How Focused Philanthropy Enables Foundation Staff to be Substantive Partners with Grantees

“Focused Philanthropy – Charity Goals and Themes”; screen capture Advise Us Foundation

By Joel Einleger

After supporting a wide range of Jewish education programs and institutions through the mid 1990’s, AVI CHAI’s Trustees narrowed the focus in North America almost exclusively to Jewish day schools and overnight summer camps, which research had confirmed offer the strongest Jewish educational outcomes and promise. We have found that focusing relatively narrowly in philanthropy allows for a deeper, more comprehensive approach to increasing the potential impact of a field. We also learned that focus generates an additional and less obvious benefit: staff become more deeply knowledgeable and thus better partners with our grantees.

Our camping experience is a case in point. AVI CHAI’s specific goals were to help these camps provide powerful Jewish educational experiences for their campers and staff, and to increase the numbers of Jewish children who benefit from a camp experience each summer. We were lucky that AVI CHAI’s interest in the field coincided with the establishment of the Foundation for Jewish Camp. While not an exclusive beneficiary of our camping grants, FJC quickly became a key partner in our work, helping to coalesce various Jewish camp movements and independent camps into a field. Independent of FJC, we funded many projects at other organizations and also partnered with other foundations working in support of Jewish camps. Through this work, our foundation’s staff grew to play the role of expert thought partner with our grantees and co-funders.

So how can foundation staff deeply invested in a field help grantees do their work better?

Share what you learn from a unique wideangle view. A foundation’s perch provides an extraordinary information-gathering vantage point that becomes more valuable when shared with others. Foundations routinely receive grantee progress reports, and their staff may visit more sites, observe more programs in action, and meet more people in the field than many practitioners and field organizational staff have the opportunity to do.

Foundation staff have even more opportunities to help when participants in funded programs intersect and interact in their work. The overnight camping field is now blessed by the multiple investments in staff professional development and training made by AVI CHAI and other funders. The rubber hits the road during camp season, when various trained camp staff – counselors, unit heads, program specialists, Israeli shlichim and others – will work to engage campers and staff. Coordination is very important. For six consecutive summers, we engaged an exceptional Jewish educator to visit multiple camps to troubleshoot and understand program impact and, as importantly, determine whether the staff trained through the different programs – sometimes developed by different organizations – were collaborating and coordinating their work at camp. The findings from each summer were reviewed with the leadership of the camp movements and training organizations together so that, as a group, we could learn from the experience and understand where more alignment and corrective work needed to be done.

In Pirkei Avot we are told: Aseh Lecha Rav – “make yourself a teacher.” This becomes even more powerful when the relationship becomes a group “chavruta,” in which foundation staff and professionals from multiple organizations can share and learn together.

Create an environment of trust. Grantees do their best work when they can be transparent and foundation staff can be reflective partners and resources to them. A trusting relationship means the grantee feels safe sharing their challenges, which then enables foundation staff to work closely with the organization’s professional staff and board members to help them succeed.

That trust can also be demonstrated through assessment processes that are not “gotchas” but shared learning experiences to guide changes in the program or strategy. But even some pilot programs grounded in sound theories and good hypotheses will inevitably fail. It is important to recognize that failure is a positive consequence of risk-taking. In addition to celebrating successes, funders and grantees should jointly anticipate and analyze failures so that others can learn from them as well. If a grantee trusts their funders and shares mutual goals for the field, they will hopefully appreciate that a failure will not prevent future funding for other projects.

Make connections among grantees and foster partnerships. Among the most important ways foundation staff can support grantees is by opening doors to natural allies and partners, and sometimes with a little nudge, bringing together staff and organizations that can achieve more together than separately. When AVI CHAI initially funded camp programs to train summer staff to educate about and advocate for Israel, these were developed and run separately by either the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) or the iCenter, which was later joined by FJC. As Israel education deepened in camps and ambitions for these programs grew, it became clear that the field would be best served through closer collaboration and planning among these three organizations. Today, joint planning is an important goal and an ongoing, year-round process. Training is run collaboratively when tactically advantageous, staff is often shared across different training programs, and coordination continues among the camp staff during the summer.

Another grantee partnership was developed between the JCCA and FJC, whose affiliated camp directors now can all benefit from the Lekhu Lakhem professional development program that was created by JCCA staff. And most recently, M²: The Institute for Experiential Jewish Education began exploring with JAFI how techniques it has developed might be helpful in the training of the 1,400 JAFI shlichim who work in camps each summer. The seeds for each of these productive collaborations were planted by AVI CHAI staff and were unlikely to have started without at least some foundation encouragement and introductions, but the shape of the partnerships and efficiencies they introduced were the result of the good will of the different grantee organizations.

Play the long game and become personally invested. With a long history of working together with organizations in the camping field, I am already planning my involvement in some of AVI CHAI’s work to extend beyond the foundation’s sunset, and have agreed to serve as a board member or in an advisory capacity for a number of camp-related organizations. My input will no longer come with a foundation check attached, but I believe that the experience and knowledge gained through these long-standing, trust-building partnerships will be helpful as these organizations continue to serve the field.

Although I have used our camping work – which has been my primary focus – as an example, foundation staff can develop useful expertise without being limited to a single field. In my case, I have been involved through AVI CHAI with a non-camping project for almost two decades, and I plan to continue in my role as vice chair of the board after our sunset.

My larger point is about how philanthropic professionals can be maximally helpful to the excellent professionals and advocacy organizations that do the heavy lifting: by becoming better educated and more engaged in the substantive and challenging issues in the fields in which they work. Personally, I have found this a particularly rewarding way to work, ultimately leveraging my foundation’s financial support.

Joel Einleger is a Senior Program Officer and AVI CHAI’s Director of Strategy, Camping Programs.