By Debbie Cosgrove
So, what makes your funding portfolio Jewish? Is it the people in the room deliberating? Is it the grantees who are applying? Is it the recipients who are benefiting? And how do you make the decisions about which proposals to fund? Are those important and thoughtful discussions rooted in your Jewish values? And is the process utilizing a Jewish framework?
I question this a lot. Can the whole grantmaking process itself represent the values, traditions and causes I hold dear? We do very good work, but can we do better? Can we do it more Jewishly?
I believe we can, and I actually think the secret lies in making our funding tables more like our Seder tables. As Passover nears, it’s worth revisiting my ELI talk, “The Four Children: A Jewish Framework for Funding.” Why not think of our funding portfolios and impact investments as the four children, as four different ways to seed our Jewish future.
We need to fund and nourish a wise proposal – one that has a good community track record, one that is making solid and measurable impact. We need to make sure we are building a partnership with this organization – whether it’s through capacity building or sustainable market ventures. This wise proposal is already at the table, already asking how it can be part of the story. It believes in the institutions and ideals with which we have grown up. Our charge is to give them reassurance, and let them do the rest.
We need to find and cultivate a rebellious proposal – one that pushes us out of our comfort zone. This is a proposal that is untested, challenges our assumptions, makes us question how it fits into the story that we think we know. Recently, I had cause to experience this first hand. I was sitting across from an interfaith couple, eagerly applying for a trip to Israel as a new couple, and yet, the grandson of survivors and the daughter of faithful protestants, they expressed how they are not planning on raising their future children as Jews. Yes, they would be respectful and welcoming to Jewish values and holidays, but that was all. And it dawned on me, this is it – this is the rebellious proposal! Their story is still unknown and unfinished. Who knows how they will feel once they get back from Israel? Once they have children? Once they become involved with other Jews celebrating Jewish things? What if we don’t fund them? What if we do? Do I have a spot at my table for them? This was my rebellious proposal.
We need to seed a simple proposal, and this can be many things. It can be something on a small scale, impacting a small demographic or a localized need. Perhaps this is volunteer-based or service-oriented. Perhaps it is a small investment for a small group of people. The simple proposal is one that is starting out, grassroots, and authentic to its mission. It is asking how to be part of the Jewish legacy – how can I make a difference here and now?
The last proposal is the one that doesn’t know how to ask – this can be a place where you as the funder/investor try out a new idea or bring people together, research a field or convene change-makers. This is an opportunity to reach out and bring someone to the table, someone who is missing or unheeded. It can be as risky or as comforting as you like, but this last proposal is reliant on you. You already have a voice and a seat at the table, so look around and ask, “Who is missing, and how do I bring them in?”
Ultimately, this fundamental framework can strengthen, widen, and polish your portfolio. It will grow richer and more nimble, able to support both new and vetted ideas in the Jewish world and beyond.
Most importantly, in the end, and to me this is the key, the conversations around the funding table will become, well, Jewish. Not just utilitarian and strategic for purposes of measurement, evaluation and impact, but the discussions will represent the Jewish way of seeding Jewish legacy. This framework can keep us honest in grappling with new paths of Jewish identity and expression. We know the four children teach us about a responsibility to the whole of the Jewish community – in all of its multifaceted, multiracial, and multicultural experiences and voices. It is incumbent on us as funders and investors in our Jewish future to maintain an openness, cultivate expansive definitions of Jewishness, and keep clearing a path so that anyone who wishes to be part of our community can.
And this is where I believe we have the most to gain. The various paradigms we use for measurement or the categories we have for impact – they are all well and good, but they are not uniquely Jewish. I do not want a deliberation on funding public arts to be the same as funding Jewish summer camps. Like our discussions at the Seder tables themselves, I want to feel that I am participating in a distinctly Jewish act. We should not be afraid to add this framework to these serious discussions. For in so doing, our effort is not diminished, but rather the opposite – it is elevated and distinguished as the holy work it is.
This Passover, don’t just read about the four children. Fund them.
Debbie Cosgrove is the President of the Jewish Women’s Foundation of New York and chairs the Open Tent Committee of UJA Jewish Life Department, where she is a board member. Debbie lives in NYC with her husband, Elliot, and is most proud of the fact that her four kids help clear the Shabbat table.