Serving as Leaders for the Jewish Teen Education and Engagement Funder Collaborative

By Melanie Schneider and Brian Jaffee

As the Jewish Teen Education and Engagement Funder Collaborative continues the work that started in 2013, we are excited about the advances we see in the field. More communities have more resources to offer, in an increasingly diverse, supportive, and genuinely creative field – which leads to more offerings to engage teens in meaningful Jewish life. The Funder Collaborative – made up of ten communities and national and local funders that develop, nurture and scale new approaches to teen engagement – shares insights and lessons learned with the field so that any community, most anywhere, can elevate its teen engagement.

At this moment, both of us can also step back and share our experience of serving on the Funder Collaborative’s Operating Committee (OC) in 2017-2018. We do this because funder collaboratives are inherently complex – with many different organizations and people coming together at a common table, both for, ideally, a common goal, but also with their own goals. Embarking on an effective teen initiative, and creating an effective Funder Collaborative requires leaders. And being positioned for successful leadership is paramount.

We were incredibly fortunate to join the OC during the Funder Collaborative’s second stage, with an executive director in place. As Federation and foundation professionals with full plates of our own, the FC’s incredible executive director, Sara Allen, enabled us to feel excited about the opportunity to serve in this role and made filling the role something doable – even with regular time constraints and competing priorities.

We found serving on the OC and being leaders of the Funder Collaborative to encompass a few main responsibilities and opportunities. Anyone asked to serve in similar roles of similarly complex, multi-faceted endeavors will hopefully resonate with some of these reflections and perhaps find them helpful:

Relish the Role
Simply being a part of a Funder Collaborative made up of communities and funders who steward communal dollars, from across the country is a chance to learn, to grow professionally, and to infuse your organization with new ideas. Being on the Operating Committee of such an endeavor offers even more of these opportunities. Taking part in a field building endeavor to try and move the needle for how teen engagement is carried out in communities across the country is a powerful experience. Moreover, working with researchers to launch major surveys to teens and teen professionals and engaging youth-serving organizations to learn about their work and goals, are opportunities to learn from practitioners and beneficiaries in the field, on a scale that often times is out of reach. The insights emerging from these studies have been exciting and informed new ways of looking at the space.

Serve as a Sounding Board
There’s always an important balance to strike between simply listening to what people are saying and determining what, if any, next steps might follow. We listened to our colleagues in other communities and heard what learnings and best practices on teen engagement were actually helpful to them. We then sought to give voice to the “needs” and “wants” that we heard. In this way, we hope that we facilitated the flow of information, and helped the Funder Collaborative to be most responsive.

The Ombudsman Role
By nature – and by name – a funder collaborative necessitates significant collaboration among various entities: the practitioner organizations that make up the collaborative; the funder organizations and their lay leadership; professional leadership and colleagues, and evaluators, if they are engaged. The FC has all of these. Thus, our leadership role included serving as ombudsmen of sorts. We communicated to the primary national funder, the Jim Joseph Foundation, on behalf of the communities. We communicated with our home communities, who carry the other half of the funding, and directly oversee the initiatives; the research team leading the major cross-community evaluation to help ensure that the CCE would bring value to the communities; we also worked to make sure that what the communities were doing and learning was making its way into the CCE.

Different People Coming Together
For teen engagement, as for other endeavors, what works in New York doesn’t necessarily work in Cincinnati – and vice versa – and so it is for other cities as well. Serving on the OC amplifies this truth and was an opportunity for deeper and wider learning that extends far beyond our own communities – what cities are in fact in need of or best suited for certain programs? Our leadership roles on the FC gave us a great opportunity to go beyond our own bubbles and interact with communities of different sizes and learn the realities of varying resources, audiences, and other differences.

Cultivate and Foster Open Communications
Finally, as is so often true, getting behind a culture of openness, premised on trusting and strong relationships, was key to being effective leaders for the FC, to advance its support of our colleagues, communities’ teen initiatives, and the field. We both sought to bring a spirit of transparency to this role and felt comfortable sharing our own concerns with our colleagues. We hope that our colleagues throughout the FC understood our role as supporters and advocates, open and honest communicators about topics ranging from evaluations, programs, team building, lay leadership engagement and more. We worked closely with Sara to outline a clear agenda, and always checked for agreed upon expectations and goals. Ultimately, we both grew to know our colleagues in deeper ways. And we’re all better off for it.

Now, as the Jewish Teen Education and Engagement Funder Collaborative continues in its 7th year, we are off the OC, but still representing our communities in the FC and most importantly, in the work. The growth of the field focusing on teen Jewish initiatives and the resources now available for any community will continue to elevate this work. Phase 3 of the FC, now underway, is about building on early lessons learned, the successes, challenges and failures. The FC, as a multi-layered entity, with so many committed colleagues, outstanding educators who lead the programs on the ground, and thoughtful funders and organizations to envision and realize the work, help make all of this possible.

Melanie Schneider is Sr. Planning Executive with the Department of Jewish Life at UJA Federation of New York.

Brian Jaffee is Executive Director at The Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati.