Strategic Philanthropy: Linking Central and Local Philanthropy

[This article is part of a series on the interactions between local and national funders ignited by the Jewish Funders Network (JFN). To read more about the series, see the introductory post here.]

by Yossi Prager

AVI CHAI’s spend-down goals include building funding partnerships with philanthropists whose values and interests align with ours. In that connection, I have had the privilege of meeting with impressive and dedicated Jewish funders across the country. Time and again, I have learned that the vast majority of funders focus their Jewish giving on local service organizations (schools, synagogues, Jewish family services, food delivery). This local focus is understandable. The donors understand their local context best and can see firsthand the impact of their philanthropy. They also feel a huge sense of responsibility to local organizations and beneficiaries dependent upon them. Local giving by committed and caring philanthropists is the engine that drives the Jewish nonprofit sector.

Some observers have argued that there is another factor at play in the overwhelming focus on local giving: donors today distrust “institutions,” particularly at the national level, because they perceive them as bureaucratic, staid and inefficient. As a result, donors are not only attracted to funding their local institutions but also repelled by their jaundiced view of national organizations. In my role as AVI CHAI’s North American director, participating in the allocation of hundreds of millions of dollars of giving over time, I have come to appreciate the extraordinary potential reach and leverage of centralized programming in improving the work of local organizations.

My personal appreciation of the role of centralized programming began, perhaps ironically, as a result of my experiences in the 1990’s, as AVI CHAI experimented with direct grants to (initially) synagogues and (later) day schools. We learned that direct grants could be terrific catalysts for stimulating talented people to create innovative pilot programs around the country, a few of which endured over time. We also began to offer a series of longstanding grant programs – ranging from providing small Jewish libraries for students who enter the day school system at the high school level to $1 million interest free loans for construction and renovation at day schools and overnight camps – that provide a set of uniform benefits to qualifying organizations. Through these kinds of direct grants to schools, AVI CHAI also helped to build school libraries/media centers, promote experiential Jewish education and stimulate educational technology experiments.

However, these direct grants addressed only part of the needs of the local schools. Effective schools also need trained principals and teachers, high-quality curricula, access to best practices from other schools and other resources for marketing and fundraising. It would be unreasonably expensive to create programs or organizations to address these needs within multiple schools or communities, and doing so would deprive participants of cross-community learning. AVI CHAI thus turned to national organizations to develop new programs.

One of AVI CHAI’s early day school “jewels” was a program developed by the Davidson school of education at JTS to train principals for the (then) growing number of Community, Solomon Schechter and Reform day schools. By funding a single program that trained heads of school and division principals for new and existing schools across the country, AVI CHAI cost-effectively developed a new cadre of leaders for local schools. A later JTS program to develop standards for the study of Tanakh (Bible) and train teachers and administrators for standards-based instruction has transformed the study of Bible at over 60 schools. We have similarly funded curricula that are used by tens of thousands of students on a daily basis. Our newest focus is on online/blended learning. Today’s need is for a network of schools learning from one another as well as centralized expertise.

My point is that an effective and cost-efficient Jewish nonprofit world – and this extends beyond the sphere of Jewish education – depends upon a healthy interrelationship between local and centralized efforts. The primary needs and opportunities will always be at the local level, where beneficiaries are actually served. But training, materials and best practices are central needs that can best be addressed through centralized programming developed by talented people with a more centralized perch. This is perhaps even truer today, when it is possible to weave networks that enable the sharing of knowledge, and the creation of new knowledge, across communities and between local and centralized efforts through the internet.

A closing thought: What is the difference between philanthropy and charity? One could distinguish the two in many ways. I prefer to describe philanthropy as strategic investments to accomplish philanthropic goals, while charity is the act of choosing among worthy causes competing for giving. Donors with the ambition to be philanthropists see issues and opportunities within the larger contexts of their overall strategic goals. From the perspective of philanthropy, the achievement of our collective goals for the Jewish people depends on effective local institutions supported by centralized efforts. Relatedly, the effectiveness of the Jewish nonprofit sector depends on healthy collaborations among donors within and across communities working in collaboration with national organizations and funders. This is not a utopian vision, but one that can be achieved now with sufficient donor interest and good will.

Yossi Prager is the Executive Director – North America for The AVI CHAI Foundation.