By Michael S. Berger
One of the roles foundations play in American society is that of “venture capitalists” in the social sector. Bold, creative solutions to social and educational challenges almost always need funding to get started, and many foundations are available to provide the early capital. However, most foundations do not want to become long-term primary supporters of these start-ups because they need to free up their capital to support the next promising innovation. As a result, central to foundations’ visions of success is the sustainability of the new strategy or program through a combination of earned revenue, fundraising, and (where possible) government support. In the case of The AVI CHAI Foundation, which in North America supports Jewish day school education and overnight camping, the push for sustainability of our grantees also comes from our sunset, which prevents us from being perpetual funders. Over time, AVI CHAI, along with partner foundations, employed various strategies to help grantees work toward sustainability. I tell the story here of our work with the Jewish New Teacher Project to illustrate some of these strategies.
When AVI CHAI began its investment in day school education in the mid-1990s, one challenge identified by school leaders was the difficulty in recruiting and then retaining quality teachers. In 2002, we teamed with the New Teacher Center (NTC), based in the University of California Santa Cruz, to take their proven two-year program of training mentors to support novice teachers in public schools and tailor it for Jewish day schools. The resultant “Jewish New Teacher Project” (JNTP) pilot launched in 2003 in the New York/New Jersey region, and early on proved similarly effective in building Jewish day schools’ capacity to help new teachers improve their craft and remain in the field. With the support of other funders, by its fifth year JNTP was training 50 mentors who were working with 100 novice teachers in 42 day schools within the New York/New Jersey metropolitan area.
With its model proven, JNTP then pursued two aims: scalability, first within and then beyond the NY/NJ area, and sustainability, through a realistic business model. Of course, these goals were sometimes in tension, especially when moving into new markets involved taking financial risk. But JNTP’s talented leadership and staff skillfully navigated the balance through both economic downturns and impressive growth. In AVI CHAI’s role of thought partner with JNTP, alongside other funders, sustainability was the northern star that guided our advice and support.
Below are some of the lessons we learned from working with JNTP’s leadership that might be helpful to other foundations looking to help effective programs become sustainable over time:
1) Grow sustainably: secure other funding partners and then expand. Many successful pilots are tempted to expand rapidly with the help of a single funder, and then seek to recruit other donors down the road. That, of course, increases dependency on the major donor. In JNTP’s case, even after the pilot proved effective, AVI CHAI resisted investing in quick expansion. instead, JNTP first recruited other funders or local communities to invest in the work before entering a new locale or type of school. Thus, New York’s UJA Federation and an anonymous donor were early partners to enable JNTP to reach more NY/NJ schools in the initial roll-out; the Jim Joseph Foundation early on supported bringing JNTP to day schools in the Baltimore-Washington corridor; and more recently, Crown Family Philanthropies enabled expansion into Chicago. At the same time, some programmatic elements that were helpful but ultimately unsustainable – such as visiting mentors where schools paid only a small fraction of the actual cost – were discontinued unless a donor explicitly stepped in to cover it. This past year, the program trained 150 mentors (who worked with 173 novice teachers) in 70 schools in 12 states, reaching over 19,000 Jewish day school students. Those figures are now the average annual impact of the program.
Happily, the relationship with the Jim Joseph Foundation around this project blossomed into a deep philanthropic partnership about eight years ago. AVI CHAI and the Jim Joseph Foundation began coordinating more closely, sharing the costs of recruiting new leadership and strategic planning in addition to general operating costs, and coordinating the schedule of reports and payments. Joint calls between the two foundations and JNTP’s leadership began as well, a practice that continues today. Finally, the Jim Joseph Foundation awarded a new grant to support JNTP in the first few years post-AVI CHAI.
In sum, even as JNTP was bold in its ambitions to reach as many Jewish day schools in North America as possible, it was also realistic and prepared to maintain managed growth, offering its services only where funding was available.
2) Help build the organization’s capacity and fund its business planning. As interest in JNTP’s services grew, first AVI CHAI, and beginning in 2012 the Jim Joseph Foundation, invested intentionally first in helping JNTP become an institutional presence with an office and address (initially, the program operated in the director’s home) and then in building the organization’s capacity – an area that has generally become a focus of the foundation’s philanthropy (see Yossi Prager’s blogpost). We funded a part-time development professional whose hours grew as the program reached more schools. We also funded program evaluation, including longitudinal research that provided the data showing the program’s impact on teacher retention, as a way of helping JNTP makes its case to other funders. When there was a mid-year change of leadership, AVI CHAI and the Jim Joseph Foundation partnered to pay for a headhunting firm to identify the next director – one with experience in shepherding successful start-ups to sustainability. Part of my work as program officer was to make sure – gently but relentlessly – that the long-term planning and infrastructure issues received the same attention as did the delivery of first-rate teacher support.
Funding for business planning was also a crucial part of capacity-building. JNTP’s rapid growth necessitated this work, though it had to wait until NTC (JNTP’s parent organization) completed its own strategic planning model as it became an independent organization. In 2013, as JNTP was nearing its 10th anniversary, Jim Joseph Foundation and AVI CHAI funded the development of a thorough 5-year business plan, complete with detailed benchmarks and projected budgets, that formed the basis of our two foundations’ general operating support of JNTP. Consistent with the business plan, our joint support was more robust in the first years of the plan and then tapered off considerably as revenues and other philanthropic support increased. In 2018, as the first business plan was nearing its end, Jim Joseph Foundation, AVI CHAI and JNTP itself shared the cost of developing another (6-year) plan that would chart how JNTP would manage through, and following, AVI CHAI’s sunset.
3) Generate earned revenue and broaden the donor base – gradually. Given the untested nature of this service, it was reasonable in the pilot phase for AVI CHAI and its partners not to ask schools to share in the monetary costs of the program. However, as JNTP began to prove its value, we felt strongly that schools needed to have skin in the game and to pay for the training of its professionals and the support of novice teachers. This “ask” was intentionally done gradually and incrementally, so that schools had time to see JNTP as a service whose fees were worth building into their budgets. To be sure, the 2008-10 economic crisis called for the major funders to step in and cover a shortfall created by schools pulling out or reducing their contributions; as believers in the long-term value proposition, we wanted JNTP to weather the storm. Nevertheless, while philanthropic support is still necessary (especially for smaller or less-resourced schools), revenue from schools – which constituted 18.4% of the $1M budget in 2014-15 and 29% of the $1.2M budget three years later – is a substantial base upon which to build.
Reducing dependence on its primary donors was another facet of the strategic plan. JNTP’s director and development staff were trained in fundraising techniques early on in the first business plan. The kernel of a lay advisory board was planted and has since expanded. In the four years between 2014-15 and 2017-18, the amount of philanthropic funding provided by foundations and donors beyond AVI CHAI and the Jim Joseph Foundation doubled from 15% of the total budget to 30%, bringing AVI CHAI’s and Jim Joseph Foundation’s portion of the budget to under 20% each last year.
4) Know the program and communicate regularly – in a supportive yet candid way. Since 1994, much of AVI CHAI’s day school philanthropy launched innovative programs and start-up organizations to positively impact the field. Rather than merely writing checks, the Foundation’s program officers were charged with learning as much as possible about each program and serving as a supportive thought partner to the grantee. In the case of JNTP, AVI CHAI staff attended JNTP mentor training days and spoke with mentors, novice teachers and even administrators to understand what was working in their schools and what could be improved. Frequent communication between AVI CHAI’s program officer and JNTP’s leadership was conducted in the spirit of Kim Scott’s Radical Candor, pairing encouragement and affirmation with frank communication about current practice and future directions. Such intimate knowledge of the program – vital in the early stages of a program but no less critical as the program matured – helped AVI CHAI staff earn the trust of JNTP’s leadership, as well as the confidence of AVI CHAI’s board that JNTP was indeed worthy of ongoing and deeper investment.
5. Be nimble and patient. I mentioned above that AVI CHAI stepped in to cover the budget shortfall created by the 2008-09 financial crisis. There were other times, too, when adjustments to realities were needed. For instance, the first year of JNTP’s first business plan happened to coincide with NTC’s decision to overhaul its curriculum and tools, overly stretching JNTP’s staff who now had to learn and adopt the new content. When we learned of the impact on the staff, we supported a slight increase in staff time to accommodate the new load. On the other side of the ledger, when an unexpected revenue stream materialized, the two foundations encouraged JNTP to bank surplus funds that JNTP could use in leaner times. Lastly, not long into the first business plan, a change in the leadership of NTC, the parent organization, raised the question of whether JNTP would continue to be seen as falling within NTC’s mission. With that question and the evolving landscape of supporting organizations for day schools as a backdrop, JNTP wondered whether it should stay within NTC, branch out on its own, or align with another institution. JNTP’s leadership was right to raise these points. AVI CHAI and Jim Joseph Foundation served as thought partners, hiring a consultant to consider all options for this strategic decision (in the end, NTC’s new leadership was very comfortable with JNTP remaining in their organization, so the status quo remains). Planning is crucial, but flexibility and patience on the part of funders gives competent professionals, such as JNTP’s leaders, the confidence to make strategic, thoughtful decisions.
With just a few months until AVI CHAI ceases its grantmaking, JNTP’s future looks bright. Catalyzing a trend from general education to support novice teachers in Jewish day schools, JNTP – through its compelling induction model, significant impact, and talented staff – has met and even exceeded several programmatic and development benchmarks set forth in the first business plan. Moreover, in anticipation of AVI CHAI’s spenddown, JNTP’s leadership has ably steered the organization towards greater sustainability. We believe the philanthropic approach AVI CHAI and others took contributed to this outcome (a similar story has been told with respect to our work in overnight summer camps). JNTP’s story, told from AVI CHAI’s perspective, is a paradigm of how foundations can help proven programs advance towards sustainability.
Michael S. Berger is a Program Officer at The AVI CHAI Foundation – North America.