Schools Could Benefit from the Same Advice: Big Thinking and Mega Giving, Round II

By Jerry D. Isaak-Shapiro

Thank you, Julie Bianchi – and forgive me if I appropriate your exceptionally on-target piece (“What Human Service Organizations Need: Big Thinking and Mega Giving”) for the education segment of the community. While you draw a comparison between the social service agencies and higher education, nearly every point you raise is something that pertains to those of us who work in the pre-university world. Change a few nouns and cite a handful of different examples, and your piece is as articulate a wakeup call for schools as it is for social service organizations.

You ask, “What accounts for this gulf between the largest gifts to human services and higher education?” – and your first response is, “Not thinking big enough.” In the educational context as well; mega donors want passionately articulated visions, not just a fix-it plan. You note that one of the reasons social service agencies don’t often attain the transformative gift is because they “opt for treating symptoms through projects that allow for measurable impact within their issue area… but restrict the possibility of visionary change and the mega gifts that fund it.” Once again, you could just as easily have been speaking to our community’s schools. The pressure to perform better and score higher, or to amass a higher percentage of graduates at those colleges (we all know which ones) – they’re certainly admirable goals and are indeed measureable. But not only are such paltry visions sure not to gain the attention of potential mega donors (“Help us fund an increase in our average GPA” doesn’t have much of a ring to it); they fall far short of what I would hope is our essential and inspirational mission: to transform the lives of our students and through them, our community. John Dewey wrote eloquently about the role of education in society in the last century; but there have been Jewish voices singing that refrain stretching back to the promulgation of the Talmud. We need to talk about how we prepare our students for assuming the leadership of their world, not about preparing them for their next test or entrance exam.

Over and over again, your diagnosis for the social service sector is a blueprint for all of us. “Not investing in infrastructure” and “Not asking for philanthropic investments” invoke the self-inflicted wounds from which we all suffer. Ditto for your prescriptions for the future. You begin with, “Start with a big vision, and stick to it” – and your example from the trenches is “lead the fight against hunger vs. feeding the hungry.” Brilliant, and worthy of emulation. For schools, the objective can’t only be educating from various hashkafot (approaches); rather, we should seek to change the very paradigm of pluralism in our community. Who better to engage in life-transforming conversations than the educators who see our community’s future leaders day in and day out – for months and for years during their most essential development.

Your bullet point, “Instill a sense of hope and optimism” suggests that the social service sector has attracted donors “with a sense of urgency to end social crises like hunger and homelessness, and in the process, relied on crisis-response language to incite giving.” Sounds awfully close to the mandate accepted by schools to address (aka, fix) the perceived ills associated with assimilation and intermarriage, not to mention Jewish illiteracy. Optimism could be far better served by enthusiastically promoting the Hebrew poetry our students will be adding to the canon, and the contributions they’ll make – are already making – to a renaissance in Jewish thought. An anachronistically defensive “We’re combating the evils!” tagline might draw donors’ attention for a moment, but tugging at negative heartstrings is just not sustainable, nor does it do justice to education’s – much less Jewish education’s – most aspirational goals.

Your final bullet point – “Invest in yourself” – hits home like a jackhammer. “Human service organizations tend to be especially austere and humble while tackling some of the greatest social issues, perhaps at the cost of convincing donors of their organizational power to affect change.” You’re right – enough with the Bontshe Shvayg self-deprecation! We – social service agencies and schools – are about nothing less than sacred work. We are not desperately patching tears or pounding out dents in an old vehicle simply to make it serviceable; we’re envisioning and creating entirely new and exciting modes of transportation. Those with the capacity to dramatically transform our institutions will want to partner with us when we unabashedly celebrate those visions, and our ability to achieve them.

Jerry Isaak-Shapiro is in his thirteenth year as Head of School of the Joseph and Florence Mandel Jewish Day School in Cleveland, Ohio.