Giving Wisely and With Impact: Part 3

For many Jews, giving is a part of who they are. After all, tzedakah literally means “justice,” even though it’s often translated as charity. It’s a way to create a world where fairness is the rule rather than the exception. Since giving is a central tenet of Judaism, tzedakah is also a way to manifest the values Jews hold most deep.

But it is one matter to give. It is another to give wisely and with measurable impact. Achieving the latter goal is laudable but not easily attainable. To help with that process, Jewish Funders Network and the Jewish Communal Fund published “Your Jewish Philanthropy Roadmap,” a publication to help make Jewish philanthropy more strategic.

This four-part series is adapted from the “Roadmap” and will focus on milestones that funders and donors inevitably encounter on their philanthropic journey. Rather than provide a rote set of answers, the “Roadmap” offers options to address several issues that are the framework of any decision to give.

Part 3: Thinking about change and how to make sure it happens

The most-effective philanthropists know not to go it alone. In spite of its huge endowment, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has received more than $1 billion from Warren Buffett to further fund the education and public health programs it backs. As the Talmud says: “greater than one who does a mitzvah, is one who causes others to do a mitzvah.” An underpinning of tzedakah is reconnecting people to a social network of needs. Philanthropy can be one of the most effective tools to make that happen. These are some of the strategic considerations that should be taken into account to reach that goal:

  • Research. Fund studies to understand the impacts of a particular program or issue.
  • Awareness. Be part of campaigns that increase public knowledge about an issue of concern.
  • Policy. Take part in efforts to shape the legal and regulatory framework that guides an issue. This could take the form of lobbying, fundraising and enlisting partners in a coalition whose voice can be heard far beyond the grassroots level.
  • Collaboration. Inevitably, two heads are better than one.
  • Remediation. If there’s an existing problem, solve it before taking on new challenges. This also helps highlight why the desired outcome needs to be achieved.

Then there are the tactical components, such as a time horizon for measuring success, how many organizations to support, and whether to fund operating programs or make capital grants. All of this is an attempt to respond to the question of what is the best way to use money. A full consideration of these factors is essential to provide a satisfactory answer and enable philanthropists to assess progress for the groups and programs they support.

Assessment – especially in the realm of philanthropy – has its own set of complications. Multiple variables can hinder the ability to pinpoint the root cause of change, for better or worse. Among them is time. In medicine, vaccines can provide a treatment and a cure, but it can take decades to reach that point. Other issues, like fighting poverty or the lack of human rights, may never have an end date. However, that does not mean philanthropists should walk away from such issues. Even if only some progress is made in a lifetime, it is progress all the same.

By the same token, philanthropists could wind up funding programs that can be viewed as successful, in that there was a defined set of goals, along with a start and end date. However, these programs may make no real difference in the broader scheme. Assessment is very much an art, not a science. It can be a wholly subjective measurement that depends on the goals of the funder. But whatever those might be, these four tips for measurement apply:

  1. Be flexible. Listen regularly to feedback and adapt your philanthropic approach accordingly.
  2. Create a meaningful conversation with stakeholders and other philanthropists as a result of assessments.
  3. Make site visits to obtain first-hand knowledge of the impact of a grant or donation.
  4. View measurement data as a learning opportunity.

It is also important to distinguish between “outputs” and “outcomes.” The former refers to services provided, such as soup kitchens or equal learning opportunities for the disabled. The latter covers less-tangible measures such as acquired knowledge or changed behaviors. A lower rate of hunger or malnutrition, for example, would be an outcome of a soup kitchen.

In making key philanthropic decisions, outputs and outcomes must be aligned. When the first one falters – no matter the effort, execution or good intentions – the second cannot be achieved. There does not have to be an end game. But there does need to be some sign of progress. Knowing how to make an assessment about whether that is happening will allow a philanthropy roadmap to provide the right direction to a life of giving that has both meaning and impact

Next week, Part 4: The Jewish Philanthropic Journey

Giving Wisely, parts 1 and 2, can be found here.