by Amy L. Sales, Ph.D.
There is much to applaud in Daniel Bloom’s suggestion of a common application for grant funding. JData, our system for tracking information from Jewish educational organizations, is based on the premise that shared information systems have enormous benefit and shared measurement systems are essential for collective impact. The JData system currently allows Jewish camps and schools to enter data about their operations and then generate a report that can readily be emailed to prospective funders. For their part, Jewish federations can download (into a format of their choosing) all of the data from the Jewish educational organizations within their catchment area. The one proviso is that the organizations grant permission. It is a only a few steps from these capabilities to Bloom’s envisioned universal grant application.
When JData first started, school and camp directors had trouble understanding the concept. They worried that adding their data to a shared database would reveal confidential information to everyone and they fretted over the amount of time it would take to enter the information. To explain the value of the system, we adopted the metaphor of the common application for colleges. You fill it out ONCE, we explained, but then you get to use the information multiple times and for many different purposes.
Our model was the Cultural Data Project, operated by the Pew Charitable Trusts. As JData does for Jewish education, CDP gathers longitudinal data on the arts sector and sees benefits for participating organizations, researchers, advocates, and funders. CDP also created a function which flows relevant pieces of information from the database into grant applications that are formatted precisely as each foundation wants. The foundations benefit from access to the broader information in the system. At the same time, they know that by accepting the standardized data for their grant applications, they are easing the burden on their grantees. We at JData are working on ways to make the JData system more useful to funders in much the way that Bloom describes. For the system to take hold in the Jewish world, however, funders will need to require more quantitative data from their grantees. Many funders, we have found, rely almost entirely on the narrative provided by grant seekers in their proposals. These narratives describe the problem their program is designed to address, how the program will work, and what outcomes they believe it will yield. But to assess proposals, these qualitative data need to be paired with objective, quantitative data on numbers served, total cost, cost per participant, staffing, other funds raised, and the like. It is the quantitative data that show the contours of funding and make it possible to assess impact over time.
Building the system that Bloom envisions is expensive. CDP cost millions to develop and now has an estimated annual operating budget of over $2 million, a number they expect will more than triple as they scale up. JData has been built with generous funding from the Jim Joseph Foundation which has borne the full cost of its development. It can easily grow into a common application system for the Jewish education world at relatively low cost. Doing so would be a win-win-win for the schools and camps that are seeking funding, for the federations and foundations looking for good places to invest, and for the JData system that strives to provide high quality, useful information to all concerned.
Amy L. Sales, Ph.D., is senior researcher at the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies, Brandeis University.