A Personal Reflection: Five Years at the Jim Joseph Foundation

A Brand New Website
by Chip Edelsberg, Executive Director, Jim Joseph Foundation

This month is the launch of a totally redesigned jimjosephfoundation.org site. One of its features is the following personal reflection by Adene Sacks, who just recently departed the Foundation. Given the Foundation’s strategic goal to build the field of Jewish education, it seemed natural for Adene to offer her observations – both retrospectively and prospectively – on the Foundation’s learning and its field-building efforts.

During the next several months, my colleagues at the Jim Joseph Foundation will follow up on key points in Adene’s reflection, with a series of blog posts. These short commentaries will give interested readers a better sense of the ongoing conversation we have internally at the Foundation – discussions in which Adene was always a spirited participant.

I, of course, have my own take on the Foundation’s performance since its inception in 2006. Not surprisingly, I also have a view of what the Board might want us to accomplish in the next 5-7 years. As the summer unfolds, I will be working on a column for our site describing how the Jim Joseph Foundation’s interactions with grantees, evaluators, researchers, and other funders will carry us into the future.

I hope you can find some time to browse through the newly redesigned website. We are excited to “push” this body of information out into the field. Please do not hesitate to share your reactions with us to the site’s form, content, and functionality.

A Personal Reflection:
Five Years at the Jim Joseph Foundation
by Adene Sacks, Senior Program Officer (January 2007- June 2012)

Today’s bestseller lists are filled with books about the companies that dominate public discourse and how they achieved success. The titles will be familiar to you: Apple: The Inside Story, The Facebook Effect: The Inside Story and, my favorite title, I’m Feeling Lucky: The Confessions of Google Employee Number 59.

Like many people, I am fascinated by the foundational myths behind these companies. Clearly, the start-up phase warrants special interest. This is when the big defining decisions get made: What is the vision of the work? What values will dominate? How will they be operationalized? What about the organization’s culture makes it successful? What contributes to downturn and failure? The mythology around the first years of any enterprise and its founding team follows it forever.

This past February marked the end of the fifth year of grantmaking at the Jim Joseph Foundation. This milestone has led us to consider our own evolution over the first five years, during which we made more than $265 million in grants to the field of Jewish education. What is our “inside story?”

For me, this topic is pressing. This year marked my fifth and last year at the Foundation. I came to the Foundation as its first program officer after serving in multiple roles in the Jewish community, and I hope to continue that trajectory in the philanthropic sector after a short station break with my family. For the last five years, I have been privileged to pursue a learning experience that was also my job. Given how much my boss, Chip Edelsberg, values learning in public, he asked me to write a reflective piece that should perhaps have been titled Confessions of Jim Joseph Foundation Employee Number 4.

The first years at the Jim Joseph Foundation were similar to those at many startup organizations. Year one was focused on strategic planning, field mapping and research. Advisors were assembled for counsel and decisions were made on the key strategies. The Jim Joseph Foundation Directors honed in on attracting, training and retaining professional educators as the initial strategy for achieving the newly articulated mission: to foster compelling, effective Jewish learning experiences for young Jews.

In the three years that followed, the Foundation engaged in an avalanche of big bets. These multi-year grants included $23 Million to the Foundation for Jewish Camp, $10.7 Million to Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, $12 Million to Stanford University and $45 Million collectively to the Jewish Theological Seminary, Hebrew Union College and Yeshiva University. By virtue of their size, these grants were disruptive to the field of Jewish Education. True, the Foundation’s spending rate was driven by federally mandated distribution requirements, but these grants were also big by design. From the beginning, the intention of the founding Board of Directors was to understand the places of greatest leverage and learning and to invest boldly in efforts that would amplify what had already been proven to work in the field of Jewish education.

By 2009, the grantmaking strategies began to shift as the Foundation incorporated feedback from the field. The strategies were expanded beyond training professional educators to include three additional points of leverage: (1) strengthening peer to peer education, (2) increasing ongoing and immersive Jewish learning, and (3) building strong organizations to serve the field. These expanded strategies acknowledged what we were learning: while professionally trained educators are powerful vehicles to inspire young Jews to greater learning, future Jewish engagement is additionally influenced by immersive experiences like Birthright and summer camp and by the growing influence of peer networks. In 2011, the Foundation leadership responded by adopting a formal theory of change and a refined set of strategies. This story is narrated by Executive Director Chip Edelsberg through a monthly blog post.

Now at the close of year five, the Foundation’s ‘startup’ period feels at an end. To my mind, the Foundation’s imprint on the field is too easily characterized by its largesse. Those who know us well (or could navigate our old website) understand that the leadership here has viewed the last five years as a time for experimentation, learning and risk. We mitigated this risk by combining program investments with parallel investments in independently contracted evaluation. This allowed us, in real time, to chart our progress towards our stated goals. It also laid bare the paucity of data in the world of Jewish education.

What has remained hidden from view, perhaps from even our closest partners, is the internal codification of operating assumptions we have distilled from this startup period. These assumptions emerged by negotiating between the realities of the field and the vision of the Foundation. The attempt to articulate these assumptions openly is our way of reflecting and inviting conversation.

Operating assumptions: What have we learned that guides our thinking about the future?

1. The elevation of teachers and friends is key to achieving the vision of the Jim Joseph Foundation.

In Pirke Avot, the rabbis prescribe a straightforward path to those in pursuit of a Jewish life: Find yourself a teacher. Acquire yourself a friend. In this directive, the rabbis elevate the formation of relationships as essential to the acquisition of knowledge. This aligns with what we have observed in the field and with the data we have collected. An evaluation of the Foundation’s grant to Hillel found that the number of interactions with either an educator or a knowledgeable peer is correlated with individual Jewish student growth. The findings were similar for Moishe House: more involvement with peers led to more Jewish growth. The centrality of these relationships on a young person’s decision to pursue a Jewish life continues to heighten the Foundation’s focus on who is placed in the path of young Jews and how often.

While this sounds like a simple observation, the development of these intimate socio-educational structures is quite complicated to engineer institutionally. It requires an organization to deploy its staff to build relationships instead of plan programs; and to chart its progress in terms of individual outcomes of Jewish growth rather than a set of organizational accomplishments. Organizations that accomplish this, we believe, can encompass the diversity of Jewish youth today and respond to their needs accordingly.

2. Jewish education must be developmentally aligned and integrate the multiplicity of identity.

It takes talent to foster Jewish relationships as a path to Jewish learning. More and more educators are finding it necessary to find ways to impart meaning and substance without the luxury of a walled space or a captive audience. In the lives of Jewish youth, educators are known less for their denominational training and more for their ability to transmit tradition in a way that is intimate, developmentally appropriate, and relevant to the personal and global issues facing young Jews.

Effective education goes beyond hiring educators who can simultaneously play the role of teacher, friend, community organizer and pastor. We have observed that Jewish text is most powerful when it speaks personally, invites contribution and is meaningful to non-Jewish friends. Reboot, an early grantee of the Foundation, engages its constituency by asking three universal questions: Who am I? What did I inherit? What, if anything, do I want to do about it? This invites a deeply personal conversation that motivates reflection, learning and communal contribution. Likewise, our early investment in Repair the World attempts to integrate and amplify learning outcomes by way of an encounter between Jewish values and the interest in service. By virtue of its name, Repair the World is a call to action that speaks to both secular and Jewish audiences.

3. Networks are not only a reflection of social structure; they are also a tool for achieving that structure.

Social networks are not a new phenomenon, especially in the Jewish community. What has changed is the ability to access and see the social networks that drive activity and instigate social change. Networks, with their continuous flow of information and relationships, are a potent vector for imbuing the multifaceted identities of today’s Jewish youth with meaning and connection. To amplify the impact of our grantmaking beyond the dollars spent, we must strategically weave connections among the youths themselves as well as with the organizations that aspire to engage them.

Approximately 20% of the Jim Joseph Foundation’s grant portfolio is currently invested in organizations whose primary strategy is to build networks or amplify impact using preexisting networks. These include professional networks like the Pardes Educator Alumni Network as well as networks of individuals leveraged by the likes of Moishe House, NEXT, Reboot and Repair the World. And our experimentation using networks is only beginning. Across the philanthropic spectrum, foundations are pushing the boundaries of field leadership to include inter-organizational networks and nontraditional leadership (bloggers, independent consultants, for-profit partners, etc.). While the Jim Joseph Foundation will stay deeply rooted in its commitment to grantee partners, the intent should be to learn together how best to leverage the networks that underpin the world of Jewish education to amplify impact.

4. The Foundation must continuously strive to deploy resources that are in alignment with grantee needs and capabilities and actively coordinate with partners across the field.

The cycle of philanthropic investment can handicap even the greatest of grantee efforts. Too often, grants are limited in scope and size, fund an effort based on grant cycle rather than achievement, and misalign expectations with organizational life stage. This combination is a recipe for a doomed partnership between a funder and a grantee – and it is unfortunately normative across the philanthropic spectrum.

The Jim Joseph Foundation has attempted to mitigate these mismatches via transparency in its process and investment strategy. This was motivated both by the leadership’s commitment to its own effectiveness, and by a belief that real change will emerge through collaboration and coordination with grantees and funders alike. From the start, Chip Edelsberg has pursued a set of best practices, believing that the Foundation’s mission will be achieved by investing deeply (financially and otherwise) in a core set of organizations and field building efforts.

As the Foundation’s grantee perception report (conducted by the Center for Effective Philanthropy) made clear, the pursuit of support from the Foundation incurs steep costs for any potential grantee in terms of time and effort. But when successful, the process typically results in larger and longer-term support; over 85% of our grantees receive support for an average 3 years or more. For the grantee, longer-term support is intended to provide flexibility for experimentation and time to effect organizational change. For the Foundation, although longer time horizons increase risk, they provide more time to evaluate, learn and build the trust needed for constructive exchange with grantees and funders.

Yet our internal process will not lead to true systemic change without the alignment with other funders. There is growing awareness in the field that funders too often require grantees to do the work that funders should be doing collectively. If funders would align to aggregate funding, streamline applications and grant reports, and consolidate success metrics, the field might well achieve better outcomes faster. From our inception, the Foundation has consistently favored initiatives that attract multiple funders who are ready to co-invest and steward jointly. Early experiments in this area include the creation of the iCenter, Repair the World and the newly established Consortium of Applied Studies in Jewish Education (CASJE).

5. The utility of evaluation must stretch beyond accountability and translate into learning and active exchange across the field of Jewish education and beyond.

To date, the Jim Joseph Foundation has used evaluation as a hedge against “big bets” in the investment portfolio. At times the feedback has not been as expansive as anticipated and the data less useful than what was needed. But just as often, evaluation data has been instrumental in determining effectiveness, correcting course, and driving the formation of bigger questions about the field of Jewish education.

The Foundation Directors describe our evaluation agenda as a “work in progress” precisely because it is so multi-purpose. No doubt, program evaluation will continue to be of import internally, especially when an investment is a significant departure from what has come before. The more significant challenge remains: how can we use evaluation to increase our overall learning about the field of Jewish education? Can we create a set of success metrics that are applicable across the field? What data to we need to benchmark our progress? Addressing these challenges will require coordination between evaluators, scholars, funders and practitioners. The Foundation is already in conversation with all parties to determine the steps forward to answering these questions.
I believe that five years in, the Jim Joseph Foundation has much to be proud of. It has begun to see its vision realized through the success of its grantees and the relationships it has built with them. The Foundation’s internal culture of learning and partnership is well entrenched, and the intersection between what works in Jewish education and the mission of the Jim Joseph Foundation is well defined.

The path to achieving the Foundation’s mission in the next five years is less straightforward. Five years ago, when the leadership of this Foundation began to learn about the field of Jewish education, it encountered an abundance of opportunity and obstacles. Today, even with the experience of the past five years, this description remains true. The work ahead will require the Foundation to codify what has been learned and to recommit itself to a set of strategic grantmaking objectives. Beyond those efforts to reinforce past success, I believe the Foundation must answer a set of key emerging questions that will shape its future:

  • What is the next generation of ‘big bets’ in Jewish Education?
  • How will the Foundation reinvest strategically in the scaling of the successes of its highest-performing grantees?
  • How will the Foundation ensure that it continues to adapt its practices, as young people and their needs evolve?
  • How will the Foundation share what it has learned in a way that benefits practitioners and funders, and effect change that is systemic, rather than isolated?
  • Should organizations remain the dominant vehicle to achieve the mission of the Foundation or are there other inter-organizational networks or nontraditional partners whose leadership would amplify the Foundation’s impact?

I am grateful for having had the opportunity to serve the Foundation, its leadership and its mission in its earliest days – and I look forward to watching the Foundation’s story continue to unfold.

Adene Sacks served as a senior program officer at the Jim Joseph Foundation from January 2007 – June 2012. She can be reached at adenesacks@gmail.com. Visit the Jim Joseph Foundation’s new website at jimjosephfoundation.org