On the Ground at NAJDS: What Funders Want

by Deborah Fishman

The North American Jewish Day School Conference’s session “What Funders Want” dealt with a few striking questions which funders – and anyone interested in deciding where to devote resources – face. One such question is whether the needs of individual schools or “the community” as a system take priority. This can manifest itself geographically: How does what is occurring on the local scene relate to the national picture? It also surfaces when considering how schools work with one another: Do schools have unique needs they need to focus on inwardly – or can they collaborate?

Three panelists – Daniel Perla from the AVI CHAI Foundation, Amy Katz from PEJE, and Holly Cohen from the Kohelet Foundation – discussed funding priorities with one another in a “fishbowl” setup of their three chairs surrounded by an outward circle of the watching audience. This audience could at certain moments influence the dialogue in the “fishbowl” by feeding it questions and observations (including via twitter).

Opening on the question of the personal, moderator Sharon Haselkorn posed the idea that everyone – both those within and beyond the fishbowl – are funders: How do we decide how to donate money? Impact (where a donation will make the greatest impact) and values (which organization’s values one identifies with the most) were the two top replies.

The panelists carried out these ideas of impact and value in discussing how they play out on a communal level. For instance, Daniel spoke to AVI CHAI’s dedication to LRP values – Literacy, Religious Purposefulness, and Peoplehood.

In terms of funders’ work with schools having an impact, the panelists agreed that it is key for their initiatives to be sustainable and replicable. On a basic level, sustainability requires that those seeking funding have a plan, including a financial plan, that they have the capacity and track record to carry out. But looking beyond individual schools, the imperative to have an impact and reach the maximum number of people is inevitably intertwined with the imperative for schools to collaborate with one another.

In practice, however, collaboration is complex. Daniel pointed out that day schools are heterogeneous: the context in which they operate matters. While schools may have certain staff positions, values, or other elements in common, there are differences in how they need to leverage and position themselves, and what works within certain communities and structures may not work in others.

Particularly in agreement were session attendees who happened to come from towns with smaller Jewish populations – such as Tulsa, Oklahoma; Birmingham, Alabama; and Charlotte, Virginia – who presented the question: How can you closely collaborate when the nearest Jewish community is a four hours’ drive away?

At the same time, these communities argued for their national relevance, as many of the children raised in their day schools become Jewishly inspired and go on to join larger Jewish communities elsewhere.

The interplay between the local and the national leads to some fascinating questions. For instance, is there a way we can take best practices for collaboration and apply them in small communities? What national networks are available to local communities? What would large communities do for smaller communities? In other words, how do we make our community a national community?

These questions are particularly salient at a time when the economic recession has greatly increased the need to come up with “innovative” approaches to the challenges facing us. Innovation, as defined by the panelists, need not be one world-changing blow. It can be something simple, or something that simply hasn’t been tried before in that particular school and community. But it does need to be something that squarely takes on the “elephants in the room.”

This issue of local versus national does seem to have been one such elephant in the session room. To solve it, however, may not require an either-or stance. National collaboration may be what is realistic for funders who are operating on a national rather than local level. At the same time, as Amy pointed out, the future of Jewish philanthropy can’t rest on mega-donors. She cited the need to give to day schools in your community as a piece of halacha (Jewish law).

Indeed, today’s day schools need to operate on both a local level, addressing their particular community’s needs, while taking inspiration from and contributing to the national level, collaborating through networks that will seek to solve common challenges. Both those within and beyond the fishbowl also need to collaborate in order to make the impact around the Jewish values that we all want to see in our community.

Cross-posted to The Avi Chai Foundation Blog.