Strategic compassion: Infusing ‘Hineni’ into the heart of Jewish philanthropy

During a recent call with a dedicated member of our local Jewish community, he ended the conversation with a poignant request — one which admittedly strayed from our foundation’s Jewish giving strategy: “Basically what I am saying is that I’m hoping this will tug at your heartstrings enough,” he said. Urging an emotional response that would lead to a favorable decision about considering funding for his project, his words left me thinking about the complex interplay between strategy and compassion in philanthropy.

In search of an additional perspective on the matter — and selfishly seeking validation of my mounting frustration — I called a colleague who manages a similar-sized foundation across the country. 

“This is exactly what we discussed at JFN,” she said, referring to a conversation we participated in at my first Jewish Funders Network conference, which I attended as a newcomer to the world of philanthropy two years ago. 

It was a lunchtime roundtable with CEOs of foundations discussing the intrinsic challenges of local Jewish giving. Before attending the conference, I had just transitioned from the Jewish nonprofit sector to leading one of the largest private foundations in our local Jewish community. I was eager to uncover strategies for impactful giving in the Jewish space. Having been a beneficiary of the foundation’s grants in my previous professional role, I understood the local community’s expectations. What was only just becoming clear to me, however, was that many of the foundations represented at this roundtable had initially focused on giving in their local communities but gradually evolved to focus more on giving at the national and international level. The reasons for this shift varied from city to city and foundation to foundation, but first and foremost among the rationales shared was frustration with the sense of entitlement community institutions exhibit when it comes to local foundations’ money. 

In many of these communities, the dollars allocated to Jewish local philanthropy are significant in scale compared to the size of the communities they benefit. The community knows that the dollars need to be spent, and therefore often tries to equate Jewish-anything to fitting into a foundation’s giving parameters. The common feeling among foundation staff is that their Jewish community grantees believe they understand how the foundation should spend its dollars better than the foundation itself — that they have a finger on the pulse of the community and an understanding of its inner workings and needs that a foundation will never have. There is absolutely some truth to that, but that is the very reason that foundations create giving strategies: so we don’t have to understand every nook and cranny of a community but can instead focus on areas of interest that align with the mission and vision of the foundation. 

This is not how local foundations work. Illustration by Pavlo Syvak/Adobe Stock

I recall a time, back when I was leading a local Jewish agency, when I was certain that a specific initiative that we were launching would fit within the parameters of the foundation that I currently lead. It wasn’t that I understood the strategy for Jewish giving that the foundation had laid out; from my perspective at the time, the foundation existed to give to our Jewish community, so I was sure that the funding for this program would come through. I also remember how frustrated I was when the funding did not come through. I felt like the foundation had missed a tremendous opportunity that aligned with exactly who I knew them to be.

That, in essence, is the problem — and yes, I was a part of it. I believed that any good idea that addressed the needs of our local Jewish community was one that merited funding from our local Jewish foundation. That’s what it was there for, right? I didn’t take the same time and effort to do the research I did about funders outside of the local Jewish community because “Jewish” seemed to be all I needed to know. I didn’t understand, and nothing made me understand until I switched roles. 

The Jewish concept of “Hineni, “Here I am,” is exemplified in several key biblical narratives where it is used to express complete availability and responsiveness to God’s calling, but it can be extended to the way individuals interact with each other. Hineni embodies the readiness to be present, to listen and to engage deeply with others. It reflects a willingness to set aside one’s preoccupations and preconceived notions to truly hear and understand someone else’s perspective, needs and challenges. 

In Jewish thought and practice, understanding one another through the principle of Hineni is not just about passive acknowledgment but active engagement as well. It’s about being truly present for one another, strengthening individual relationships and the broader community.

We try hard at our foundation — and I know other foundations do as well — to create spaces for showing up authentically, with a willingness to see and hear the person or persons across the table from us. As I reflect on the ways I showed up for our local Jewish community as a grant-seeking nonprofit professional, and on everything I have learned since then in my present role leading a foundation, I believe that we could all do better with a renewed commitment to show up, hear, listen and, ultimately, respect one another.

Framing local Jewish philanthropy with a “Hineni lens” encourages a shift from transactional charity to transformative support. For the foundations, it is about being fully present in the act of giving, responsive to the needs at hand and committed to making a genuine difference through partnership. This approach can lead to more effective and meaningful philanthropic endeavors that truly resonate with the needs and aspirations of those we aim to support. For the grantees and local communities, it is about being fully present in understanding the priorities and strategies their local foundations set forth. It is also about recognizing that while Jewish communal professionals and leaders are experts in what they do, the foundations are entitled to their own vision and strategy and have a responsibility to be able to measure the impact of their dollars.

Local Jewish community organizations and local Jewish philanthropy need to listen to and understand each other, and commit to building and fostering relationships where both sides are valued and seen.

Jennie I. Schaff is the CEO of the Max and Marian Farash Charitable Foundation.