Inverting the Canopy: A Funder Reaches Out for Help

Summit participants gathered at Paul Ecke Ranch, Encinitas, a 67-acre property under option by the Leichtag Foundation.

by Charlene Seidle

Rabbi Tarfon and some elders were reclining in an upper chamber in the house of Nitza in Lod when this question came up: Which is greater, study or action? Rabbi Tarfon spoke up and said: Action is greater. Rabbi Akiva spoke up and said: Study is greater. The others then spoke up and said: Study is greater because it leads to action.

Last week, the Leichtag Foundation convened 13 “thought leaders” in San Diego’s North County for 25 intensive hours of visioning, idea generation, conversation, critique and authentic conversation. The Foundation is at an important crossroads. Committed to building vibrant Jewish life in San Diego’s North County, a region with a growing and diverse Jewish community, we sought input, ideas and practical assistance on how to develop the area into a new kind of Jewish hub and as a magnet for the best and brightest talent. And having just entered an option agreement to purchase a 67-acre property that we see as a platform for some of our North County Jewish strategies and programs (currently zoned for agricultural use), we needed creative thinkers at the table.

Believing in the wisdom of professionals from the field, regardless of age, we gathered individuals with experience from diverse sectors of Jewish life – including farming, international humanitarian aid, social justice, service learning, social entrepreneurship, food justice, young adult engagement and philanthropy. Their varied perspectives transformed the group into a consultative dream team informing our Foundation on how to strengthen and expand Jewish opportunities in our region. This energetic brain trust shared advice on topics both weighty – success indicators for our work, building and growing regional leadership for the long-term, addressing the dynamic of a dominant funder in a community – and on the lighter side: taquitos or pizza, which are more popular for our North County kosher food truck? (Answer: go Mexican!)

While the Summit conversations were rich and varied, six key themes stood out.

1. We need to break down the walls between funders and program providers. In addition to soliciting ideas about North County, the gathering was designed to turn the tables on the traditional funder/program provider relationship. We started out with a case study where the group was asked to quite literally get in the head of a funder who is struggling with what success in building vibrant Jewish life in North County looks like 10, 15, 30 years in the future. What headlines about the Jewish community would we like to see on Twitter, Tumblr, the North County Times or The Forward? What do we want community members who aren’t Jewish to know about those who are? What do we want Jews to know about each other and how do they learn it? If our ultimate vision is for people all over the country who are making the decision about where to live to see North County as a region that offers a panoply of innovative Jewish options, what do we need to put in place now to make this happen?

During the concluding Summit reflections, all of us – funders and programmers alike – noted that there are too few opportunities for us to come together for reflective, creative and candid brainstorming. The walls between funders and nonprofits must be broken down if we are to address the pressing issues that only the collective can solve. We need to roll up our sleeves and get our hands dirty together without fear of retribution and taking the proverbial power imbalance out of the equation.

2. Philanthropy is both the risk capital and the sustaining capital of the Jewish world. With both funders and programmers convened, we frankly discussed experimentation, adaptation, flexibility and leverage. In our world, program design and grant terms are often so restrictive, there is little room left for trial and error, our unique opportunities for research and development. In many cases, the philanthropic community is the most risk-averse. This is counterintuitive when you consider the potential impact philanthropic and investment dollars could have as the venture and risk capital of our community as well as the spending power we could employ by learning from what works, adapting early and nimbly, and then making major and more coordinated investments in those experiments that succeed. The Leichtag Foundation focuses our work in two “labs” – North County San Diego and Jerusalem. Just as in the world of medical research that goes from bench to bedside, only some of the “clinical trials” may achieve sustainable outcomes, but we must have a number of different tools in our arsenal, learn quickly from each experiment and share our learnings openly.

3. A local community like North County can be an important testing ground for Big Ideas. Bringing national and even Israel program providers to an intensive gathering focused around a local community and convened by a local funder prompted discussion about how local communities can be workshops for strategies and programs that can then be brought to scale. North County lends itself particularly well to this kind of experimentation because of its diverse, relatively uninvolved Jewish population whose Jewish identities are still in formation. Turning traditional views upside down again (and it wasn’t even Purim!), our brain trust framed the high proportion of North County Jews who are part of interfaith families not as a challenge or problem but as an opportunity and even a potential value-add for our region. North County and communities like it are the perfect settings for demonstrating Judaism’s unique value in our diverse and multicultural world. And oh what value Jewish teachings and ethics can bring!

4. Judaism is our competitive advantage. The Foundation’s focus on North County forces us to embrace the fact that, for those who live in our region, Jewish identity is maybe fifth or sixth on the list of self-definition, and connection to Israel could even be lower. If we are to be successful, we must connect to people in their own processes of self-discovery, acknowledge their individual choices and demonstrate the relevance of Jewish values to their interests and concerns. Our Jewish traditions give us so much substance from which to draw. This paradigm fueled our Summit participants’ creative juices. In focus groups with North County community members that the Foundation convened over the months leading up to the Summit, social justice – particularly food justice and immigrant rights – featured prominently in the conversations. Responding to this community interest, those gathered at the Summit generated scores of creative yet substantive and realistic ideas for programs and engagement activities connecting these issues to the Foundation’s strategic goal of building vibrant Jewish life in North County.

5. Let’s invest in people. Ultimately the success of the community depends on the human capital we can help to inspire and nurture. Attracting and supporting the right talent is critical. Summit participants encouraged us to build leadership and engagement in two ways. From the ground up – investing in the considerable talent that is right here in the community. And from the top down – offering opportunities in North County that attract the best and brightest of the Jewish world.

6. The learning never ends. Our takeaways from the Summit were numerous, rich and deep. An informed and passionate group of professionals reflected here for 24 hours, leaving us with the inspiration, energy and renewed confidence that we can do what we do better, and that the enormous challenges and opportunities that appear on our horizon can become successes in our rear-view mirror. We have already integrated some of the Summit feedback in our review of North County Jewish program grants that were pending with the Foundation and will include Summit participant feedback as we define our next steps, desired outcomes and short, mid and long term success indicators. We hope the group will be an ongoing advisory body for us, helping add perspective to our work and sharing in the awesome and sacred privilege of strengthening and inspiring this incredible community.

To submit your ideas about Jewish North County and for more information on the region, visit jewishnorthcounty.com.

Charlene Seidle is Vice President and Executive Director of the Leichtag Foundation and Senior Vice President of the Jewish Community Foundation of San Diego.