Getting it Together

by Chip Edelsberg, Ph.D.

The Jim Joseph Foundation recently convened a group of evaluators, social scientists, and grantmaking professionals for the purpose of exploring meaningful approaches to assessing Jewish experiences of Jewish teens. What became patently clear during the discussion was that too few of these conversations occur on any regularly scheduled basis, and Jewish philanthropy – at least in so far as funding of Jewish education is concerned – does not foster enough of these interactions.

The world has obviously changed in dramatic ways in the fifteen years during which I have been privileged to work in Jewish philanthropy. One of the single most pronounced of these shifts has been from bureaucracy and organizational hierarchy grounded in analog-based communication to a networked universe powered by digital technology.

Long established educational institutions are under siege. A 2010 Carnegie Foundation paper on “Getting Ideas into Action: Building Network Improvement Communities in Education” asserts that the social organization of the research infrastructure is badly broken … it demands new arrangements.” Harvard professor Clay Christensen argues that “the way schooling is currently arranged – in a monolithic batch mode system where all students are taught the same things in the same way – won’t ever allow us to educate children in informed way. We need a modular system.”

I believe the pervasiveness of doing business in and through networks poses a real challenge to funders of Jewish education. It has been my experience that we struggle to work collaboratively with each other. More seriously, perhaps, I do not know of many cases where practitioner experience and expertise is rigorously incorporated into the design of major grants in support of Jewish education.

Good ideas – great ones, even – are still cloistered by foundations, “owned” by them in ways that make partnership difficult and nearly impossible. Some accuse us of having proprietary self-absorption [in our organizational] genes. While I accept the notion that “good ideas may not want to be free,” ideas also desire – as Steven Johnson argues in his brilliant analysis of Where Good Ideas Come From – “to connect, fuse, recombine … They want to complete each other as much as they want to compete (pg. 22).”

I can think of numerous grants that the Jim Joseph Foundation and other significant funders have made for a major initiative where these key funders, the grantee, and various individuals whose expertise would likely add important perspective to the initiative never consulted with one another. Lacking such an effort, I suspect we short-change situating initiatives like this in the full complexity of real world context. What I am concerned occurs as a consequence is that the initiative is never conceptualized quite as clearly as it should have been. Therefore the grant that gets implemented is not as efficacious as otherwise it might have been. And because the Jewish education grant making culture does not keep funders, grantees, and evaluators at the table together throughout the entire grant process, knowledge is neither acquired nor disseminated anywhere nearly as efficiently as it is meant to be.

This last point is crucial, if you believe as many people do that in contemporary society, knowledge itself is less about collecting information than it is about participating in networks of smart people who care about what you do.

There is much about collaborating effectively that I continue to learn. There is even more about working in an increasingly networked world that I am only beginning to grasp. Fortunately, I have been taught that the best grant making is not done solo. As the Monitor Group’s insightful Katherine Fulton notes, the two most essential components of high performing philanthropy are “humility and companions.”

I urge stakeholders in Jewish education – funders, organizations, institutions, and start-ups, academics; bloggers, and pundits; traditionalists and innovators alike to create new spaces and more inviting places for us to directly and strategically interact with one another.

Chip Edelsberg, Ph.D., is Executive Director of Jim Joseph Foundation.