A New Experiment in National-Local Funder Collaboration

by Josh Miller

About ten months ago, following the release of the research report Effective Strategies for Educating and Engaging Jewish Teens, eJewish Philanthropy ran a blog series that provided a range of perspectives in response to the report’s key findings. The series’ authors discussed numerous programs that successfully influence teens and their Jewish journeys.

They also challenged us – to fundamentally rethink our communal approach to Jewish teen education. Why? Some 80% of today’s Jewish teens do not opt in to the Jewish experiences offered in their communities. If we believe in the value of Jewish exploration during the adolescent years, then we need new strategies to capture the interests of many more of today’s teens.

This challenge left the Jim Joseph Foundation asking some fundamental questions. What is the role of a national funder in supporting teen education? The Foundation’s major grants to support day schools, camps and year round experiential education programs like BBYO and Jewish Student Connection are collectively providing Jewish learning experiences to tens of thousands of teens. What else should the Foundation do? As a program officer at the Foundation, I have the privilege to engage in this conversation and now help to lead a collaborative effort with other funders to expand our work with this important age cohort.

A New Experiment in National and Local Funder Collaboration

Following the guidance of our Directors, the Jim Joseph Foundation developed its response with two key assumptions: (1) change happens community-by-community and (2) to succeed in local communities, the Foundation needs to partner with local funders.

Every community is unique, with its own culture and constellation of leaders, institutions, and existing programs. While a national funder can bring valuable resources, expertise and perspective, local funders are best positioned to determine which new experiments will work best in their communities and to choose which partners are most appropriate to implement those experiments. These are especially critical decisions if the goal is long-term systemic change.

Considering its role as a national funder, the Jim Joseph Foundation committed to:

  • Help convene a group of funders interested in working together to expand and deepen community-based Jewish teen education and engagement
  • Work with that group to develop a set of Shared Measures of Success that describes the overarching goals that we seek to accomplish over a 5-7 year period
  • Consider grant requests from local funders for the Foundation to co-invest in multi-year initiatives whose goals align with the Shared Measures of Success
  • Invest in a National Incubator for Community-Based Jewish Teen Education Initiatives, operated by the Jewish Education Project, to support the work of the local initiative leaders and facilitate ongoing learning and collaboration
  • Hire a facilitation consultant to manage monthly conference calls and semi-annual in-person meetings for participants in the funding collaborative
  • Hire an evaluation consultant to advise the group on how to approach evaluation of this work both within and across communities.

Working in concert with the Jim Joseph Foundation, each local funder in the collaborative has committed to:

  • Invest time and resources in a comprehensive local planning effort with volunteer leaders, practitioners and teens to develop new community-based Jewish teen education and engagement initiatives and to strengthen existing offerings
  • Build a coalition of other local funders within their community who are willing to make a multi-year investment to seed the local initiative and monitor its work
  • Identify and recruit a team of program providers who are ready to work together to help develop and execute the plans
  • Actively participate in the broader funder collaborative by attending ongoing meetings, collaborating around areas of common interest, and engaging in a collective evaluation.

In addition to the commitments described above, every participant in the funder collaborative has agreed to take risks, experiment, and share their successes, failures, and key learnings.

Who Is Participating in the Funder Collaborative?

Today, this funder collaborative includes representatives from fourteen foundations and federations – national and local funders representing a diversity of Jewish communities. Six of the local communities are actively engaged in community-wide planning efforts designed to develop new strategies for teen education and engagement aligned with the group’s Shared Measures of Success.

In December, the Jim Joseph Foundation awarded its first local grant in conjunction with this effort: a $1.4 million matching grant to Combined Jewish Philanthropies to launch a four year teen initiative in the Greater Boston Jewish Community. The Foundation anticipates making as many as ten such grants in partnership with local funders over the coming years.

Other participating funders currently leading local planning efforts include: Rose Community Foundation in Denver, UJA-Federation of New York, the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, the North Peninsula Regional Impact Committee of the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco, and a coalition of Chicago-based funders.

Additional funders in the collaborative, including one other national funder, are in earlier stages of developing their plans and are not ready to be public about their participation. (Note: if you represent a funder who might be interested in joining this national collaborative, please be in touch with a short email to Emily Hall at Olive Grove Consulting explaining your interest.)

What Are We Learning?

This is the first time the Jim Joseph Foundation has worked with other funders on a collaborative initiative of this scale. We are all learning together as we go. Ten months in, here are some early insights:

  • Customize Around Community Needs – While each local funder in this collaborative shares common goals and challenges, each one has different resources, different approaches to decision making, different strengths and different timelines. We must listen to every partner’s needs individually and respond in a customized way, even though that means less uniformity across the cohort.
  • Trust is Key – We were advised early on to convene the group face-to-face as a critical step towards building trust. There is no substitute for being together in person to build relationships and a sense of collective purpose.
  • Involve Stakeholders – Our local partners have involved a range of stakeholders in their planning processes: volunteer leaders, teen experts, local practitioners, and teens. These stakeholders’ perspectives are critical, and the adage is true: people tend to support what they help to build. A next step we have committed to over the coming year will be to mirror this approach at the national level as well.
  • Document Shared Understanding – Working together to develop Shared Measures of Success and to define expectations and roles of participants in the collaborative were important early activities. This work proved especially valuable for our local funding partners as they began talking about the collaborative with their local stakeholders.
  • Evaluation Starts on Day One – At the group’s encouragement, we acted early to bring in evaluation consultants to help define how this work will be assessed and to develop logic models for the initiatives under development. Evaluation was not explicitly part of our plans for this initial phase, but it has emerged as an essential piece of our early work together.
  • Effective Collaboration Takes Time – This observation has been recounted by others but bears repeating. All of our funder partners, particularly those who are actively leading local planning efforts, have already devoted significant hours to this collaborative effort. While future success is uncertain, we are optimistic that the time invested will lead to better future results.

More to Share

In the spirit of shared learning, the members of this funder collaborative plan to continue to write and talk publicly about what we are doing and learning.

Two additional blog posts written by Reuben Posner from Combined Jewish Philanthropies and Dr. David Bryfman from the Jewish Education Project will be posted here over the coming weeks. For those who will attend the Jewish Funders Network Conference on March 9th-11th in Miami, Florida, we will be hosting a session to share more about the collaboration and the teen initiative ideas being generated. In addition, Informing Change is developing a case study about the funder collaboration that we anticipate will be released in early 2015.

Final Thoughts

Now, more than ever, the Jim Joseph Foundation appreciates that our strategic approach to this work is complex, long-term and full of inherent risks. The Foundation’s success in this initiative is interwoven with the success of our local funding partners—and the individuals and organizations with whom they choose to work.

If initiatives in the ten communities meet their goals over the next 5-7 years, these collective efforts could potentially provide an additional tens of thousands of Jewish teens with meaningful, relevant Jewish learning experiences, leading to increased Jewish exploration and involvement during their college years and beyond. Even then, there will still be significant need to support effective model adaptation to the dozens of other communities not currently involved in this collaborative.

I feel fortunate to work for a Foundation whose Directors see this kind of partnership-building as a means to realize the Foundation’s mission. They know the inherent risks and they understand that the Foundation has to relinquish some control for the collaborative framework to succeed. We look forward to sharing the various successes, challenges, and unique community stories over the coming months and years. We welcome your thoughts, reactions, and ongoing conversation about this work.

Josh Miller is a Senior Program Officer for the Jim Joseph Foundation, which seeks to foster compelling, effective Jewish learning experiences for young Jews in the United States.