By Gail Zucker
Giving circles can be a powerful mechanism for pooling philanthropic resources and generating social impact. They are also known to be time-consuming, expensive and difficult to sustain. Despite these challenges, the Social Venture Fund for Jewish-Arab Equality and Shared Society (SVF) is completing its first decade and continues to thrive. During this time, the SVF produced over $9 million of collective investment from 42 different funders who support an equal and inclusive shared society in Israel for the benefit of all its citizens. The 10-year mark provides an important opportunity to reflect on its accomplishments and factors that contributed to its success.
Creating the right “gestalt” in a funding collaborative is complex and requires a combination of effective strategy and grant making, skilled facilitative leadership, activities that inspire and engage and considerable patience with process. The good news is that when executed well, the collective outcomes can be far greater and more enduring than by acting individually.
Institutional support is essential especially in the formative years
The Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) created the SVF in 2008 as the first in a projected series of innovative social venture funds to encourage supplemental giving to address critical issues of concern to the Jewish people. The SVF was seen as a new model of collective philanthropy that is attractive to donors who want to be part of a system but also want to take a more hands on approach to an issue that is their particular passion. Founding members requested that the SVF focus on promoting equality and shared society in Israel.
JFNA invested substantially in the SVF’s early success through recruiting founding members, covering operational and staffing costs, and providing a grant from its own Endowment Fund towards the grant-making pool. Being under the JFNA umbrella also helped mainstream and legitimize this issue as one of critical importance to Israel’s democracy and security. Over time, the SVF absorbed more of the operating and staffing costs, eventually becoming a self-sustaining entity. JFNA is commended for incubating and sustaining this powerful giving circle during its first 8 years. Without this support the SVF could never have been so successful, and may have been short-lived.
In July 2016, management of the SVF transitioned from the JFNA to the Jewish Funders Network (JFN). This change has been instrumental in SVF’s continued growth and impact.
It’s all about Impact
Members continue to contribute their time, smarts and money because they believe that their philanthropic investment is worthwhile and their experience is meaningful and enjoyable. Uniting around a shared, compelling purpose that generates significant social impact reinforces their passion and commitment.
Accountability is a core value of the SVF. Progress and impacts are tracked and reported based on the SVF’s goals and each of the 40+ grantee projects it supported. Grantees provide interim and final reports; staff and chairs conduct periodic site visits and ask tough questions. If projects are off track, we quickly intervene by providing appropriate guidance and/or capacity building support, and discontinue funding if warranted.
Effective Strategy Guiding Decision Making
During year one, considerable time and effort was devoted to developing a strategic framework. We conducted extensive interviews with key stakeholders and agreed to focus our grant making on two primary areas that aligned with our mission where we believed we could have the greatest impact – education and economic development. Our strategic focus included three levels of intervention and change: equality of opportunity, structural and institutional change, and shared society. We publicized our RFP broadly and were overwhelmed by the response. In subsequent years, grant making has been by invitation only.
Maintaining our strategic focus helped channel our discourse, deepen our learning, focus on outcomes and sharpen our strategy over time. We encouraged members to bring potential projects to our attention, with the understanding that they would need to be fully vetted by our committees for merit and fit with our goals. This helped avoid mission creep and was pivotal to our success.
Each year we examined emerging issues and trends and refined our strategy and tactics. In the early years, we funded several projects that promoted success at the individual level. In order to increase our impact, we shifted our investments to projects aimed at structural and institutional change and that leveraged government and foundation resources. Over time, we focused on intersecting gaps between education and economic development, on mainstreaming equality of opportunity and shared society and on developing leadership for shared society. These shifts helped create new partnerships, catalyze change, scale projects nationally and leverage tens of millions of dollars.
Invested Leadership and Membership
The SVF successfully cut through traditional philanthropic giving by engaging a mix of funders including individuals, foundations and Federations. Foundation representatives included a mix of principals and key staff, some with deep knowledge and others who were newcomers to the issue. We benefited tremendously from their expertise and contributions. The SVF aims to recruit around 20 members annually each contributing $50,000/$25,000 to the grant making pool. Based on feedback and the fact that many founding members committed funding each successive year, the SVF has effectively offered an appealing philanthropic experience.
The SVF’s chairs generously invested their time, skills, influence and resources in support of the mission. They helped make the experience enjoyable and forged a powerful call to collection action. The appointment of committee co-chairs increased leadership opportunities and served as an effective succession platform for overall Fund leadership.
Addressing the diverse needs of members and integrating new funders had its challenges. Balancing various knowledge levels, motivations and interests can impact member satisfaction and requires purposeful attention and positive bonding opportunities. Each year we held orientation sessions and encouraged participation at meetings and on committees.
The professional and administrative staff based in North America and Israel also had the right skill sets to guide, administer and keep fund activities on track. Staff and Chairs worked in partnership to craft meeting agendas, cultivate and recruit new members, draw on member’s skills and expertise, and address issues and challenges that arose. They administered the grant making process, interfaced with grantees, reviewed materials and prepared reports to help inform strategy and grant-making discussions.
Activities that Inspire and Engage
We quickly learned that in order to generate high participation, meetings and activities needed to compelling, informative, inspiring and engaging. In the formational stage, this was no easy task. We had to navigate through the traditional stages of group development – forming, storming and norming before we could perform. In year 1, we conducted research and engaged a facilitator to help build consensus on the mission, vision, values, operating guidelines, areas of focus and goals. We created two key documents – a member’s agreement outlining guiding principles, decision making and operating protocols and a strategic framework for our grant making that included goals, measures and funding criteria, providing a critical roadmap for decision making. Each year we reviewed our progress, discussed emerging issues and trends, and updated our strategy and portfolio.
Meetings: Members meet 3 times per year in NY and DC to focus on strategy, learning and grant making. Meetings have substantive agendas and get excellent attendance. In partnership with the Inter-Agency Task Force on Israeli Arab Issues (IATF), educational components are incorporated so members can learn from leading experts in the field.
Committee structure: Members participate on 3 committees – Education, Economic Development and Emerging Issues where trends are discussed and potential new strategic issues and implementation partners identified. Committees meet via conference calls several times yearly to discuss the portfolio, review proposals and grantee reports, and come up with proposed funding recommendations for presentation and adoption at all member meetings. This structure helps deepen knowledge within a particular interest area and facilitate meaningful engagement.
Trips to Israel: In addition to our retreats and meetings, we partnered with the IATF to organize annual study trips to Israel for our chairs and all member trips every few years to visit grantee projects and meet with key stakeholders. These trips were invaluable in forging strong relationships with Israeli NGO’s, foundations, philanthropists, government officials and experts.
Convening, Networking and Field Building
A unique feature is that we convened our grantees annually. The primary purpose of these gatherings was to facilitate learning, networking and field building among our 40+ NGO partners who comprised a mix of more established and grassroots entities. Gatherings included facilitated conversations, expert panels, educational workshops and sharing of best practices. Grantees appreciated the time to interact with one another and with SVF members. Most importantly, they felt supported in their work which was often under trying circumstances and described as “pushing a large rock up a hill.” Several collaborations emerged from these gatherings which contributed to our impact.
The SVF also convened strategy meetings with experts in the field, government officials, Israeli philanthropists and foundations to discuss trends, explore select emerging issues and formulate potential response options.
Creating a Reflective, Organic Process
When we launched the SVF we were enthusiastic and committed to making the endeavor a success. However, we operated on a year by year basis and had no long term plan. Fortunately our members’ unwavering commitment to the mission helped retain momentum until we created a more robust and sustainable model.
While we maintained our strategic focus, we learned to be flexible rather than prescriptive, allowing an evolutionary process to emerge over time. At the end of every year, we solicited and incorporated member feedback, and every few years, we engaged in a comprehensive strategic planning or evaluation effort with the help of outside consultation. We were also disciplined about incorporating feedback and adapting our strategy and approach in “real time.”
Telling our story more broadly was challenging – how much to communicate, to whom, and to what end. This was mostly due to budgetary issues, limited staffing resources and the controversial nature of the issue.
Change is Good
Two years ago the SVF moved its organizational affiliation to the Jewish Funders Network, an organization dedicated to funder collaboration. This move allowed the SVF to continue unabated its vital and impactful work and also opened up significant new opportunities for the SVF to grow and evolve. The SVF has been fortunate to engage many new Israeli and North American foundations and a new professional director and to benefit from their expertise and contributions. While the mission and vision continue to drive decisions, there is more freedom to shift the strategy. The grant making portfolio is continuously evaluated and updated to capitalize on new opportunities and trends and engage new implementing partners.
Change can be an important catalyst for institutional growth and regeneration. After a decade of accomplishments, the SVF is continuing to thrive and enhance its impact in its new home.
Gail Zucker is the founder and principal consultant of Gail Zucker Philanthropic Advising LLC, focusing on optimizing charitable and organizational impact. She is the former Senior Director of Consulting and Community Development at Jewish Federations of North America where she directed the Social Venture Fund from 2008-2015.You can contact Gail at [email protected].