Leveraging Networks: From Commitment to Action

by Andres Spokoiny and Jay Ruderman

On December 6th, nearly 175 leaders – funders, academic experts, and program leaders – came together in New York to explore ways that our community can do more to be fully inclusive of people with disabilities. With the collaborative leadership of the Ruderman Family Foundation and the Jewish Funders Network, the conference showcased two important lessons for active philanthropy. The Jewish Federations of North America, its Boston affiliate Combined Jewish Philanthropies, and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee all played important supporting roles.

First, and most obviously, disabilities is a critical issue: no community, let alone one the size of the Jewish community, can afford to exclude people on the basis of what Tim Shriver, CEO of the Special Olympics, calls “diff-abilities”. To do so is not only wrong, but it’s ultimately harmful to all of us regardless of ability. In the closing session of the conference, Barry Shrage put it succinctly: “We can’t afford to lose a single Jew. This is about our vision of the Jewish community.”

For the Ruderman Foundation, JFN, and the participants at ADVANCE, the Jewish community we envision is an inclusive one. And so, over the course of one amazing day, we talked about networking, sharing, collaborating, inclusion, partnership, all with the goal of building that community. We’re moving beyond talk and into action, too.

Last year’s conference led to the formation of a new peer network on disabilities, a group of 16 funders deeply committed to exploring this area and integrating it with their work. Now led by a full-time staff member facilitating collaboration among the network, the group’s impact will be broader than would be possible through their individual efforts.

Second, the conference marked a milestone in another maybe more profound way as well. We challenged the community of funders to transform their individual commitments into joint action that can change the face of disability in the Jewish community.

This is a new model for collaboration in our community. Leveraging both the leadership of a deeply committed and highly engaged single funder, the Ruderman Foundation, and the connecting and convening power of JFN, ADVANCE is a showcase for how to do 21st century, cutting-edge philanthropy.

ADVANCE is an example of the real power of networks. With JFN as a catalyst, funders at every level were able to come together and build the critical ties that will help the Jewish community move forward. In our closing session, representatives from the around the community shared the stage to express their shared commitment to our common goal. This conference wasn’t about institutions, though the heavyweights were well represented; nor was it about go-it-alone entrepreneurial philanthropy. Building on the initiative of a small and committed group, we established a shared philanthropic priority and were able to bring a broader and even more powerful group to the same table.

The role of networks in philanthropy is a hot topic – the Jim Joseph Foundation is investing heavily in the area, and the Schusterman Foundation sponsored a conference called “NetWORKS” just last month in Colorado. At ADVANCE, we began to see the real power of this transformative model, and we can’t wait to see the impact we’ll have.

Andrés Spokoiny is President and CEO of the Jewish Funders Network. Jay Ruderman is president of the Ruderman Family Foundation.