Enough with the Hand Wringing

It’s time we invest in giving our primary institutions the tools to change their models and not just lament that they aren’t changing.

By Michael Johnston

Ever since The Pew Center published its 2013 study with findings that Jewish engagement is declining, the Jewish communal world has been gnashing its teeth. Not surprisingly, the initial reaction to the data was existential panic: What does this mean for the continuity of the Jewish people? Later, (after relative calm had been restored) more thoughtful ideas on how to respond to the findings began to surface.

The Pew Study was a wake-up call. There’s a disconnect between what Jewish institutions offer and what resonates with new generations of North American Jews. Let’s face it, the traditional operating models of our most important Jewish institutions aren’t working to engage and connect that audience. So what to do?

Do we try something brand new? Some start-up ideas have had early success, and I believe that there is great future promise in impact investing and social entrepreneurship as models. The truth is, though, new is not enough. We have to start thinking about philanthropy in the Jewish community differently.

We wring our hands and point fingers at the institutions that are unable to attract the unaffiliated and unengaged, but how can we expect institutions built on old models to become more relevant when they don’t have the tools to adapt?

It’s time for a change. What’s needed is a massive national investment in Jewish nonprofit capacity. It’s time we invest in giving our primary institutions the tools to change their models and not just lament that they aren’t changing.

Secular community foundations have long recognized that strengthening community means not only program grants, but investments in the ability of nonprofit institutions to achieve their mission. There is never enough money to solve our most pressing challenges, but if we invest in making our Jewish institutions stronger and more adaptable, then our philanthropic dollars will have more impact.

At the Jewish Community Foundation of Greater Hartford we have launched the Center for Innovative Philanthropy to pursue this very idea. We need to give our Jewish institutions the tools to succeed: investing in our next generation of professional and lay talent, funding thoughtful strategic planning, building a culture of “venture philanthropy” to experiment with creative, model-altering new alternatives.

How can we expect to adapt to a new world if we are not investing in making change happen? It’s time to stop talking and start investing in skills, talent and tools.

Michael Johnston is CEO of the Jewish Community Foundation of Greater Hartford.