Emergent Philanthropy: Applying Concepts from Complexity Theory to the Jewish World

emergent philanthropyBy Simone Friedman Rones

There is a growing realization that human societies are no different than any other complex living organism and hence are affected by similar factors such as emergence, in which new patterns arise from interactions among individual components that are more than just the simple sum of those components added together. When applied in the context of philanthropy, the awareness of emergence within complex systems has given rise to the idea that traditional strategic philanthropy (i.e. philanthropy that uses logic models to predict specific outcomes given specifically identified inputs) may not always be the best approach. In a recent article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Kania, Kramer and Russell argue that for social problems with complexity, i.e. those that are dynamic and “subject to interplay between multiple independent factors that influence each other in ever-changing ways,” a new philanthropic approach that acknowledges emergence offers a potentially more effective solution.

What would an emergent philanthropic approach look like? According to Kania, Kramer, and Russell, emergent philanthropy strives to react to changing circumstances and strengthen the overall system in which the philanthropy is focused. It focuses on three main strategies: 1) co-creation, in which different actors work together to share lessons learned and modify their operations to take those lessons into consideration; 2) working the attractors, which involves paying attention to which factors are affecting the momentum of the system; and 3) improving system fitness, which involves strengthening the backbone of the system and bolstering the connections among the various actors within the system as a whole.

Preserving Jewish life and culture in the United States is undoubtedly a complex problem, subject to the interplay of many different factors and influences within the “system” of Jewish life as a whole, so it is my opinion that as funders, we should be applying the principles of emergent philanthropy to our work. Here are some examples of how this might happen:

  1. Co-Creation: This strategy would involve the different actors who are trying to influence the system (i.e. Jewish funders, Jewish grantee organizations, and Jewish individuals who are creating Jewish experiences for themselves and their peers) sharing lessons learned about what works and what doesn’t work in terms of their individual strategic approaches, so that those approaches can then be modified in light of new information. For example, Moishe House runs a micro-grant program called “Moishe House Without Walls”. This program, which is still in its pilot phase, provides small grants for Jewish 20-somethings to host Jewish activities or programs in their own homes, such as Passover seders, Shabbat dinners, or film screenings. A co-creation strategy would involve Moishe House sharing its lessons learned with all community organizations in the country who are experimenting with micro-grants for Jewish young adults, as well as with all philanthropists who are providing funding for these types of grants. Through co-creation, community organizations and funders could then apply these lessons to their own micro-grant initiatives.
  2. Working the Attractors: This strategy would involve paying attention to forces that are affecting momentum within the system, whether that momentum would be considered a positive or negative force for the system as a whole. I would argue that the trend in recent years toward a more prominent role for Hanukkah within the American Jewish imagination, especially for young adults, is a positive attractor. When I was in college in 1994, I remember how big of a deal it was when Adam Sandler debuted his “Chanukah Song” on Saturday Night Live; it was one of the first times I had heard a Jewish holiday being portrayed in a positive light in the general culture. Now, twenty years later, iTunes has dozens of Hanukkah songs available for download – ranging from Kenny Ellis’ “Swingin’ Dreidel”, which is a 40’s-style swing version of “I Have A Little Dreidel”; to a hip-hop inspired “My Hanukkah (Keep the Fire Alive)” by Erran Baron Cohen; to Matistayhu’s reggae-infused “Happy Hanukkah”, the video for which has been viewed more than 332,000 times on YouTube. As funders, we may want to consider investing resources into the encouragement of the celebration of Hanukkah to build upon this existing momentum as a positive attractor for American Jewish life.
  3. Improving System Fitness: Instead of providing proscriptive solutions, this strategy would focus on strengthening the backbone of the system itself, such as by strengthening relationships among organizations working to further Jewish life; empowering individual Jews who are leaders within their own social networks; and supporting a technological infrastructure to undergird the system (such as through GrapeVine, which I discussed here). Another extremely important way to improve system fitness would be to encourage collaboration among Jewish funders, since funders can play a critical role as connectors within the system itself. One example of this is a partnership that we are doing with the Marcus Foundation, in which we are supporting the Washington, D.C.-area marketing efforts for Marcus’ nationwide JScreen initiative. The purpose of JScreen is to prevent 19 genetic diseases in the Ashkenazi Jewish population, so JScreen’s target audience is comprised of young adults who have not yet had children or who are just starting families. Because we fund so many young adult programs in the Jewish community in D.C., we were able to link JScreen with several local partners, including Sixth & I Historic Synagogue, which hosted a genetic testing fair for Jewish interns who are working on Capitol Hill this summer. We also linked JScreen with GW Hillel, which in a complete coincidence, knew of a student with a personal interest in Jewish genetic testing who had been actively looking for a way to host a genetic screening fair on campus. As a result of this connection, JScreen was able to host a very successful screening event that reached a new, college-aged population.

In the secular world, one example of a funder using an emergent philanthropic strategy with success is the Rockefeller Foundation, which in 2008, undertook an initiative to promote impact investing as a poverty alleviation tool. After allocating $42 million to this initiative, which they co-created with other stakeholders, Rockefeller began to see government policies change and international development agencies use impact investing as one of their financing tools. Private capital was also deployed as a result of the initiative, and a total of $6 billion was placed into impact investments over the ensuing four years. By using an emergent approach, Rockefeller was able to jumpstart an entire movement that is now serving as an innovative financing tool for solving pressing social problems around the world.

In the Jewish community, emergent philanthropy has the potential to offer a new framework for addressing the complex challenge of preserving Jewish life in North America. It is my hope that as philanthropists, we will work together to embrace these new strategies and co-create a vibrant future for our people.

Simone Friedman Rones is the Executive Director of Washington, DC -based Emanuel J Friedman Philanthropies. The opinions expressed here are her own.