Skin-In-The-Game Commitments

by Sarah Kass

Who can forget December 11, 2008? On the day Bernie Madoff was arrested, millions if not billions of (Jewish) philanthropic dollars went up in smoke. Since then, surviving Jewish philanthropists have rearranged their investment strategies and surviving Jewish nonprofits have rearranged their donor bases. As we approach the first anniversary of that day, we remember the devastation and think about how it has changed us. It is possible that December 11, 2008, launched the transformation of the Jewish third sector.

Imagine you are in synagogue and the Torah reading has just ended. As the magbiyah lifts the Torah aloft, you and your fellow congregants stand, holding your right pinkies in the direction of the raised Torah; each of you is, as it were, putting your skin in the game. Indeed tradition has it that if the magbiyah drops the Torah, all those present – holding it up, symbolically – are required to fast. The beneficiaries are the benefactors.

Outside the Torah service, Jewish organizations behave differently. Benefactors and beneficiaries are typically like meat and dairy dishes, never to be mixed. As a consequence, nonprofit leaders serve two bosses. With one (helping) hand they devote themselves to righting wrongs, feeding the hungry, inspiring the young, strengthening communities; with the other (upturned) palm they strive to keep their benefactors well cared for, well fed and on board. If the true focus of an organization is reflected in how its leader spends time and energy, then nonprofits are more often more about benefactors than beneficiaries. Lofty grant proposals notwithstanding, the unspoken assumption of the nonprofit manager is that the benefactors are big and powerful and the beneficiaries small and weak.

What would it take to say that December 11, 2008 was the day we began to build organizations the same way we hold up the Torah, so that beneficiaries are benefactors and benefactors are beneficiaries?

First, we need to rewrite the core story of our communal work. Instead of thinking of nonprofits as spending benefactors’ wealth to repair beneficiaries’ impoverishment, could we speak about building a shared future? Instead of thinking of our organizations as service providers, or even membership organizations, might we learn to describe them as skin-in-the-game organizations, where beneficiaries and benefactors alike are accountable for success?

Second, we have to rethink organizational structure. Instead of insisting that board seats are for people with big money, could we imagine seating on our boards people with big social networks? Could the power of the people we are serving power our organizations? Could deep pockets be measured in terms of numbers of Facebook friends?

Third, we have to re-imagine the communal work itself. Today, organizations attend to the people they currently serve. People they served previously are names in a database, perhaps waiting to become solicited alumni. Community today; commodity tomorrow. What if every person served was regarded as a lifetime participant? What if programs were conceived as open-source platforms, in which consumers (participants) could become producers (providers of ideas, outreach, time, friends or money)? What if organizations were built to be “prosumer” movements?

Fourth, it would mean changing which instrument has strings. Presently, foundations are infamous for giving grants with strings attached, and nonprofits are famous for taking them. What if grants came with strings for the benefactor? What would happen if nonprofits told funders: “We will accept your $100,000 check after you work with us to bring a thousand $100 donors to our table.” Or what if nonprofits told donors their gifts came with participation requirements: “In order for us to spend your money, we look forward to you spending time with us.”

Fifth, we would need a new yardstick for measuring success. How many participants remain engaged? How many participants engaged how many people to become new participants? How many participants created new ways of participating? Were beneficiaries benefactors? Who had skin in the game? Would the organization hold up, if someone, heaven forbid, made off with the biggest donors’ money?

Sixth, we would need to change our body language. Rather than the helping hand or the upturned palm, could our organizational leaders’ hands beckon us all to follow? When we stand in synagogue, our pinkies held aloft, yes, we watch the Torah. But we also marvel at the person who is holding it up. What would it mean for nonprofit leaders to comport themselves as the movers and shakers of our Jewish future? Imagine the gesture that says, “Come with us, and together we will all go to a better place!”

From its beginning, the wealth of the Jewish people has always come from its human resourcefulness rather than from its material resources. We have no ever-flowing Nile; instead, we pray for rain. We bow to a Sabbath Queen, not to a golden calf. As we approach December 11, 2009, perhaps we can understand the loss of so many big donors as an opportunity to remember what we really value, and as an invitation to look to our people’s spiritual and creative wealth rather than merely to our big bank accounts to do God’s work.

Sarah Kass is director of strategy and evaluation at the Avi Chai Foundation. This piece is based on a recent talk at the PresenTense Institute.