Story of a Collaboration – Part 2

By Abby Levine and Dara Steinberg

Back in September 2016 we shared with you The Uncertain Road: Story of a Collaboration – Part 1. We billed it as “the first chapter of a story about collaboration” – wanting to share in-the-moment thoughts and observations from both the perspective of funders and programmatic organizations, all the better to use our experience to learn with the sector and field, regardless of outcome. Part 1 took us through the evolving process of the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable and Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah as we collaborated on the idea of a project that would strengthen the application of Jewish wisdom in the Jewish social justice sector. That early process resulted in a planning grant. We’re pleased to now share what happened during that planning grant and where we are now.

Planning Grant – How We Moved Down the Road

With planning grant in hand, Abby Levine, Director of the Roundtable, turned to the leadership of the Roundtable (who had been involved in prior steps) to determine what was most needed. Ultimately, they hired a consultant and leveraged the infrastructure that they had fostered to conduct a survey and series of targeted interviews to test ideas that had emerged during the proposal stage, getting a much better sense of the interest and appetite of the field.

Dara and the Foundation served as touchpoints through this inquiry process, negotiating careful progress through tricky waters. The Foundation and Roundtable wanted to stay aligned, and the Foundation did not want to fall behind the learning curve as the Roundtable developed new understanding of the field. However, all parties were aware of the inherent power imbalance at play, brought into tension with the shared desire for alignment and commitment to crafting a project that represents the desires and priorities of the field. Explicitly, we decided it was the Roundtable’s role to keep the funder informed and for the funder to maintain some distance from the process.

However, these boundaries are easier to draw than stay in. As much as the Foundation tried to remain removed from the direct inquiry, it’s a small community. The Foundation does regularly have contact with other members of the Roundtable. At one point, Dara was talking to another organizational partner about the grant and asked the question of whether they were onboard with the Roundtable’s emerging priorities. The Foundation had recently had an experience where a group of organizations were trying to juggle their individual organizations and collective priorities, so was particularly feeling worried about alignment. The organization confirmed their commitment to Dara, then shared the conversation with the Roundtable, which prompted Abby to reach out to Dara for a direct conversation to make sure everyone was still on the same page. The unintended worry sparked by casual inquiry highlights the challenge of funders who have no desire to “go behind” a partner’s back, but also want to make sure organizations are not being unduly swayed by funding.

Developing & Iterating Ideas

Despite the bumps in the road, the inquiry process and survey of the field yielded valuable content, which we’ll highlight in a separate upcoming article. Four potential program areas ultimately surfaced as frontrunners, however, and work shifted to probing each of these ideas as well as thinking about them together in terms of sequencing, testing, prioritizing for the long term AND leaving room in this grant to test. The Roundtable and the Foundation began to focus increasingly on racial justice trainings with a strong incorporation of Jewish wisdom.

A Fork in the Road

And then the 2016 election happened.

Coincidentally, the Foundation had a board meeting the day after the election. Part of the conversation was what impact would this have on our current and potential grantees. The board was clear in its instructions and the next day, Dara called Abby, who had planned to submit the proposal stemming from the planning grant in mid-November, to say that while the Foundation did not want to direct the Roundtable to change its proposal, the Foundation wanted to open the door to adjustments – was this still a priority? Was the scope still right? Given the landscape upheaval, it was important to the Foundation that the Roundtable take the time it needed to determine what the right next step was.

So, how big a fork was this?

Well, the circumstances currently facing social justice nonprofits definitely influenced the final scope of this project and it inspired some important clarifying conversations. Discussions of race remained central and at the same time conversations about related topics – issues of discrimination, bigotry and anti-Semitism became more fully integrated into the ultimate program design. The underlying importance of racial justice conversations both held and was amplified, and at the same time the context for that conversation and the surrounding issues became vital components to address things holistically.

What’s Next?

The Foundation has approved a grant – two years of funding was approved this spring and the work launched over the summer with regional anti-racism trainings designed to both meet the goals of the project and test delivery to feed refinements into subsequent trainings and the Roundtable’s all-network gathering this November.

Whew, all this and only now we’re getting to the details of the actual project. The proposal was for racial justice trainings at the regional and national level in 2017, followed by a 2018 gathering to reach both staff and layleaders. The two to three year process laid out includes follow up with both staff and boards; this is an integrated approach that JSJR has learned works well in other settings, and the Foundation was excited that Roundtable was committed to involving people in multiple roles in their member organizations. After the grant funding was confirmed, JSJR leadership invited several teams to submit proposals to build the training. Suzanne Feinspan, Dove Kent, and Yavilah McCoy were ultimately selected by JSJR leadership as the racial justice training team, and they will be designing and delivering trainings that draw on applied Jewish wisdom as well as established secular techniques.

We’ll share learnings as the work moves forward!

As delighted as we are to have a successful outcome to report after our story’s optimistic but early uncertain explorations, we are happier to have partners both in doing good work and sharing learnings between sectors to advance the field as a whole.

Abby Levine is the Director of the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable. Dara Steinberg is the Executive Director of the Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah.