A Quick Word With… is our ongoing series in which Communications Network members from a range of organizations tell us about themselves, their work and where they draw their inspiration. This installment features Deena Leventer, communications director, Yad Hanadiv – the Rothschild Foundation in Jerusalem, Israel.
Last year you attended your first Communications Network conference and you’re joining us again this year in Seattle. What inspires you to travel from Israel to the United States for this event?
I guess the Communications Network is what inspires me. Last year was my first year at the conference. Fay Twersky (currently at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and previously at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation) deserves a lot of credit for my being there. Fay spent a year in Israel working with Yad Hanadiv from 2010-2011 and – among the amazing things that she accomplished – was pushing to give communications a more prominent role in the foundation. This included a new perspective on my role and a stress on the importance of professional development and getting out of the small and sometimes parochial world of Israeli philanthropy to look around at what is being done in the bigger wider world.
The Communications Network is a perfect one-stop shop for many of my needs. I came back from Boston with broadened horizons and lots of ideas for how to improve our day-to-day work. I am about ready to recharge my batteries.
When’s last time you learned something important from a communications colleague?
I learn something from Beth Kanter every time I read what she blogs or tweets. Also, Marc Fest (former vice president of communications at the Knight Foundation) ran a session on Message Houses at the last Communications Network conference. I came back to Israel with the idea, and we have already created a small neighborhood of message houses and integrated it into our vocabulary and thinking.
What is an interesting communications project you’ve got going on right now?
We are looking for ways to promote a fund to support cooperation among universities and innovation in the humanities. The renewal of the National Library of Israel is also a major focus of the foundation at this time. I know that print is old school, but we decided to illustrate the report on the projects generated by the fund with appropriate images of treasures from the NLI. The visual feast of maps, handwritten manuscripts and objects that the NLI provided us for this report reflected the richness of the humanities – often relegated to a back seat in Israeli academia. One back scratched the other and it felt good.
You were educated in the United States and work in Israel, giving you a unique cross cultural perspective. Does comparing the cultures of the two countries yield any professional insights that you’ve been able to apply in your daily work?
My dual cultural existence is constant reminder to me of the critical role of understanding the audience that you are “playing to”. I am not referring only to getting it right in different languages (our Website includes Arabic as well as Hebrew and English) which is sometimes a real challenge, but about the deeper issue of how what you convey is perceived and processed by people with different cultural experience and perspectives.
When you were 13 years old, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I thought I would be an academic because that was the world I saw around me. I was actually trained as Sovietologist in the days when there was such a thing. But I began writing a monthly chronicle of the Soviet press and eventually evolved into where I am now.
Do you do an annual communications plan?
In the last few years Yad Hanadiv has become pretty disciplined about making annual plans and using what we call a “Scorecard” which sets out annual goals for the entire organization. Communications has its place in the planning and the Scorecard.
The last significant improvement you made to your website?
We built a module in our Drupal-based CMS for building and mailing newsletters.
Yad Hanadiv is a family foundation in which the founders are very much involved. Can you tell us a bit more about it?
Giving is described by the members of the family as “a privilege.” In doing our work we carry on a long and venerable tradition of Rothschild family philanthropy in this part of the world. Also, as weighty as some of our projects have been (building the Knesset and Supreme Court Buildings, establishing Israel’s Open University, an Institute for Advanced Studies, an Institute for school principals, and the current challenge of renewing the National Library of Israel) the family has always been reticent about publicizing its philanthropy.
Last nonfiction book you read?
I am currently reading the Hare with the Amber Eyes. It turns out that there is a lot of history relevant to the Rothschild family contained in the book which was an unexpected benefit. But I am especially knocked over by the technique of the writing. The fact that de Waal is a porcelain artist (and a renowned one at that) is to me not unrelated to what he does with language. In both areas he is a minimalist and a master craftsman who produces a refined product.
Have you any favorite American journalists or other media personalities?
I am a fan of Charlie Rose. Interviews I see in the American – and especially in the Israeli media – are often more about the interviewers than the interviewees. There aren’t that many people out there who are able to carry out penetrating interviews and suspend their egos.
Tell us about a thought-leader in Israel who inspires you.
Shai Agassi is a 45 year old Israeli entrepreneur who started off in the software business, was CEO of SAP, and founded Better Place, which has developed a model and infrastructure for employing electric cars as an alternative to fossil fuel technology. I am not sure what the ultimate fate of Better Place will be, but no one can take away from Agassi his macro thinking and his guts.
Your favorite communications tool you think more folks in philanthropy should be using?
I have only begun to investigate it, but I think tools like Scoop.it are going to be essential to all of us. The flood of information coming at us has become intimidating and the next big challenge will be efficient ways to filter and distill it into something useful. I commend Beth Kanter for the work she is doing on promoting and helping us understand this.
One aspect of your personal life that has the greatest impact on your professional life?
My partner worked for many years as a manager in the non-profit and philanthropic world. He is a great source of deep thinking and support.
What’s one thing American foundation communications staff might do to reach out to build connections with their counterparts in the Middle East?
How about arranging a retreat in Jerusalem?
Do you have a favorite American food that you’re looking forward to indulging in while you’re in Seattle?
I hear Seattle has great coffee. I am pretty fussy, so we will have to wait and see if it makes the grade.
A Quick Word With… was created by Michael Hamill Remaley, Vice President of Communications & Public Policy, Philanthropy New York, and a frequent Communications Network contributor. This interview was conducted and edited by Courtney Williamson, Community Manager, The Communications Network