A New Approach by a Foundation Spending Down or When Jewish Philanthropy is Like Competitive Gymnastics

by Susan Kardos

The AVI CHAI Foundation is a Jewish education philanthropic foundation which will be spending all of its assets and winding down its operations by 2020. We have tried to build a good reputation among grantees in the Jewish day school and summer camp worlds for being focused, supportive, and outcomes-oriented.

The programmatic grantmaking that we have done over the last 18 years to enhance the Jewish content and character of schools and camps speaks for itself, but lately, as a foundation spending down, we have been investing somewhat differently. What that means, for example, is that in addition to continuing our funding of curriculum and professional development programs for Jewish day schools, we have also decided to invest in building the capacity of the institutions that develop and implement such programs (e.g. Davidson School at JTS, RAVSAK, and Schechter Day School Network); in supporting new efforts to help day schools be financially sustainable; and in increasing the capacity of the field to produce and utilize applied research in Jewish education. This shift is our attempt at a somewhat more strategic approach to field building, which necessarily includes investments not only in people and programs, but also in institutions and knowledge.

In addition to adapting some of what we do, in some instances we are experimenting with revising how we do it. I have often said that I believe that there are two types of people in this world: forward flippers and backward flippers. This gymnastics metaphor refers to a gymnast’s preference to flip forward or flip backward. Imagine a gymnast standing in the middle of a balance beam. She is four feet above ground, and she can see the four-inch wide plank stretching out eight feet in front of her, with another eight feet stretching out behind her. A preference for flipping backward or forward depends on where the gymnast prefers the blind spot to be. Although it looks difficult, it is pretty easy to land a back flip because once you’re upside down, you can see the entire landing. The downside, of course, is the time it takes for your feet to leave the ground until your head is back far enough and your body is rotated enough to see the beam again. In my opinion, that’s the scariest part. You need to have courage to flip backward, but mostly at the beginning. If you’ve practiced enough and you’re ready, once you commit to doing it, it is actually a pretty safe bet. A forward flipper, on the other hand, has to contend with a blind landing. You can see where you’re going at the beginning, but the further you are into the trick, the scarier it gets because you don’t really know you are going to land until your feet hit the beam. It’s not always quite as beautiful as a back flip, but there is surprise and drama in the landing that is breathtaking. Go ahead, watch it again.

So what does this have to do with Jewish philanthropy? In the case of AVI CHAI, I think we have always preferred to flip backward. We prepare and plan and practice, and then once we’re ready, we go for it. There may be an early moment of uncertainty or even fear, but more often than not we can predict the result: a strong, high-value performance. And a “stuck landing.” This predilection has worked remarkably well for our Foundation, and we have initiated and funded high-quality programs for Hebrew language and Judaic studies curriculum and professional development; new teacher mentoring; school leadership training and development; and Israel education, to name a few. But as we seek to address old problems with new and innovative solutions, we are learning to resist the tendency to want to know and see where we are going to land.

As a foundation spending down, we have to be prepared for the possibility that we may not “stick” all of our landings. We have to suspend our desire to want to know exactly where we will land before our feet actually hit the floor. Thus, as mentioned above, we have made new and serious investments in organizational capacity building, applied research, and experimental school models. These forward-flipping commitments are courageous and high-risk; yet the need for them and the potential return should not be underestimated.

At the end of the month we will be sponsoring the Jewish education Strategy_Lab, a discrete and small upcoming example of our attempt to deviate from a more comfortable and certain path. In our efforts to increase Jewish day school affordability and sustainability, we spend millions of dollars annually on programs related to Jewish day school endowment building, fundraising, cost-cutting, government funding, and new educational models and have a dedicated program officer on staff who is working exclusively on this portfolio. Four years ago, as part of the effort to develop our spend-down strategy, we convened a Jewish day school finance working group, which met for 18 months and was instrumental in developing some of the initiatives we now fund. We have attended convenings and meetings and sponsored white papers with other foundations and lay and professional leaders to try to develop solutions to the urgent problem of day school affordability and sustainability. While we are pleased with the incremental successes of our work thus far, we know we have not yet struck upon the kind of lasting, bold, and creative solutions that this problem may require. It is time to have a different kind of courage.

The Strategy_Lab is structured to be an intensive and immersive creative experience. Fifty plus participants will be actively and collaboratively working for two and half days to reframe and reconsider the problem of day school affordability in all its complexity, propose new solutions, and put them through a rapid testing protocol. By the close of the lab, which will be facilitated by Architectz of Genius, a firm knowledgeable and experienced in this work, we will have sensible and actionable next steps. The Strategy_Lab is unlike anything we have ever done before. It is more organic and uncertain and risky than the usual processes we utilize to solve problems. In our view, the complexity and urgency of the problem, combined with our spend-down, demands this sort of bold approach.

Aly Raisman, the 18-year-old Jewish American Olympic gymnast (herself a preferred forward flipper), was perhaps my favorite Jew of 2012. She quietly and tenaciously led her American team to gold for only the second time in Olympics history with her explosive and reliable performances, culminating in her masterful and awe-inspiring floor routine (choreographed to the world’s fastest version of Hava Nagila, no less). A careful observer will notice a very important difference between the floor routine she did in order to clinch the gold medal for Team USA and the floor routine she did when she was competing for her own individual gold. Watch the first 15 seconds of each routine again. You’ll see in the team competition (red leotard), she slightly downgrades the first tumbling pass. Spectacular though it is, she takes out the final front layout flip. Her routine has everything it needs – if she hits it – to secure the gold for her team, so it’s simply not worth the risk. You will notice that in the individual finals (red, white, and blue leotard) her first tumbling pass ends with the additional front layout flip that the team final routine lacked. This is her last routine of the Olympic Games and she has the chance to win the gold. She knows the urgency and she knows the kind of courage that is required to achieve her life’s mission and be an Olympic champion. She decides to hold back nothing, take the risk, and lay it all on the line. There is no other choice. In addition to the team gold, Aly Raisman wins the individual gold in floor exercise.

It may seem like a stretch (we’re an education foundation, after all, not Olympic athletes), but, in this case, we also feel the urgency to achieve a goal that we set for ourselves: to explore real, innovative solutions to Jewish day school affordability and sustainability problems. We hope to have encouraging news to report regarding the outcomes and next steps of this unusual process that we are about to embark upon. Meanwhile, we’ll play Hava Nagila very fast and dream about gold.

Susan Kardos is the Senior Director, Strategy and Education Planning at The AVI CHAI Foundation. She is formerly a competitive gymnast, and (full disclosure) has always been more comfortable flipping forward.