Networks and the Future of Jewish Philanthropy

[eJP note: During last week’s Jewish Funders Network Conference in Tel Aviv, Andres Spokoiny, the organizations’ president and CEO, laid out his vision for the future of Jewish Philanthropy and the Jewish Funders Network. Following, with minor omissions, are his remarks; his call to action.]

A person is walking in the street and passes by a dance hall. The windows of the dance hall are very thick and soundproof, so he can’t hear the music. He only sees people making all sort of strange movements. He walks away, thinking he just saw a bunch of totally crazy people, maybe a mental asylum of some sort.

If somebody would walk by our conference, she would probably also think that we are crazy. Here, we have 400 people spending three days trying to see how to give money away! If we were discussing how to make money, I would get it… but how to give it away?!! Some people in this room flew over 20 hours just to see how to give money! Have we all lost our mind?

Of course not. We’re not crazy. For us it makes perfect sense, because we CAN hear the music. And, for each of us,the music is a bit different; for some of us, it’s the calling of our passion to make the world a better place; for others, it’s the values of our family, or maybe the unending tune of 4,000 years of history. But we each know why we are here.

We are here because we know that we make a living by the money we earn, but we make a life by the money we give away. We are here because we know that life only has meaning when we make a difference in others. We know that only through impacting others we can truly become ourselves.

I see some friends here from South Africa. When I first visited South Africa, I was struck by a Zulu greeting; when you see somebody, you say “Sauwbona”, which literally translates as “I see you, therefore I am”. Our tradition sees things in the same way. Hillel the Elder minted that wonderful phrase “ujshe ani leatzmi ma ani?” “If I’m not for myself, who will be, but if I’m only for myself, what am I”. We truly exist when we make a difference in others.

And this is why we are here, because we realize that we have the power and the passion to change the world, one person at a time, one project at a time, one gift at a time.

We are here because we know that hearing the music is not enough. In the complex world in which we live, our passions, our commitment and our goodwill is not enough. We need the tools, the systems, the conceptual frameworks that help us transform passions into actions and values into practice. We are here because we know that those tools are increasingly complex and radically different than the ones we used in the past.

Most importantly, we know that we need each other. We need a network.

The music is different for each of us. Each of us has a story of how and why we became involved in philanthropy…

It is personal for me and it is personal for you. And because it is personal, we don’t let up. Because it’s personal we need to make it work, because this is not just a job or a hobby. This is who we are. The music is different for all of us, but we all hear it and the symphony of our different tunes is complex and somehow harmonious.

As I said before, we live in a complex world, fascinating and sometimes scary. One thing is sure though, the philanthropic landscape has changed, and change is here to stay. Moreover, the rate of change is constantly accelerating, and we live in a world of radical uncertainty, where the old recipes won’t work.

The late 20st century saw the exponential growth of independent philanthropy. Some call this phenomenon a natural consequence of the individualist culture in which we live.

I see it differently. I see it as an unleashing of the creativity, the dynamism and the entrepreneurial spirit of the individual.

We live in a world where the individual is king. Sociologists have called it “the age of the hyper-empowered individual”. The post-modern individual has the freedom and the tools to redefine herself. He creates who he is, they build their own identities, fluid as our world.

A kid can start a revolution armed with a cellphone, a blogger can topple a government from his facebook page.

I believe that independent philanthropy has both the means and the drive to produce real change in the Jewish World. Over the past decade, the major changes in the Jewish world and in Israel were a product of the actions of independent philanthropists. For independent philanthropists no dream is too crazy.

Think about it: wasn’t it crazy to believe that every Jewish kid should come to Israel at least once? Wasn’t it crazy to think that the culture of driving in Israel could be changed? Wasn’t it crazy to believe that Israeli Arabs would volunteer for national service? We all are here because we all have crazy dreams.

But the world is changing also for us. What got us here won’t get us there. The world has become more radically complex, more unpredictable, and the responses to societal problems less clear. We live in an era where the silver bullets have disappeared. The experience of the past won’t help us much, because the world of 2010 is radically different from the one in 1990.

If the 1900s were the times of the “do it alone” philanthropy, the way for independent philanthropists to maximize their impact in 2015 is through networks. Networks are the key to the future. Networks are the key to success in this crazy 21st century. The problems we face are too complex, too intractable to try to tackle them alone. None of us on our own has the resources or the know-how to solve the issues that affect us.

Networks are the bridge between the individual and the collective. They retain the independence of the individual; they retain the creativity and the dynamism of lone entrepreneurs, and they connect them with like-minded individuals towards a common goal. Networks allow us to pool resources, both material and intellectual, to solve complex problems for which there are no easy, “off the shelf” solutions.

Working collaboratively isn’t easy. At JFN, we are learning more every day about how to create a culture of common action and constructive disagreement. Sometimes networks require patience, but as the old saying goes: if you want to go fast, go alone, if you want to go FAR, go together.

But despite the challenges of building great networks, collaboration is the essence of an effective philanthropy for the 21st century.

And that takes me to the question that I’ve been asking myself for the last eight months. The philosopher Peter Nozik once said that every person should ask himself every day why does he have the right to be alive. What is their purpose in life. I believe that the same is true for organizations. I have been wrestling with this question with many of you, and with the JFN staff and board. But, in light of what I said before, I think the answer is obvious:

We are the organization that networks. We are the organization that is there for you when it comes to people that share your ideas, your passions and your interests.

We are the organization where dialogue is possible, because our network is broad and our tent is wide. JFN is the place to challenge and be challenged, to refuse the status quo, to open up to ideas of others and to the creation of collective intellectual capital.

We have, in this room and at this conference, the “creme de la creme” of Jewish philanthropists, and we are here, because we believe that together we are smarter, together we know more, together we are more creative and together we can achieve results that we can never achieve alone.

We also understand that JFN, despite the enormous successes of the past, needs a process of renewal.

That’s why we are now re-launching our organization. We’ve hit the reset button and we are re-launching JFN with networking at our core.

With JFN 2.0, we’ll raise networked philanthropy to a new level in the Jewish world. The new approach rests on three main platforms: Membership Services, Networking, and Philanthropic Excellence. JFN 2.0 is a single GLOBAL organization, and as the only global table of Jewish Philanthropy, we are committed to connecting members regardless of where they are in the world.

JFN 2.0 is not just a “trade organization” of funders, it’s a vector of change in the Jewish world, than can and will deliver value to our members by being a convener and a platform for networking.

In the new world, JFN needs to be the place where where funders from all walks of life can come together in a neutral big tent to debate and discuss the most urgent issues affecting the Jewish Community, Israel and the world at large. This JFN facilitates connections among like-minded partners, mobilizes the power of the collective, and provides a forum to discuss the big questions facing the Jewish community and the larger world. This JFN creates tools, identifies best practices, and provides a broad range of philanthropic services to its members and the next generation of funders. At this JFN, large foundations can find ways to maximize their impact, and small foundations can sit at the global table, leveraging their size, and engage with a multitude of opportunities and ideas.

With this strategic definition of who we are as a network, here are a few new or newly-focused directions as a result:

First – Networking programs. We deliver value by facilitating networks of funders who share similar concerns and focuses; in this new phase, networking is the cornerstone of our strategy. We will support the development of more peer networks, more affinity groups and more giving circles.

But we’re not starting from scratch; there are already great examples of effective networking all across JFN. The Revson Foundation and the Gandyr Foundation have engaged in a unique partnership to address critical issues in the Arab Israeli population; Rashi is a already leader in the field of partnership programs, and JFN has facilitated contacts that led to fruitful joint-ventures; The Fisher Foundation and the Schechtel family philanthropies have joined forces to launch JTFN, which deserves enormous credit for creating a culture of philanthropy in the next generation. The Schusterman Foundation – and I see here Seth Cohen and Sandy Cardin – are also redefining much of their operations in terms of networking.

Giving circles – supporting them and incubating them – will be a critical piece of our efforts towards collaborative giving. JFN aims to become a resource for anybody in the Jewish Community who wants to launch this giving methodology.

Second – Global expansion: as I said before, we are a global network, and we need to expand our operations in some critical geographic areas. During the next year, we are going to cement our presence in the West Coast of the US, leading up to the 2013 conference, to be held in Los Angeles.

We will continue to grow our presence and our operations here in Israel, the fastest growing segment of JFN. It’s an incredible credit to our members here, and especially the members of our Israeli cabinet, whom I want to personally thank for their commitment and support. The contribution that JFN has made to the development of the field of philanthropy in Israel is beyond measure. During the past few months, thanks to the support of the Leichtag foundation, we have expanded our operations in Israel, hired new staff and opened new lines of operations.

Moreover, strengthening the connections between American and Israeli funders is a KEY value proposition for JFN as a whole. This is one of our distinctive and most valuable capabilities..

Continuing the global reach, during the past year, we’ve also expanded further in Europe and Latin America, and we have a big group here from Australia.

Third – As a hub for philanthropic knowledge, we will become aim a leading provider of expertise to our members and to the Jewish Community as whole, through the creation of the Center for Jewish Philanthropic Excellence. We’re redefining our Philanthropic Services model to raise the bar for skills-based programming and grant-making resources for JFN members. The Center for Jewish Philanthropic Excellence will integrate our world-class programming and convening expertise with professional and peer-based grant making advice. It will serve as a hub for knowledge sharing, and as a dependable consulting partner for individuals and families seeking to deepen their impact on the Jewish world and Israel.

Fourth – Networking platforms: To facilitate networking, we are creating new technological tools to enable collaboration and exchange. Many of you have already downloaded the new app that we launched for this year’s conference which will stay throughout the year, and our new website, launching shortly after the conference, will go beyond an old-fashioned directory to deliver new ways to connect with your fellow funders.

Fifth – Matching Grants: Matching grants have already proven to be an incredible tool for attracting new philanthropic capital to a given field. During the next year, we will continue developing matching grants to serve different philanthropic areas. It is my pleasure to announce today that a second round of “Pesifas” (a joint project of UJA Federation and AVI CHAI) has been approved and will be launching soon, with two other matching grant programs being planned as we speak.

Sixth, and finally (for now) – During the next year, JFN will revamp and strengthen our professional development programs for foundation professionals and CEOs. We will also conduct our first retreat for family members that run family foundations. I don’t need to elaborate on the need for professional development to better support the professionals in our field. The need is self-evident. But what I will tell you is that we will be building a program that integrates the latest knowledge, and create a world class program to support the best and brightest professionals in the Jewish world.

Dear friends, during the past eight months I’ve been listening a lot to many of you. I’ve met over a hundred of our members, throughout the world. But I want to commit to you that listening is not for me a “one off” event. Listening is, for me, the essence of leadership, and the essence of JFN.

These organizational priorities have been developed by careful listening and through a process of wide consultation. The process is iterative, and in fact, never ends.

And so I want to conclude with a commitment and a call to action:

Our commitment is the following: at JFN we will not let the annual conference be a “once in a year” event. We are going to follow up with you after the conference; we will continue the many rich conversations that are taking place here. We will give you and ask for feedback. We will continue to listen and to change based on your input.

The call to action is for you and for us: We need to, each of us, to challenge to think in networks, to work in networks and to explore every possible avenue for collaboration with fellow funders. The challenges ahead for our communities are tough and complex. If each of us understands the richness and the opportunities that networks offer, if each of us joins forces with like-minded funders, there’s no limit to what we can achieve.

Is it easy? Of course not, but we are the people for whom only the impossible is worth doing. We don’t do “easy”. And the time for action is now. The time to change is now. Now is the time to start operating in a truly 21st-century manner.

Dear friends, we are getting ready to celebrate the holiday of Pesach. I’m always puzzled by the reaction of Moses when God entrusts him with the mission of being the leader of his people: “Mi Anochi” he asked in despair: “Who am I to be the leader?” of the people.

I think that in an inverse way, the Torah is teaching us a valuable lesson. Never ask “who am I to make a difference?”. Never doubt your capacity to bring about change; never renege on your responsibility to make the world a better place.

You are here because you don’t ask “mi anochi?”. You stand up and make a difference. You lead the community and society with your contributions and your actions. You are here because you know “mi anochi”.

Dear friends, I want to thank you all for being here, for your trust and your commitment and for being part of this wonderful adventure of networked Jewish Philanthropy. May we continue to dare to have big and crazy dreams and may we stretch hands to one another to make them a reality.