Healthy or Unhealthy? Using Government Funding to Provide Jewish Social Services

By Rachel Schonwetter

[Masters students at the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion Zelikow School of Jewish Nonprofit Management write theses or capstone projects involving original research about topics of interest to Jewish organizations. eJewish Philanthropy is highlighting some of their findings in the form of short articles with links to their theses on the Berman Jewish Policy Archive.]

Imagine you are a professional engaged in financial resource development at a Jewish social service agency. You sit down at your desk one day to spend the morning reading through open grant opportunities at A few minutes into your search you find an interesting opportunity that aligns with your agency’s mission. You even had a meeting a few days earlier about a potential new program at your agency that matches the objectives described online. Yet after some consideration you decide not to apply.

If this scenario sounds familiar or if your Jewish social service agency has been reluctant to apply for government funding fearing it will negatively impact your organization’s financial stability, potential for growth, or Jewish identity, think again! My research found that reliance on government funding has an overall positive effect. Government funding seems to support the mission-driven work that these agencies pursue, and professionals at Jewish social service agencies should consider this funding source a valuable potential asset.

Government funding is one of the largest funding sources available to the nonprofit field. In 2012, government agencies and bodies paid $137 billion to nonprofit agencies throughout the country. Today, the Department of Health and Human Services, a federal government agency from which many grants/contracts at social service agencies originate, is the largest grant-making agency in the country. So I often wonder, why don’t professionals at Jewish social service agencies jump at every appropriate opportunity to take advantage of this funding source?

I decided to tackle this question as part of my master’s thesis at Hebrew Union College’s Zelikow School of Jewish Nonprofit Management. I created a survey to measure the size and scope of government funding in use at Jewish social service agencies across the country. Then, I set out to determine if it is healthy or unhealthy for Jewish social service agencies to rely on government funding and if it is possible for these agencies to rely on government funding and maintain their Jewish identities. I collected data from 73 executive directors at Jewish social service agencies across the country. I researched and developed appropriate criteria to measure organizational health, organizational growth, and Jewish identity and then used statistical analysis to determine if there were any significant differences between the agencies that do and do not rely on this funding source. The data collected demonstrates that reliance on government funding does not interfere with a Jewish social service agency’s organizational health, positively impacts its ability to grow, and does not negatively impact an agency’s Jewish identity.

In addition to supporting these conclusions, the survey results also hone in on an interesting intersection of the Jewish and non-Jewish world. The data collected demonstrates how Jewish social service agencies across the country have successfully navigated the tension surrounding being Jewish and existing as part of and serving their larger civic communities. For example, all of the agencies surveyed (those that do and do not rely on government funding) maintain boards of directors with a very high percentage of Jewish representation and surprisingly have continued to employ majority Jewish staff members and treat majority Jewish clientele (strong indicators of Jewish identity). Yet the agencies that rely on government funding also reported being able to implement new programs and hire staff with higher levels of education (two indicators of organizational growth) at a significantly higher rate than the agencies that do not rely on this funding source. These trends suggest that when they rely on government funding, Jewish social service agencies are better equipped to effect positive social change in their communities and they can do so while still honoring the Jewish values that may guide the agency’s mission or were of paramount importance at the agency’s founding.

It is unlikely that the government will suddenly stop funding the social service safety net in place throughout the country. Jewish social service agencies should continue to use or begin to more seriously pursue this funding source to provide the social services various Jewish communities have been providing for centuries. So, the next time you find yourself shying away from a government contract or grant, think again.

Rachel Schonwetter is a dual degree student at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s Zelikow School of Jewish Nonprofit Management and at the University of Southern California School of Social Work. She will receive her Master of Social Work and Master of Arts in Jewish Nonprofit Management in May. Her masters thesis can be read here.