By Deena K. Fuchs
[As The AVI CHAI Foundation prepares to sunset, a year-long series from their staff about philanthropic lessons learned.]
I woke up January 1st with an uneasy feeling. It was officially the first day of the last year of The AVI CHAI Foundation’s grantmaking. This is not the time, nor the place to go into how that feels and the myriad conflicting thoughts that go through my head over the course of a day. (Although I would be happy to talk that through over a cup of coffee.) But this is the right venue to share some thoughts about how my colleagues and I are thinking about our last year.
AVI CHAI has supported Jewish education since 1984. For 35 years, our Trustees and staff have invested in the Jewish future. We experimented, floundered, switched gears, researched, built institutions, shaped programs, initiated successes and failures, built grantee capacities, shifted philanthropic approaches and internal cultures around communications and partnership, and more. We had some great successes, along with our share of significant failures. Through both, we learned about the fields in which we work, about philanthropic practice, and about ways in which foundations and grantees can work together to advance shared goals.
So, what do we do with this knowledge? How can we best ensure that the lessons we learned have value for others?
As the senior professional responsible for the foundation’s strategies around thought leadership and partnership building, I think about this question – a lot. And, over time, I have begun to see much greater synergy between the two areas of my work. While thought leadership may have best represented the way we viewed our knowledge sharing in the past, thought partnership is how we view it going forward. It may seem like semantics, but this language reflects a shift in stance and understanding of the role AVI CHAI has left to play in the field of Jewish philanthropy.
What are thought leaders? According to Forbes, a thought leader is “an individual that is recognized as an authority in a specialized field and whose expertise is sought.” We developed an expertise in our funding areas and in effective philanthropy, and from that perspective we could be considered thought leaders. However, a partner is something that is much greater – someone inextricably linked to you and whose success is tied to your own. We view our grantee and philanthropic colleagues as our partners in striving for a strong Jewish future. Therefore, any lessons we may have learned are intended to advance their work – in whatever area it might be.
So, what does thought partnership look like?
Be real – telling our stories
One of the true benefits of working in a spend-down environment is the opportunity it gives us to reflect. We all have 20/20 hindsight. A spend down affords us the humility to share that hindsight in ways that can be constructive for our partners, so they may learn, innovate, and succeed.
We have made thought partnership a focus of our work foundation-wide and you can expect to see a year-long series of pieces, presented monthly here on eJP, about our key learnings. This is the first in the series. Others will focus on capacity building, partnership building, the use of foundation staff as a resource for grantees, research as a tool for philanthropic decisions, using data for decision making, linking theory to practice, and field building. Ideally, these topics presented candidly and transparently, through the lens of our experiences, will be useful to our partners as they consider their work.
Be clear – and accessible
Zalman C. Bernstein built his successful business on financial research. AVI CHAI is made from the same DNA and from the very beginning commissioned research to help direct our grantmaking. It is all available on our website. We have learned though that, for some, the reports can be dense and unwieldy. So, we have recently begun adapting some reports into infographics that pull out key findings and recommendations. We want our current partners, and future partners, to have easier access to this information in digestible formats. To date, we have released three such infographics, and we are already seeing a significant uptake in their use. We plan to produce more content in this format.
Be social – build conversations
For the foundation’s first 15 or so years, we practiced our philanthropy alone and rarely engaged with our funder colleagues in a collaborative way. Upon Zalman Bernstein’s death we shifted our stance somewhat, recognizing that with the death of our founder, we had to be more transparent to the Jewish community. That shift, though, came with limitations. I remember quite vividly a discussion I had with foundation leadership about instituting an AVI CHAI blog. I was permitted to proceed with one caveat – comments needed to be turned off! We wanted to share but we didn’t want to engage in conversation. Fast forward a few years, we now have weekly meetings reviewing social media metrics where we gauge our success or lack thereof on how deeply we are engaging with our audiences online.
Strong partnerships are built on effective communication and trust. Communicating means more than sharing; it requires deep listening. In the last year or so, we have been diligently working to build our social media presence so that we can best listen, share and engage in conversations with our partners and the larger community. Since we began this work in earnest, we are pleased that our numbers continue to grow each week and we surpass the benchmarks we set for ourselves.
Even more gratifying is the feedback we have been getting from funder colleagues who thank us for the conversations we are starting online and for exposing them to new resources and ways of thinking.
Be humble – it is not about us
Spending down brings with it a whole new perspective of whose voices need to be heard. In short, it is not about us, especially as AVI CHAI will cease to have an active voice by year’s end. Our focus is now on the people who are making change happen, the people on the ground who are doing the hard and oftentimes underappreciated work. Because of the position we sit in and the role we play, it is our responsibility and opportunity to amplify their voices. We have begun to do that on our blog, through videos we have produced that showcase AVI CHAI funded initiatives, through organizational and media partnerships, and on social media. We invite our grantees to share what they have learned, program participants to share what they have gained, and we have recently begun crowdsourcing stories from organizational colleagues, educational leaders and school professionals around shared themes and values.
Most recently we co-hosted with Prizmah: Center for Jewish Day School a Hanukkah campaign around day school heroes. Day schools around the country shared personal stories about staff and students who are true modern-day Maccabees. The stories were inspiring. Their voices need to be heard.
Knowledge sharing through written pieces and online conversations will without question keep us busy and will hopefully be useful. Nevertheless, there is more we can and, I believe, should do. Which raises the question: How can we help you think through your work? How can our experiences bring value to your thinking? This is what I view as the ultimate in thought partnership. How can we be your thought partner in advancing your philanthropic or programmatic goals?
A few weeks ago, I was invited by a colleague foundation to meet with staff to “think together.” I had the privilege of sitting in on a days’ worth of meetings – staff and programmatic alike. The staff presented their work and the challenges they were facing, and they asked for my feedback. I had no experience with the programs themselves, but I recognized the challenges and the opportunities as they were presented. I honestly shared stories of similar experiences and the lessons learned from them, and I challenged some of their assumptions that were eerily reminiscent of ones we once had. I think / I hope that I provided real added value to their thinking and their planning. I share this with the explicit intention of offering our staff to “think together” with you if you think it could be useful in advancing your work.
To paraphrase a quote I once saw on thought leadership. “Thought leadership is not about being known. It is about being known for making a difference.” We know that is what you want – to make a difference. If there is any way that we can help you achieve this goal, please reach out. It would be a wonderful way to spend our last year.
Deena K. Fuchs is Senior Director of Strategy and Partnerships, The AVI CHAI Foundation NA.