Continuing to build: What we’ve learned and what we’re changing in our new area of grantmaking

In Short

Honesty and transparency with grantee-partners is paramount. Then independent evaluation can be digested and shared and important changes can be made — enabling all of us to better pursue our goals. 

Over a year ago, the Jim Joseph Foundation shared with eJewishPhilanthropy readers that it would be investing in a new grant area: Build Grants (“Building something together: How our new grant category supports organizations’ growth and sustainability,” May 9, 2022).

“One of our three strategic priorities is investing in Powerful Jewish Learning Experiences (PJLE),” the foundation shared then. “Build Grants support organizations to invest in their capacity to expand their programs and operations, thus engaging more people at different life stages in meaningful Jewish life. And importantly, we utilize these grants, in part, to support offerings that engage new audiences of young Jews whom we are not reaching with our existing investments.” 

When we launched this new strategy, we relied heavily on all of the principles that now compose the Foundation’s First Principles, including centering young people, building  meaningful relationships, looking around corners, being curious and leveraging time. Aware that grantee-partners would be on a learning journey with us, we leaned on strong relationships developed over years of relational grantmaking. Our mutual trust actually deepened as we navigated unknowns together about how the work was going and what might come at the conclusion of these grants.

With a new strategy and hypothesis about structure and impact, the Foundation Program Team sought from the outset to always learn throughout this grantmaking experiment. We are devoting significant time, energy and resources to learn as much as we can to improve this area of grantmaking, continually reflecting on what works well and where changes could strengthen our approach. 

To this end, we solicited early feedback from grantee partners, funding colleagues and field experts, incorporating high-level insights from our board and assessing our own experience with these investments along the way. We also partnered with Third Plateau on an external evaluation to capture both best practices and formal feedback from early Build Grantee partners.

Some insights led to minor changes, such as identifying which readiness factors needed to be met in full and which had more flexibility. One major observation became clear, however: Given the high bar to qualify, fewer organizations than anticipated were ready for a Build Grant right away. Many required smaller, more targeted capacity-building investments to improve their readiness to absorb growth capital. 

In response, we conceptualized Capacity Build Grants: an investment in an organization’s initial capacity when it is a promising Build Grant candidate but missing one or more of the readiness criteria. These targeted investments can fund a strategic plan, evaluation, organizational assessment or other specific areas of need that further position an organization for a Scaling Build Grant next. Growth targets are not tied to these initial investments, as the focus is on preparing for growth. This shift helped us to understand the mutual value of making grants tied to dramatic growth projections only when an organization is ready to absorb significant capital to expand its work.

Importantly, we also learned that we needed to lengthen the timeline of funding. Three years — the initial design — is usually enough time to grow the staff, upgrade systems, further enhance internal operations and begin to expand the program; but it is not enough time for organizations to fully achieve ambitious goals around breadth of reach, fundraising and sustainability. As a result, we have adjusted our arc of investment to best position our grantee-partners to achieve our shared goals. 

Another piece of feedback we are acting on is to provide additional technical support beyond the grant funding. While we have begun providing opportunities for networking and learning, specifics of this approach will be identified through continuing engagement with Third Plateau, who will work closely with our grantee-partners to identify areas of emergent need.

These lessons learned, challenges and successes are covered in the evaluation report we shared with Build Grantee-partners in late summer 2023. In addition, a best practices report, which was shared broadly, highlights best practices in capacity building support and is a tool to assess and evaluate our assumptions and design of this new grantmaking area based on the experiences of our grantee partners.

Of course, after we shared the evaluation, the world changed on Oct. 7. Following that day, the foundation recognized a need to provide both emergency grantmaking and additional non-grantmaking support to existing grantee-partners. Our Build Grant recipients were no exception. We relied on our genuine, open, honest relationships with those grantees to learn about their needs and to respond as best we could. We also affirmed that sound grantmaking strategies are effective during both routine and unprecedented times.

More broadly, we are pleased that Build Grants are helping the foundation reach new audiences and support new approaches to powerful Jewish learning; and we look forward to continuing to learn and to share our insights along this journey. As a strategy, Build Grants are a vehicle to support multiyear growth plans and capacity building across the Jewish education ecosystem. These efforts help more Jewish leaders and organizations expand their reach, increase their impact, strengthen their organizations and raise new dollars. As with nearly all of our grantmaking, honesty and transparency with grantee-partners is paramount. Then independent evaluation can be digested and shared and important changes can be made — enabling all of us to better pursue our goals. 

Aaron Saxe is the program director of Powerful Jewish Learning Experiences (PJLE) at the Jim Joseph Foundation, and Rachel Shamash Schneider is a program officer at the Jim Joseph Foundation.