A Funders Summit as a Powerful Mechanism for Field Advancement and Funder Engagement

idea generationBy Sandy Edwards

In his Nov 12, 2015 blog post on the recent plethora of Jewish organizational convenings in The Times of Israel, Jeremy Fingerman, CEO of the Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC), noted the Funders Summit that FJC held in late October 2015 in Los Angeles to engage current and prospective funders in generating ideas and identifying opportunities for advancing the field of Jewish camps. This was the second Funders Summit building on the success of the first one conducted in December 2012 in New York. As a result of that first Summit, new funder collaborations were formed to implement initiatives developed from the ideas generated. The Funders Summit is a compelling model to effectively engage funders in supporting organizational priorities and to elevate the funder grantee relationship beyond a transactional one.

Planning for the Summit

The Foundation for Jewish Camp first established the following goals for the Summit:

  1. Convene funders who have a vested interest in strengthening the Jewish future and Jewish identity among children, teens and young adults
  2. Create awareness among funders about the role and impact that Jewish experiential education has on Jewish identity formation
  3. Elevate Jewish camp to a higher level on the philanthropic agendas of funders
  4. Strengthen relationships with current funders and engage new funders in FJC’s work, giving more children the opportunity to experience Jewish camp
  5. Identify trends and ideas in the West that may result in more effective camp experiences across the rest of North America

Next, the “what and how” of the Summit was carefully crafted by the Foundation for Jewish Camp, which is intentional about its work to engage and steward donors. FJC staff and consultants designed the Funders Summit with the following essential features.

To establish common ground among participants, the focus of the Summit was on the field of Jewish camp, not just on FJC. In developing the invitation list of the Funders Summit, FJC identified funders who were aligned with its strategic priorities and the proven outcomes related to camp. Not all were necessarily funding Jewish camp, but FJC was transparent about the Summit’s focus being solely on the field. While understanding that funders have personal agendas, FJC made clear that these agendas could not be the focus of their attention while participating in the Summit.

A tactic to establish common ground was a series of interviews that were held by a FJC’s CEO and a consultant with each of the participating funders prior to the Summit. The purpose of the interviews was to reiterate that participation in the Summit would be an opportunity to engage together in dialogue and idea generation to strengthen and build financial support for Jewish camp, particularly focused on leadership development, to deepen and improve the quality of intentional experiential Jewish learning, and to serve even more youth. The interview was designed to make certain that the day of the Summit would meet expectations, be a worthwhile use of time, and allow for each funder’s maximum participation.

During the Summit

The Summit began with an evening reception that set a wonderful tone and established a dialogue among participants that continued throughout the entire Summit. On the day of the Summit, FJC made sure to establish an open, collaborative atmosphere, while continuing to be transparent about the goals and desired outcomes of the Summit.

Another critical design feature was meeting the strong interest among funders to forge new, stronger and broader relationships. This was accomplished on the day of the Summit through a mixture of formal and informal time, creating an atmosphere that valued and promoted engagement, and fashioning a clear conversational agenda. The Summit, which was held at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles, provided a space conducive to both intensive group discussions, one on one socialization, and enjoying the California beauty and sunshine. The organizers of the Summit used their knowledge of the participants to intentionally pair and place people in different breakout groups throughout the day to maximize engagement among the approximately 50 participating funders, FJC Board members and staff.

To maximize participation of each attendee, the amount of presentation and “talking heads “was limited. Each session was conversation rich, but focused on idea generation, designed to maximize everyone’s involvement. Moreover, both the content of the Summit and the facilitation and leadership at the Summit instrumentally contributed to funder participation. The content was carefully crafted, evidence-informed, and designed to advance the field. Aligned with the strategic field-focused priorities of FJC, which are born from their landscape analysis as well as ongoing monitoring of the field, the content was provided by the true experts – camp directors and educators.

Each breakout session had a facilitator as well as a content expert. The facilitators provided critical guidance through the conversations and promoted maximum participation. They also brought content expertise from different angles that enriched the discussions about emerging leadership, increasing the number of high quality college-aged staff, promoting Jewish learning and growth at camp, as well as expanding the field of Jewish camp specifically by engaging families with young children, having camp reflect all areas of Jewish community diversity (language, interfaith, disabilities, LGBT, less engaged), providing approaches for local community-based camping efforts and attracting and retaining teens. The facilitators and content experts were fully engaged in the Summit from the opening event through the day, interacting with the participants. They brought their facilitation skills and expertise in the topics, but not their professional agendas.

Each session also benefited from the participation of the members of the FJC Board of Directors and professional staff, who are deeply knowledgeable about the work of FJC and its collaboration with the camps themselves and other camp organizations to advance the field. They were key contributors to the discussions and also engaged in individual conversations with participants.

FJC Board and Professionals were able to personalize one-on-one interactions with the participants during the evening cocktail reception and during the day of the Summit by using their knowledge about participating funders’ interests and background.

Expected Follow-up

Based on the experience of the Funders Summit held in December 2012, the post-Summit follow up will be crucial to realizing the goals of the Summit. FJC immediately convened its Board of Directors to recap the conversations that they had during the Summit and reflect on the collective wisdom generatedFJC is compiling its learnings and the most salient ideas generated. Conversations with participant funders have also already begun one-on-one and conversations will be scheduled including two or three funders who expressed aligned interests. As a result of the December 2012 Summit, this follow up resulted in $25 million in funding for new and expansion of existing initiatives.

FJC’s Funder Summit model has already proven to be effective in engaging funders in providing thoughtful and deep financial support to expanding the field of Jewish camp.

With over 30 years in in philanthropy and nonprofit management, Sandy Edwards has established a consulting practice offering senior-level support and advising to philanthropic foundations and nonprofit organizations. In June 2015 Sandy stepped down after nine years as Associate Director of the Jim Joseph Foundation in San Francisco. sandy@sedwardsconsulting.com