One Foundation’s Journey from Go-It-Alone to Philanthropic Partnership

By Deena Fuchs

“What is it that you wish we would have done differently over the last 20-plus years of our grantmaking?” That’s what I asked a few of my AVI CHAI colleagues earlier this week. There were a number of different responses, many of which would make for other interesting articles. One answer though rose to the top. “We wish we would have funded in partnership sooner.”

For those of you who knew AVI CHAI in our pre-spend down era, you will recognize that a desire for greater partnership reflects a seismic shift from AVI CHAI’s approach just a little more than ten years ago. Let me share with you how we got here and what we learned along the way.

From goit alone to partnership only

In 2009, Professor Joel Fleishman, in response to a request from the foundation to provide some guidance for our future spend-down a decade later, wrote, “As long as AVI CHAI did indeed have more than sufficient resources to accomplish what it hoped to do, and as long as it expected to be around indefinitely to enable its principal grantees to continue to receive support, the downside of its preference for “go-it-alone” was likely minimal. Once AVI CHAI made the determination to spend down, however, the full cost of that preference began to make itself felt.”

In response to this observation and a set of recommendations, AVI CHAI entered a new phase in North America. We recognized that dozens of programs we initiated, incubated and supported were potentially poorly positioned for sustainability post AVI CHAI. We would need to help our grantees find other funders or develop new business models. As we entered our final decade of new grantmaking, we also considered whether it made sense for AVI CHAI to continue to “go-it-alone” in the development of new programs. After discussion of Professor Fleishman’s recommendations by Trustees and staff, we instituted a policy of funding only 50 percent for new programs that we thought would need to be sustainable in the long-term. We hired the Bridgespan Group to guide us through the transition, and I was appointed as the foundation’s Director of Strategy and Partnerships.

We shared the Fleishman report widely, exposing publicly this criticism of our “go-it-alone” philanthropy. We shared our new 50-percent stance with our colleagues, in the hopes that we would easily find partners for new work. But, in fact, peer foundations were skeptical about partnering with us. Only then did we begin to understand that our long-standing approach to go-it-along philanthropy was perceived by others as “AVI CHAI does not play nicely in the sandbox.”

I clearly remember a Jewish Funders Network foundation professionals’ meeting in 2010, where we first shared our new partnership building mandate. We were met with much cynicism and even anger. Our colleagues initially interpreted our new approach as “now we are partnering, so come fund our programs.” While we did hope to find additional funders for our existing portfolio, for us, partnership took many forms, and we were prepared to invest in them all.

And we did, changing the perception of AVI CHAI relatively quickly. A year later, at the 2011 Jewish Funders Network professionals’ meeting, we reported publicly on the efforts we were making to advance our work in partnership. This time, our colleagues responded with surprise and support. I distinctly remember one colleague saying – “I never thought you would actually do this. You walked the talk.” And now, eight years later, as we are about to close, we can point to nearly $140 million collectively invested in our fields of focus – day schools and overnight summer camps – in partnership.

How We Made the Shift: Three Kinds of Partnerships

Working closely with AVI CHAI Trustees, who joined the staff in these efforts, we began by meeting with many funders and foundation staff with local, regional and national funding interests. We listened. Deeply. In that listening we heard what I like to call the “Venn,” the areas in which our goals, strategies and broad understanding of the needs of the field overlapped with those of other funders – much like a Venn Diagram. We also gained a greater appreciation of the deep passion and commitment by other funders to advance those shared goals.

The partnerships that emerged fell into three categories:

  • Co-creation: Once we found the overlapping Venn, we began by dreaming together. “What would it look like if together we…..” The operative words there are “together” and “we.” Dreaming together allowed us all to look past the constraints and limits of “this is the way I do it.” It also built the trust and respect, and in turn the humility, needed to be effective partners. Usually, the dreaming included one or more operating nonprofits who would implement programs to realize the dream. At times, the dreaming and strategizing together led to partnerships with other national funders. Other times, we dreamed with local funders to create a program for their city that, if successful, could be a pilot or model for other communities.
  • Investing in programs developed and designed by other funders, where our contribution expanded participation. In these cases, we were not actively engaged in the development of the idea but joined in because we saw the philanthropic opportunity as mission aligned and compelling.
  • Where others invest in programs initiated earlier on by AVI CHAI. We have been fortunate as a spend-down foundation that some of our largest programs, ultimately drew investment from major funders who will enable the work to proceed.

Regardless of the partnership model, the key elements of deep listening, shared goals, trust, respect, and humility are essential for their success. Over time those partnerships opened us to exciting learning from the thinking of other funders, and it helped us understand that the learning and thinking we shared with other funders will be a part of AVI CHAI’s long-term legacy.

So Why Not Partner Always?

Partnerships can be powerful tools for philanthropic success, but they are not always appropriate. One reason to avoid partnerships is, as Professor Fleishman explained, “collaboration inevitably forces all parties to accommodate to some of the preferences of others and many times results in ‘dumbing down’ the ultimate outcome.” We did experience that a few times.

Partnerships slow the process of starting new programs. Partnerships take more time than program funding on your own because of the necessary interaction among funders and differing grantmaking timetables. For us, as a sunsetting foundation, time was sacred, and the time things took to take shape and then take off was sometimes frustrating.

There were also the times when goals were not as aligned as we originally thought, when the ideal of partnership overshadowed good judgement, and when we just could not agree on a path forward. And, there were times when our partners didn’t always work in the same spirit of partnership.

And yet ….

If my colleagues and I were to go back and do it all again, we would look for more philanthropic partnerships rather than fewer. More often than not, we felt that the programs we created in partnership were enhanced by the collaboration. Personally, I worked on two separate programs focused on increasing the pre-school to day school pipeline. Each program was designed, monitored and evaluated in partnership with colleague foundations. Each one was uniquely enhanced by the respective foundation’s approach to program design, relationships with grantees, existing knowledge base, and approaches to impact measurement. Each program was better than it could have been if it had been done by AVI CHAI or either of the other foundations alone. In fact, I am confident they would not have happened at all but for the partnership. Many of my AVI CHAI colleagues share similar experiences. The upsides of enhanced programs and increased funding in the areas we cared about was worth the potential downside.

Upon reflection: Partnering with others on some programs also means that more funds could be available for some of the riskier solo big bets you might want to make. Who knows what other big investments we might have made over our tenure if we built partnerships into our grantmaking sooner?

A Final Thought: Grantees Are Partners Too

One thing worth noting in any discussion on partnership: the spirit of partnership needs to extend to the grantees as well. Grantees often have a hard time navigating the varying needs of funding partners – whether they be different reporting procedures or having multiple points of contact. Working in partnership should be empowering to and efficient for operating nonprofits, not burdensome. In the two day-school pipeline grants I referenced above, the co-funders worked together with the grantees to streamline reports and benchmarks that we reviewed together at the same time, thereby saving everyone time and effort.


So, six months before we close, we share these experiences with our colleagues, many of whom are our partners and now friends. We have enormous hakarat hatov to you all for joining with us as we made our shifts and for believing in the potential of our partnership.

Deena K. Fuchs is Senior Director of Strategy and Partnerships at The AVI CHAI Foundation. She will soon be joining the Jewish Funders Network as its first Executive Vice President, where she will help JFN to grow and transform as the organization seeks to enhance its role as a catalyst for partnerships and coalitions in the Jewish philanthropic world.