doing—helping people to get engaged, helping women to connect with other women and feeling at home here. There are lots of things that we did along those lines. We reached back to anyone who had been a past president and organized the past-presidents’ council because there’s a lot of wisdom that was gained over the years that would be nice to have shared.

Also, I convened a group that we called the Welcome Women. It hasn’t lasted per se as an entity because it takes a lot of work. What I did was pull together about 45 or 50 women who had been involved at some point in Beth Am Women, either on the board or in some sort of leadership committee role, and I explained what Beth Am Women was doing today, and ways that we would love to have them get involved. And almost universally they said, “What can we do to be helpful?” What I wanted was to get a group of women who would be welcoming, who would reach out to new Beth Am Women members and help explain what we did, make sure they understood what opportunities were available and literally invite them to attend an event together.

What does BAW mean to you personally?
Certainly some of the people that I’ve worked with at Beth Am Women have become close personal friends. It’s been meaningful to me to have the chance to work with a broad array of women. It’s not something that happens in my work life, which has been more male dominated. I guess I learned a great appreciation for how very differently talented people in so many areas can contribute. Sometimes you think you need the leaders, or you need a certain kind of doer, but everybody contributes in their own ways … it takes a village. Everybody really has to connect to make this place feel like a home or to feel warm and friendly. And it takes all kinds of people to make that happen. I found it very educational how much every person could make a difference.

I will always value the relationships that I made on the board and the people with whom I worked. They taught me a lot. I learned a lot of patience. Personally I learned a lot more about the value of consensus building. You can learn a lot from serving on a volunteer board that is very different than serving on a business board. Organizing volunteers is very different than organizing people who get paid to do things. People are motivated differently.

One of the things I most dreaded when I agreed to be president was having to write a newsletter column once a month. For the first two or three months, I was frightened. I just didn’t know what I was going to say. Writing that column became one of my very favorite parts of the job after a while because it was a great outlet for ideas. People would write back to me afterwards and say, “Gosh, that was so interesting.”

All in all, being president of Beth Am Women was a valuable learning experience. I believe that at the end of my term, both the organization and I were stronger than when I started.

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