Naomi Strongin on the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles’ biggest-ever grant cycle

Strongin is doubling down on COVID relief as head of the foundation’s Center for Designed Philanthropy

With more than $1.4 billion in assets, the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles made $116 million in grants in 2020, the lion’s share on behalf of donors whose assets are managed by the foundation in the form of donor-advised funds, endowments or other vehicles. The foundation also runs its own grant programs, shaped by the Center for Designed Philanthropy. The center shifted its emphasis to COVID-19 relief in 2020 and has decided to sustain that focus for at least another year, with its biggest-ever grant cycle of $3.7 million, Naomi Strongin, the center’s vice president, told eJewishPhilanthropy.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Helen Chernikoff: Why did the foundation decide to keep concentrating on pandemic recovery, at least for now?

Naomi Strongin: These grants were really a response to what we were hearing from the community. When the pandemic happened, we completely pivoted all of our institutional grants to our COVID response. Phase one was about emergency needs: health and housing, scholarships for students in day schools. We thought that by the end of 2021 that we’d be back to business as usual. We went back out into the community and we came to a better understanding of how these organizations are being impacted by COVID now. That’s how the “Reimagine” grants were born. We heard from nonprofits like Moishe House that they needed help moving from virtual to hybrid. We heard about a lot of mental health and wellness needs from groups like Hillel. We heard about partnerships being formed, and we wanted to support those collaborations. We put $2.57 million into those efforts.

HC: You made grants to 22 nonprofits and 23 synagogues. Why the focus on synagogues?

NS: About $1 million went to synagogues. The trauma and the toll that the pandemic has taken on synagogue staff has been tremendous. You could call it an invisible impact of COVID. By taking care of the people who lead the synagogues, we’re taking care of the people who go to those synagogues — Beth Jacob Congregation, IKAR, the Nachshon Minyan.

HC: The foundation decided in 2021 to not hold its “Cutting Edge” grants program and to instead do the “Reimagine” grants. How are they different?

NS: We ran the Cutting Edge grants in 2017 and 2019, and gave about $1 million each year. They’re about nurturing the potential for cutting-edge impact in the Los Angeles Jewish community. They support groups that are just launching, and programs within larger institutions. We also support a non-Jewish grant program. It used to give small amounts to various causes and now its targeted each year to a specific issue, such as human trafficking and homelessness. That’s grown from $100,000 when I started 12 years ago, to $1 million this year dedicated to the issue of racial equity for communities of color.

HC: Now that this grant cycle is over, when does the next one start?

NS: We are in research mode right now; we’re beginning our listening tour. We’ve always been responsive to the community, but COVID has pushed us to be more responsive. I was hired as a grants coordinator in 2009. I became a program officer, a senior program officer and now I’m running the department. One thing I’m really proud of is our relationships with the nonprofit community. When we go out to say that we want to talk to you about your needs, it’s not the first time they’re hearing from us. We are always in conversation with them. We provide them with regular technical assistance. They might come to us and say, “We need to do something that we know isn’t what you fund, but can you help us in some way?” And we’ll try to match them with someone who can fund them.

HC: It’s interesting to me that you talk about going to the community, when I usually envision this process the other way around — them coming to you, applying for funding. Is this where the foundation’s grant making intersects with the Center for Designed Philanthropy’s advisory role?

NS: We talk to 400 to 500 nonprofits a year who come through our doors and want to tell us about what they’re doing. People hear about us and they want to tell us about their work. We want to talk to them. And when our grant program comes out, we want to make sure they hear about it. But also, at the Center for Designed Philanthropy, a big part of our mission is helping the foundation’s 1,300 donors, who have such a wide spectrum of interests. There are so many ways we can connect the nonprofits with donors — beyond our specific grant making.

HC: How do you see the unique nature of Los Angeles reflected in what you’re doing at the foundation — both in the foundation’s grant making, and how you advise donors?

NS: Los Angeles is expansive: in terms of geography, in terms of nationalities, religions. What’s supported here and what’s welcome here runs such a broad spectrum. There’s never one way to do things here. There’s so much creativity and new ideas and innovation, and it’s different in different neighborhoods. The Jewish Community Center in Silver Lake is innovating on the Eastside, but that’s totally different from the San Fernando Valley, or Pico-Robertson, or in the Persian community.

HC: What trends are you seeing in your work advising the foundation’s donors on their philanthropy?

NS: I’ve seen a real awakening of our donors, especially our younger donors, who are seeing that this brokenness in the world is in their backyard. They’re asking, “What can I do to help?” It’s overwhelming for many people. It’s my job to help these donors find ways to give that feel meaningful, whether that’s large grants to a few organizations or small grants to many; whether that’s giving Jewishly, or going broader. Those young donors have given me hope.  

HC: Is there one piece of advice that you’ve given to donors over the course of the pandemic that’s still resonating for you and them?

NS: We advise donors not to stray from organizations that they’ve been supporting. Most nonprofits are struggling. So even though food security and housing are incredibly important right now, the organizations donors have been supporting still have their needs. We advise them, if they can, to branch out and support a new issue that they feel is specific to COVID. And we saw that happening.