Schusterman cuts Reality trips, leadership fellowship, scales back ROI as it focuses on grantmaking, CEO says

CEO Lisa Eisen says programs were successful, but the fields have ‘matured,’ so the foundation can focus on funding, where it can have the most ‘value add’ 

The Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Philanthropies will cut its Reality program and eponymous leadership development fellowship and scale back its ROI Community to focus on Israel beginning this summer as it looks to dedicate its efforts and resources solely to grantmaking in the United States, the organization’s co-president told eJewishPhilanthropy this week.

“We stepped back to say, ‘Where are we having the most unique impact? With our dollars, where can we make the most difference?’ And we made a decision that we can have the most unique, ‘value add’ as a grant maker,” Lisa Eisen told eJP on Monday ahead of the organization’s announcement to its alumni and communities on Thursday.

As a result of this decision, which officially goes into effect on June 30, the foundation will be terminating the staff that run those programs. “We are very focused on providing them the support they need to have a smooth transition and a good runway and even helping them find their next move,” Eisen said. She declined to say how many people this affected, citing their privacy.

Eisen stressed that the organization was not scaling back in other ways. “We will not be changing our grantmaking at all,” she said. “All of our grant making portfolios — the Jewish ones, the Israel ones and the secular ones will continue. It’s an important year in the United States as well, and we invest in democracy and voting rights, in gender equality and reproductive rights — those are really crucial issues.”

The Schusterman Family Philanthropies reached its decision to cut the two programs and scale back ROI as a result of internal assessments, according to Eisen. “We are very impact focused so we are always looking at data. We’re always listening to the fields we operate in, listening to people closest to the ground. Based on all that information, and just as a strategic business decision, [we are] really honing in on grantmaking,” she said.

Foundation leaders said that the decision to cut the Reality program and Schusterman Fellowship was not out of dissatisfaction with the programs but out of an understanding that there were other, similar initiatives that could fill a similar role and the foundation therefore no longer needed to operate them itself.

“Both programs have made significant contributions to and positively influenced the fields of Israel travel and leadership development. We know their impact on the people and communities they touched will continue to resonate and reverberate for years to come,” Stacy Schusterman, the chair of the philanthropies, said in a statement. 

Eisen, who is visiting Israel as part of the Jewish Funders Network conference, told eJP that the organization was “very, very proud” that it had produced 200 Schusterman fellows and taken 3,000 leaders from different fields — “many, if not most of them, not Jewish” — to Israel to engage with Israelis and with world Jewry.  “We believe deeply that these programs were a success,” she said.

“But since we started those programs 15 years ago those fields have really matured,” she said. “So we’ve determined that we are going to invest in those fields as grant makers and no longer operate our own programs.”

The organization has not yet decided if it will now increase its grantmaking by effectively reallocating the money that will be saved by no longer operating these programs in-house. “We haven’t made all those decisions yet,” Eisen said. “But the idea is that the resources are going to be invested in the field.”

Eisen said the organization hoped that the existing informal alumni network from the Schusterman Fellowship would continue on its own. The foundation was also working to get another organization to effectively absorb the Reality program. Eisen said it was too early to identify which organization Schusterman was in talks with.

“If we’re successful in Reality becoming part of another organization, we hope that they’ll pick up the alumni network as well,” she said. “But those plans are still all in development.”

In the ROI Community program, the foundation selected applicants, young Jewish adults mostly those recommended by existing members, who attended a summit in Israel, were offered microgrants to fund for their projects and join its network of more than 1,700 members. The ROIers, as they’re often known, came mostly from Israel and the United States, but also included people from smaller Jewish communities around the world. 

As part of these new changes, the ROI Community will continue to exist but will focus almost exclusively on Israel, specifically on post-Oct. 7 rebuilding and recovery efforts. This will be seen at the ROI Community’s upcoming summit in Israel in September. Eisen said that the foundation will also support some non-Israeli members and initiatives through the program. 

“We’re trying to be as strategic and agile as we can as grantmakers,” she said. “The ROI program will be focused mostly on Israel and Israelis. But one of the areas [it addresses] will also be combating antisemitism and anti-Zionism, so it won’t exclude other people, it will just be more focused on doing work that’s that’s complementary and additive to to the grantmaking work that we’re doing here in Israel to help the country rebuild its resilience and its strength — and just rebuild society post-Oct.7.”