A funder asks potential grantees: “How Inclusive are you of People with Disabilities?”

grant-applicationBy Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi

This weekend I will yet again get on a plane to attend the Jewish Funders Network (JFN) annual gathering. I’ve been a member for 16 years and, no matter how packed my schedule, I make it to their conference each year. The people are amazing and the networking always enables me to find new projects to fund, new ways to do things better, and other people to join me in funding things I am passionate about.

My husband and I have a donor advised fund. We started it when we got married and have added to it since. Some years ago, thanks to the inspiration of other JNF participants, we began to review grants through a new lens. We took the step to add questions to our grant application that not only asked who organizations serve and what programs they wanted funding for, but also how inclusive they are of people with disabilities. We added these questions to all our applications – and find them especially meaningful with organizations whose missions and actions are outside of the disability space. We found, for example, that the Sierra Club and RAINN, both non-Jewish and non-disability focused organizations, have deeply thoughtful inclusion policies and practices. We also found that Autism Speaks, which is all about disability issues, did not have people with Autism on its board or senior staff. And we also saw that most Jewish groups, who like all other religious organizations are legally exempt from the Americans with Disabilities Act, did not even know what they did not know about these issues.

Our grantees include Jewish overnight camps, a Jewish Community Center volunteer program for teens, synagogues, Jewish Day Schools and other Jewish organizations. We want all of them to strive to be inclusive and to have specific plans and actions to achieve their goals. Overall, fully 1 in 5 people in America have a disability. Jews, due to genetic differences and delayed childbearing, experience more disability issues than other groups. Thus, we want to ensure that organizations that receive our philanthropic dollars demonstrate that they are committed not only to their mission but also to representing and including our whole community.

We did not invent this concept, we follow in the footsteps of important leaders like the Butler and Ruderman Family Foundations which each also focuses on disability. We also saw that the Schusterman and Morningstar Foundations and Stuart Kurlander use inclusion strategy to promote inclusion of LGBTQ people. There are still others who are focused on interfaith families, racial diversity, a gender lens and more. As my family and I incorporated this philosophy and system into our grant-giving, we are hoping to inspire other donors to do the same. In the years to come I don’t want people to look at my family and friends with disabilities as people to pity or serve, I want them to view us as valued, participatory members of the community, and as donors as well.

Below are a sampling of the questions that we use with our grantees, along with resources and examples from organizations that have it right.

This is only one of the many lessons I have learned over the years at JFN. I share it in hopes that it helps you think through your own giving. No matter how small or large the size of your check is, the organizations that get your money should reflect your values throughout.

1. What is the purpose of your organization and work?

As I stated, using these questions is not an effort to find and fund organizations that strictly focus on inclusion of people with disabilities. This is a system to identify organizations that include people with disabilities no matter their mission. Here is an excellent example of a synagogue mission statement from Congregation Beth Shalom in Bloomington, Indiana. It includes the following section:

Inclusion: We respect the great diversity of human beings, all of whom are created b’tzelem Elohim, (“in God’s image”) and welcome individual irrespective of race, sexual orientation, economic status, physical or cognitive ability, or mental health status.”

2. Does your organization have policies that support meaningful inclusion of people with disabilities at all levels? If yes, please describe; if not, please indicate efforts underway to develop them.

We recognize that not every organization is successfully including people with disabilities. If they were, I would work a lot less hours at RespectAbilityUSA to achieve this goal. Asking these questions, however, can begin this important conversation within organizations that simply had not thought in this way before. Our money may help them to begin this work. We won’t penalize for lack of perfection, rather for lack of effort and true commitment.

3. Does your organization have a disability advisory committee/inclusion committee? If so, please describe; if not, please indicate efforts underway to develop one.

This is actually one of the most important steps that an organization can take when working to become more inclusive. Committees should include people who care about this issue, likely family members who are personally connected to disability, and also people with disabilities themselves! The slogan is, “nothing about us without us.” Inclusion Committee members should also serve on other committees in the organization in order to ensure that there is consistency and attention to inclusion in all areas. For example, a person on the Inclusion Committee can be helpful on the Ritual Committee in a synagogue to bring up the need for braille and large print siddurim when ordering new siddurim or the need for priority seating on the High Holidays for people with physical disabilities.

4. Will the program or project include people with disabilities? If not, why not? If so, how do you plan to identify, reach, and welcome them?

In the same way that there are checklists for events to remember the microphone, plan seating arrangements and write thank you notes, there is also a checklist for including people with disabilities in events. It starts with making sure that people with disabilities know that they are welcome and that organizations are willing to make accommodations to include them. Adding an accommodation line to all advertising flyers, emails, and registration lists is a critical first step. Here is an example:

This event is open to people of all abilities. If there are any accommodations needed in order to be fully included, please provide that information on the registration form.

5. Describe the accessibility of your offices to people with physical disabilities.

While many new buildings must be built to code and made ADA accessible, unfortunately, religious institutions are still exempt from these standards. Which means that many people with disabilities can’t even make it across the threshold to join our community.

6. Describe the accessibility of your website to people with hearing and vision impairments.

Blind people are able to surf the web, listen to conference calls and even “hear” word documents. That is if the websites, videos, and documents are properly programmed to be accessible to screen readers. Click here to learn more about how to ensure that your site is up to date with this technology.

7. Do you employ individuals who have disabilities? If so, what are their jobs? Do they receive the same compensation and benefits as all other employees in like positions? If not, please describe all remedial efforts underway.

Unemployment and underemployment are a chronic problem connected with disability. Fully 22 million Americans with disabilities are working-aged (18-64 years old), but less than 35 percent of them are employed (and that number has not changed in 25 years). Moreover, 300,000 young people with disabilities age into what should be the workforce every year, but most cannot get a job. If we can do a better job of enabling them to achieve the American dream, we won’t just save their dignity and bring them income, we can save tax dollars and enable employers to have access to loyal talent that will make them stronger.

The Manhattan JCC among others has a strong program to train people with disabilities, match them with the right employer, and even pay their salary for the first year of employment.

8. Please describe how you educate your Board of Directors or Trustees about serving and partnering with people with disabilities.

In my experience, you can categorize organizations into those with the right attitude and the wrong resources (lacking money, inaccessible building), those with the wrong attitude and the right resources, those with neither, and those with both. We have worked with all of the above, but one constant remains true, for inclusion to be successful, the leadership at the top must buy into and share the vision for its importance. Many steps to be more inclusive are relatively easy and free, but there are others that take time, staff resources, and a financial commitment. It is critical that the leadership is educated about the importance of inclusion and learns how it is not only the right thing to do, but also the right thing for the organization.

Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi is President of RespectAbilityUSA.