How to Make Systemic Change: A Funder’s Perspective

by Laurie Heller

It is generally taken for granted that foundations with large assets are able to create systemic change. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has been able to do it through their focus on world health and their large scale funding of programs to combat polio. The question facing other funders is how they can focus their allocations in a manner that can also make systemic changes.

We can look at our own community to find examples. Probably the most effective program in the area of Jewish continuity is birthright. It started with a bold vision, a working model and a detailed evaluation plan. Birthright tweaked the model over time, expanded the range of trip options, and developed follow-up programs for alumni. It also created partnerships with other donors. Its objective was to develop a program that would have a long lasting impact on Jewish life and it succeeded. It took thirteen years of sustained support and commitment by the initial funder and the partners for this start-up idea to become an international movement which has transformed the connection to both Israel and the Jewish Identity of over 300,000 young Jewish adults worldwide. They succeeded because they had a vision, a model, and they kept fine-tuning it year after year.

The Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Foundation, which I represent in Israel, has followed a similar approach. In 2007 the Israel Association of Community Centers (IACC) turned to the Gilbert Foundation whose funding priority in Israel is the advancement of Israeli society through higher education and economic development. The IACC asked the Foundation to support the “Creating Academic Excellence Program for the Bedouin Sector,” a program that would equip Bedouin youth in the Negev with the knowledge and skills they need to attend institutions of higher learning and to enter the competitive job market.

Historically, the Bedouin community in southern Israel lived in a semi-nomadic agrarian society. As modernity encroaches, more families have moved into towns and cities increasing the need for the next generation of Bedouin youth to advance academically. Although Bedouin youth have made great strides over the past several years, their academic achievements continue to lag behind the rest of the country.

The Creating Academic Excellence Program is an after school program for 9th to 12th graders, focusing on three areas: academic excellence, developing leadership and life skills, and encouraging community involvement. Students are given extra hours of English, math, science and Hebrew as well as intensive preparation for matriculation and psychometric exams (similar to the SAT) which are essential for admission to institutions of higher learning. Students also attend special workshops, all day study marathons during school vacations and visit institutions of higher learning to encourage them to aim high.

The Gilbert Foundation shared the IACC’s objective of making a systemic, long-term change in the Bedouin community by helping their youth advance educationally and economically. Like the donors for Birthright, the Gilbert Foundation understood that in order to have long-term impact, the three-year and out approach doesn’t work. The Foundation must make a long-term commitment. Gilbert therefore agreed in 2007 to join the IACC, the Jacobs Family Foundation and the Blaustein Foundation and has been supporting the program ever since.

The Creating Academic Excellence Program began with 35 students from two high schools in the Negev. Receiving long-term funding, allowed the IACC staff to adjust the curriculum, develop training programs for its teachers, and involve parents. It gave them time to understand the needs of the students and refine the initial program, step by step. Today, more than 1,000 Bedouin students from nineteen Negev high schools are participating. This year, a 12th grade participant in the program received a score of 770 (out of 800) on the psychometric exam, the highest grade ever received by a Bedouin student. The vast majority of the Creating Academic Excellence Program’s 300 graduates are attending colleges and universities, studying to be educators, doctors, nurses, engineers, and pharmacologists. Fifty-nine graduates are studying at Ben Gurion University. This is particularly remarkable in view of the fact that only two percent of Bedouin students are generally accepted into universities because of low scores on the psychometric exam.

The Gilbert Foundation is thrilled with this program’s success. It has played a significant role in enabling Bedouin youth to succeed in the modern world despite academic and cultural challenges they face. By giving the funded organization the freedom to learn from its mistakes, by understanding the challenges they face, and becoming their long-term partner, the Gilbert Foundation has helped make a systemic change.

Laurie Heller is the Founder and President of Laurie Heller and Associates, a consulting firm for Israeli nonprofit organizations and American based foundations. The company helps nonprofit organizations open doors and locating new funding sources from existing supporters. The company’s approach in writing grants comes from a unique perspective based on Laurie’s’ work with foundations.