Five Lessons for Funders Seeking to Make an Impact on Women’s Equality in the Jewish Community

[This article appears as part of a series presented by the SafetyRespectEquity Coalition about the work of Jewish organizations to prevent and address sexual harassment and gender discrimination. By pulling back the curtain on works in progress, the Coalition hopes to inspire others to begin their own crucial reform efforts. You can read the framing piece here.]

By Steve Rakitt and Jill Weber Smith

Recently, and especially this past year, the issue of women’s rights has risen to the fore of our national and Jewish communal conversations. At The Genesis Prize Foundation (GPF), we have been working to build on these conversations and effect change on the critical issue of advancing gender equality.

Dubbed by TIME Magazine as the “Jewish Nobel,” the Genesis Prize is a $1 million annual award that honors highly accomplished and inspiring individuals of Jewish heritage. For the past five years, Genesis Prize laureates have chosen to donate their award funds to advance a chosen theme. To date, in partnership with matching funders, GPF has made over $11 million in grants to nonprofit organizations in honor of our laureates.

GPF – together with Genesis Prize Laureate Natalie Portman and Inaugural Genesis Lifetime Achievement Award Honoree Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg – chose “advancing women’s equality” as its 2018 philanthropic theme. After the Harvey Weinstein story broke and the #MeToo movement gained traction, the theme took on new urgency including in the Jewish community.

With gratitude to Israeli philanthropist Morris Kahn, who generously doubled the Prize funds, GPF is distributing more than $2 million in funds to organizations in Israel and the North American Jewish community that are engaged in forward-thinking work on gender equality.

What follows are five lessons we have learned about how funders and communal organizations can best deploy their time, energy and resources to making progress:

1. Listen.

After our research, we knew the challenges we wanted to address in Israel, but we were less certain about the priorities for reforming culture and power dynamics in North America. The answers came directly from communal leaders. After conducting a series of focus group discussions with 30 Jewish thought leaders (all women), we better understood the breadth and depth of the issues. Similar themes emerged, including workplace safety and the continued dearth of women in communal leadership roles. By listening to the personal and professional stories of Jewish women currently working to create change, we were able to fine-tune our initial thinking and identify what the community considered to be the most pressing challenges.

2. Be flexible.

Based on what we learned from the women we spoke to, we created a much tighter focus for the areas we were prepared to fund. We initially wanted to encourage creative programming across a spectrum of organizations, and thought that “more would be better.” Instead, we were urged to “go narrow and deep” with an emphasis on systems. By modifying our criteria from broad to narrow; from programmatic to systemic, we are hopeful that our grants – and those of our funding partners – will have greater and longer-lasting impact.

3. Focus.

In narrowing our focus to four priority areas in both Israel and North America, we were better able to guide grant applicants in focusing their own initiatives. In Israel, after receiving a record-breaking 220 applications as part of a competition managed by Matan – United Way Israel, we selected 37 Israeli NGOs to share $1 million in grants. The organizations serve a diversity of Israeli women, including Israeli Arab, Druze, Ethiopian, Russian-speaking, LBTQ, Jewish secular and orthodox women. We also launched a matching grants initiative in North America focusing on gender equity in Jewish workplaces and communal spaces, which is being administered by Jewish Funders Network. The application deadline is November 16, and we look forward to reviewing exciting and targeted ideas.

4. Encourage innovation.

Great work has been done over the years by many pioneering Jewish feminists; it is now time to build on what they have taught us. As we speak with potential applicants, we are consistently urging organizations to “break the mold” and address issues creatively rather than take traditional approaches. While it is certainly easier to plan a program than create a revolution, power dynamics and attitudes need to change, and now is time for the organized Jewish community to act boldly, with conviction and innovation. Ongoing conversation about the circumstances surrounding gender inequality is essential, but this talk needs to be met with strategic action.

5. Be humble.

We knew even less than we thought we did. We needed partners to challenge our thinking, and we learned that not all needs can be met at once. Our strategy moving forward is to continue working with dedicated leaders and organizations who share our concerns and are willing to take crucial steps to implement change. GPF is also honored to be part of the Stewardship Group of the groundbreaking SafetyRespectEquity (SRE) Coalition. The Coalition includes dedicated funders, organizations and subject matter experts who are working to prevent sexual harassment and gender discrimination.

We have no doubt that as we move forward we will be adding to our list of lessons learned. Until then, we continue to listen and learn from colleagues who are also grappling with these complex issues and working to be more effective and creative partners and funders.

Come join us.

Steve Rakitt is the President of The Genesis Prize Foundation.

Jill Weber Smith is Senior Advisor to the Chairman.