By Rachel Wasserman
When crisis hits, bold leaders must step up, take risks, change plans, and act. In the Jewish Women’s Fund of Atlanta’s eight-year history, we have twice stepped away from our regular grant cycle in order to allocate emergency dollars. The first occurrence, during the 2014 summer conflict in Israel, gave us the precedent we needed to quickly launch into action this spring, as it became clear that the pandemic had created new challenges for women that required immediate action. While committing to complete our regular annual grant allocations as planned, our Trustees approved an additional budget line to allow for an emergency Request for Proposals for COVID-related needs connected to social change for Jewish women and girls.
What resulted thus far was six emergency grants that not only speak to who we are and what we are about, but also mark a 24% increase over our annual grant allocations. More notably, we worked in partnership with five other foundations – locally, nationally, and internationally – to leverage funding and be a stronger force for change. These grants tell the story of women’s lives in this pandemic and make a statement about change that needs to happen. They fall into three subject areas: domestic violence, women in the workplace, and economic insecurity. Each issue was addressed using a different tactical approach, which I will also outline below.
Domestic Violence: A collaborative approach
According to UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, “Violence is not confined to the battlefield. For many women and girls, the threat looms largest where they should be safest: in their own homes.” As people were urged or required to shelter in place, the world saw an uptick in domestic violence. Women in dangerous situations at home found themselves cut off from safety nets, such as coworkers, social workers, domestic violence shelters, and government assistance. Haaretz reported, “The number of cases opened by the police involving sex crimes within the family jumped by 41 percent, from 24 to 34, in March compared to March of last year, largely because families have been sequestered at home due to the coronavirus epidemic, police said.” Service providers began using innovative tactics to address the safety and security of women in violent homes, but their limited budgets and reliance on government support that was delayed indefinitely left them in a difficult spot. Like many small businesses, nonprofit organizations are struggling to survive, and they rely on philanthropists to keep them afloat. By supporting the ability of these organizations to expand their services, pivot to digital or virtual platforms, and maintain or increase their professional teams, we can create safety measures for women in domestic violence situations and address the immediate, emergent needs of both the women and the organizations who save their lives.
To address the pandemic-related uptick of domestic violence in Israel, we worked in partnership with four other Jewish women’s foundations in an effort convened by the Hadassah Foundation under Director Stephanie Blumenkranz. This group, the Jewish Women’s Collective Response Fund, was not a pre-existing funding group, but rather was specially formed for this situation. Through a series of weekly meetings, at which time we both had thoughtful conversation and quick forward movement, we participated in a group decision-making process that allowed each funder to have an equal voice. While we were prepared to vote on final decisions if necessary, in the end we were able to reach consensus without voting. While we have partnered on other grants with Jewish women’s foundations before, this time the process was accelerated because there was an emergency to address. In a very short amount of time, women from around the United States and Israel came together to make a significant impact on the grantees’ budgets. Instead of applying for funding from multiple funders, the grantees were able to streamline their fundraising and come to us as a unified entity, which I can only imagine was a sigh of relief, as their plates are already full with other worries and tasks. Everyone came to the table each week prepared, passionate, and motivated to get things done. Everyone brought different resources to the table, and the partnership worked so well because we were all eager to listen and learn from each other. At the end of the process, the feeling of satisfaction was much higher than it would have been alone, because we knew we had done it alongside likeminded women from different locations, and we had given more as a group than any of us could have given alone.
Women in the Workplace: Partnering for impact
Working moms are at a breaking point. Though every day it seems like a new article is published outlining the crisis of parents trying to manage canceled childcare plans, virtual school, and careers, the solutions are few and far between. For mothers, who statistically bear the brunt of the parenting responsibilities, this pandemic is resulting in economic setbacks, career loss, debt, and mental health concerns. According to CNN on August 20, “one in five working-age adults is unemployed because Covid-19 upended their child care arrangements.” In new research from the Census Bureau, “Of those not working, women ages 25-44 are almost three times as likely as men to not be working due to childcare demands. About one in three (30.9%) of these women are not working because of childcare, compared to 11.6% of men in the same age group.”
As reported in The New York Times on August 19, “It’s mothers who are doing most of the planning, and spending the most time caring for and educating the children. In the new survey, 54 percent of women said they’d be mostly responsible for educating their children on weekdays.”
As a single working mom myself, I count my blessings every day that my job allows me to work from home and affords me the flexibility to care for my children while also working longer hours than ever to accomplish all that needs to be done. For women in many professions, this is not the case, and working from home – or working while simultaneously caring for children – is not an option. For those families, as school districts began announcing that school would not take place in person in the fall or for the foreseeable future, all hope that life might return to normal was lost, and the scramble to figure out how to balance childcare and work began. Some families began forming pods – working together to provide oversight and lessen the load for one another – but these arrangements are not without risk. From an economic standpoint, for parents who rely on public school as a free source of childcare, the budget to hire a babysitter, nanny, or “pod supervisor” was not available. Families began discussing options, which ranged from mom quitting her job to taking out debt in order to fund childcare.
In Atlanta, districts began announcing their virtual plans in mid-July, with schools set to begin only weeks later. As families in crisis faced unthinkable decisions, some local Jewish organizations who normally provide after-school care made dramatic changes to their business plans and announced that they would offer full-day childcare for school-age children in virtual school. These programs are expensive, as new health and safety measures and reduced child-to-staff ratios are not cheap. Many families registered immediately, as full-day childcare was the solution they needed so that mom could keep her job. For those without the financial means, they were still left without a plan.
When Jewish Women’s Fund of Atlanta heard about these programs, we began wondering whether we might provide scholarships to women-led families in need so that they could afford to enroll their children and save their careers. At the same time, another local funder, The Zalik Foundation, approached me because they had a similar question. The Executive Director, Amanda Abrams, a longtime colleague of mine, knew of our work and thought we might be thinking along the same lines as the Zaliks, whose dedication to Jewish education and women’s empowerment is well-known throughout Atlanta and in the philanthropic community. We solicited proposals from Jewish Kids Groups (JKG) and the Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta (JCC), both of whom were launching programs to provide safe, Jewish-filled environments for distanced learning oversight. Both programs had been approached by families whose financial limitations prohibited them from enrolling their children, and the need for scholarships was great. As both JKG and the JCC are community-minded and mission-driven, neither organization wanted to turn away families in need.
By stepping in to provide scholarships for single mothers and dual-income families where the mother’s job was on the line, the Jewish Women’s Fund of Atlanta and the Zalik Foundation leveraged each other’s funding and amplified the impact. Though our decision-making was done separately, it was in tandem with each other, and we shared communication and information from the applicants, which meant they spent less time answering our questions and more time running their programs. It was the first time we had worked with another funder in this way, and I believe it can be a model of partnered philanthropy moving forward. It is the hope of both Jewish Women’s Fund of Atlanta and the Zalik Foundation that other funders – whether foundations or individual philanthropists – will learn about our grants and also contribute to this crucial cause. Working moms need us more than ever, and we are here for them. The reality is: this situation is not ending anytime soon, and even if schools go back in person, there is always the risk that they will close again. Organizations like JKG and the JCC should be applauded for their quick action to help families, and they will need the continued support of the philanthropic community in order to make it possible.
Economic Insecurity: Rapid response to immediate needs
As the pandemic sent all of us out of our schools and workplaces and into our homes, we watched the economic markets crash around us. Overnight, people who previously felt financially stable found themselves on shaky ground. For those people for whom paying the bills was already a struggle, the situation immediately became dire. According to the US Census Bureau:
Among working adults who did not have anyone in their household experience a loss of income due to the COVID-19 pandemic, 9.5% of those in households with children had low confidence in paying next month’s mortgage compared with 4.9% in households without children under age 18.
Among women, this difference was 10.2% and 6.3%, respectively.
Among these same working women, 22.8% of those in households with children had low confidence in their ability to afford food for the next four weeks compared with 16.7% of those without children in the household.
Working-age women in households with children were more anxious than men: 36.9% versus 30.0% reported being anxious more than half the days or nearly every day. These women also reported more worry: 32.3% compared with 25.3% of men.
Even before the pandemic, poverty was a serious concern within the Jewish community. According to Jewish Family & Career Services (JF&CS) in Atlanta, “many Jewish families in Atlanta live paycheck to paycheck. Between 1 and 8 percent of people in Jewish communities say they ‘can’t make ends meet,’ aligning roughly with the percentage of Jews who are close to or below, the federal poverty level. However, there is a second layer of families – above 20 percent in many Jewish communities – that are ‘just managing’ or just getting along, illustrating a much larger base of households that require assistance.” In Atlanta, Jews in need of financial support often turn to JF&CS for assistance with emergency funding. As soon as the pandemic hit Georgia, the calls to JF&CS increased, with 58% of early requests coming from women.
Jewish Women’s Fund of Atlanta focuses on social change for women and girls in the Jewish community, and while we do not fund basic needs in normal circumstances, we quickly realized that emergency financial support in this instance is social change when it allows women to stay housed, healthy, and employed. In fact, one of the five primary indicators of social change is “maintaining past gains,” such as achieving financial independence. Our emergency grant to JF&CS allowed them to create a special pool of money specifically for Jewish women experiencing acute financial stress and hardship, which will be designated for assistance with housing costs, transportation to work or medical appointments, gas, food, medication, co-pays, and legal support.
In this instance, by acting alone and without funding partners, we were able to move quickly in order to get money in the hands of those who needed it without delay. It should be noted, however, that although we did not partner with other foundations in this instance, our process involved the input and consensus of dozens of JWFA Trustees. As with everything we do, collaboration is key.
These three funding models (within one foundation, in tandem with one other foundation, and a formal partnership with multiple foundations) each lend themselves to different opportunities. While each posed its own challenges, lessons were learned that will allow us to seek similar partnerships in the future. I would encourage other funders to continuously look for opportunities to leverage their funding with other philanthropists, and not to put the burden on the applicants or grantees to do that themselves. Through our conversations with the Zalik Foundation and the other Jewish women’s foundations in the Jewish Women’s Collective Response Fund, we were exposed to new lines of thinking and approaches to facilitating change. I look forward to more chances to work with them – and with other funders – in the future as well.
Rachel Wasserman is the Executive Director of Jewish Women’s Fund of Atlanta, which promotes social change and creates positive opportunities for Jewish women and girls. More information can be found at https://jwfatlanta.org/.