The role of the philanthropist is to be a relentless question asker – to question the state of the world, especially what is not working and needs to be fixed.
by Steve Ellis
Over 300 Jewish philanthropists and foundation professionals met in Los Angeles [before Passover] for the 2013 Jewish Funders Network Conference. One of the keynote addresses was a seven part “Dream for the Future of Jewish Philanthropy”, presented by JFN president Andrés Spokoiny. Here is a recap of his recommendations to funders:
- Jewish philanthropy needs to be strategic. “We” need to know where we are going, and have a clear idea of the problem being addressed and the value being provided to society. We must have a clear road map.
- Measure the right things. The tendency is to measure what we can (objective metrics), instead of what we should. For example, while this country was founded based on the concept that we all have the right to the “pursuit of happiness”, this is not anything we can objectively measure. We often need to be more creative and subjective in measuring impact. It is not only important how many kids attend Jewish camps, but also the quality of their experience.
- Build the capacity of our organizations. This means spending on overhead. We need to let go of our obsession with limiting overhead in order to have strong and solid non-profits. He realizes this may be controversial, that many organizations are bloated, but many are not. When we use commercial services, we don’t ask about overhead. When we buy a cup of coffee, we don’t care what Starbucks pays in overhead, and we hope the airlines we fly spend plenty on pilot training and maintenance. Starving organizations of overhead weakens them. It is the actual impact, not the degree of overhead, which is the ultimate measure of success.
- Think long term. Don’t underestimate the scope of the problem, and don’t under invest in organizations offering a solution. Why is it we provide one-year grants when there are no major problems that adhere to this schedule? Nowhere in the Torah is it written that funding cycles should be limited to three years. We need to think longer term. Amazon took six years before it started generating returns to investors. We need to adapt our grant making to the characteristics of the problems we are trying to solve. One size does not fit all.
- Maintain a healthy relationship with Jewish communal organizations. The foundation community needs to recognize that JCC’s, Federations, and Synagogues are critical institutions that keep Jewish society healthy. They are our safety net. Their services are deeply complimentary to our work. We can and must be partners with them.
- Effective philanthropy must be networked. We need to be collaborative. The problems in our society are too big and too intractable to take on alone. According to Spokoiny, the quality and number of connections we make is more important that the size of our grants. In recognition of the key role of collaboration, JFN is initiating a biannual award to recognize outstanding philanthropic partnerships.
- Engage and inspire the next generation. There is expected to be a $41 trillion transfer of wealth in the next few decades. This is the largest such transfer, and thus the biggest philanthropic opportunity in history. We need to incorporate the next generation into the decision making of our foundations, to meet them where they are, to listen to their perspective, and include them in our process. We must help them discover the joy and reward of giving. We don’t want to miss this gigantic philanthropic opportunity.
He then talked about the upcoming Passover holiday, and the central role of the four questions. Spokoiny observed that asking questions is the essence of being free – that slaves don’t question, they simply follow instructions. He stressed that the role of the philanthropist is to be a relentless question asker – to question the state of the world, especially what is not working and needs to be fixed. And he suggested that we need to hold up the mirror of self reflection and frankly evaluate how effective are our approaches to dealing with these problems.
He concluded with a reference to the epitaph that Robert Frost picked for himself – that he had a lovers quarrel with the world. As Jewish philanthropists, we too must love and quarrel with the world. After all, we are Israel, which literally means we are meant to wrestle, to struggle, with the issues of our time.
Steve Ellis is the founder and president of Colorado Capital Management, and an active volunteer in the Jewish community.
This article first appeared in Boulder Jewish News; reprinted with permission.