Power to the People: Investing in the People Behind Projects

by Dana Raucher and Shawn Landres

3988805392_35af2eb2f3Over the past decade, funders and philanthropies, large and small, have invested more than $500 million in a wide range of new Jewish organizations, communities, and start-up ventures. Philanthropic investment in innovation has reflected the aspirations of funders to promote certain key values, such as pluralism, openness, and inclusion. Diverse – even contradictory – ideas and practices co-exist in an atmosphere of respectful pluralism, fostering exploration, entrepreneurship, and an “open tent” model of Jewish community, whereby anyone can enter from his or her own particular perspective.

The new financial support has helped drive and nurture the emergence of a Jewish innovation ecosystem: a dynamic and interdependent network of diverse Jewish initiatives whose vitality has opened up countless new entry points to Jewish life, while sparking a renaissance in thinking across the larger Jewish community about the meaning of Jewish life and Judaism’s contributions to the world.

Accompanying these new philanthropic priorities are new funding strategies. Throughout the 20th century, funders frequently sought to address systemwide problems by creating centralized massmarket responses. The philanthropic process often focused on funding specific activities, or “outputs,” which initially were designed to respond to identified needs. However, beginning in the late 1990s, philanthropists sought to apply lessons they learned in the business world – especially about management by objectives, setting visionary goals, and developing organizational leadership – to their charitable work. Funders began to shift attention away from managing activities in response to a need, and instead to emphasize achieving outcomes that serve a mission.

In the Jewish community, this framework has entailed a shift from problem-solving to visioning. For example, instead of reacting to a perceived demographic decline, many funders have shifted their focus to the proactive goal of creating attractive modes of Jewish life. This approach requires the investor and entrepreneur to agree on desired outcomes. Since short-term outputs may be unpredictable, funders shift their focus to ensuring the quality of inputs, which include the leaders themselves, organizational infrastructure, and community engagement.

In this new model, much of the investment decision depends on the investor’s confidence in the unique passion and potential of the project’s leadership. There are programs dedicated to cultivating a select cohort of individuals who show great promise, but who may not yet have charted a course for their future involvement in the Jewish community. For example, the Dorot Fellowship and the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel provide fully subsidized educational experiences in Israel and a supportive alumni community. The Progressive Jewish Alliance’s Jeremiah Fellowship trains young social justice leaders to become local activists. Many of the alumni of these programs have then gone on to found or lead such innovative initiatives as Kehilat Hadar (independent minyanim), Moishe House (Jewish communal living), and JGooders.com (online philanthropy).

The focus on inputs is evident among more advanced programs as well. The Selah Network cultivates leadership in social justice in and beyond the Jewish community, sustaining individuals within the movement as they transition from one position to another. Even fellowships focused on supporting start-up projects, such as Paideia, the ROI Community, and the Ariane de Rothschild Fellows Program invest a great deal into personal leadership development. These programs provide organizational development, leadership skills, Jewish learning, and peer networks, in order to enable new leaders to envision and influence the future in their own way.

Long-term philanthropic partnerships can help ensure the quality of organizational infrastructure, independent of any given program output. In order to advance women’s leadership and gender equity in and beyond Jewish life, the Dobkin Family Foundation, for example, has cultivated nonprofit leaders and their organizations over decades, even as those leaders and organizations shift their specific activities over time, in order to achieve their shared goals. Similarly, Hillel’s stable, long-term support from a core group of funders over the past 15 years has enabled it to reinvent itself, reorganizing its operations and programs a number of times, in order to meet the shifting needs of new generations of Jewish college students.

Beyond direct support, philanthropies have helped advance specific change agendas by engaging the broader Jewish community. They have publicly championed new initiatives demonstrating their value to the greater Jewish community. Slingshot, a yearly compendium which details “50 of the most creative and effective organizations and leaders” in the United States, has provided national recognition and a sense of communal legitimacy to numerous change-makers who otherwise might have gone unnoticed—or worse, been dismissed as marginal, trendy, generational, or short-lived. A new publication called Compass aspires to advance similar goals in Europe. By advocating the value of these new organizations, philanthropists advance their visions for change and simultaneously promote greater space for experimentation among new ventures.

One of the critical strategic challenges facing Jewish philanthropy in the 21st century is the question of how to demonstrate the unique value proposition of Judaism and Jewish life in open and diverse societies. Success today means creating dynamic, diverse, and sustainable entry points to meaningful and authentic experiences that enhance the Jewish community while also contributing to the betterment of the broader world. An enduring – and, one hopes, expanding – philanthropic strategy of long-term, mission-driven investment will help develop the leaders, the infrastructure, and the broader communal engagement which can continue to make that vision a reality.

Shawn Landres and Dana Raucher wish to thank Joshua Avedon, Felicia Herman and Ariel Groveman Weiner for their continuing collaboration in this work.

Image: Partcipants at an ROI event. Provided thanks to ROI’s Flickr stream.

This post is from the just-released PresenTense Philanthropy issue; you can also subscribe to PresenTense Magazine and receive this, and future issues, delivered directly to you.