Supporting “Field-Building” Organizations

For the overall welfare of our community, we believe Jewish funders – local, regional, national – should find ways to support national field-building organizations as well as local providers.


More on National-Local Collaboration:
Supporting “Field-Building” Organizations
by Shari L Edelstein, Marcella Kanfer Rolnick and Yossi Prager

Conversations on funder collaboration have gained momentum. At the 2013 Jewish Funders Network (JFN) conference, we discussed the challenges of and opportunities for collaboration between local and national funders. With a desire to maintain the dialogue, JFN coordinated a series of articles on the interactions between local and national funders called “Local and National Funders: The Launch of a Conversation.” In turn, this exchange caught the attention of Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (GEO) and led to a joint JFN/GEO webinar in January 2014: The Promise and Pitfalls of Local and National Funder Collaborations.

Since then, the conversation has continued and diversified. At this year’s JFN international conference in March, national, international and local/regional funder collaborations were on full display through both sessions on projects that resulted from such collaborations – “Connected to Give,” the National Study of American Jewish Giving, and the hot-off-the-press research report about Jewish Outdoor, Food & Environmental Education, to name but two – as well as on the topic of how to collaborate, like the session that dove into five case studies of funders from Israel and the Diaspora who joined together to address diverse challenges in Israel. Recently, “A New Experiment in National-Local Funder Collaboration” reported on efforts between the Jim Joseph Foundation and several local foundations to collaborate on community-based teen initiatives.

Clearly, there is much to talk about as funder collaborations continue to work through challenges in pursuit of shared impact. Meanwhile, one topic that surfaced in the JFN article series and the January webinar is: What role should local and national funders play in supporting centralized organizations whose mission is to network, exercise thought leadership, and provide services to local organizations? One article, “Do We Need National Organizations,” challenged us to consider the value of national frameworks, reflecting on the recent closure of “two organizations that have been part of the landscape of American Jewish life for more than a generation,” rather than drawing a simple conclusion that national organizations inherently cannot sustain themselves.

In this article, we wish to turn attention to this under-attended topic. As a practical matter, national philanthropists have largely assumed the burden of supporting these national “field-building” organizations and often encounter little willingness from local funders to support these cross-community organizations. We see this as short-sighted. Powerful “field builders” share information and best practices on a wide variety of developments and trends in their respective fields; they offer a global perspective on shared issues, and develop centrally provided programs that are by their nature more cost-effective. The added value of these organizations can influence national directions and support local efforts for change. And it is increasingly clear that the national philanthropists do not have adequate capital to carry these organizations alone. (See Yossi and Marcella’s eJP pieces for more on this topic.)

For the overall welfare of our community, we believe Jewish funders – local, regional, national – should find ways to support national field-building organizations as well as local providers. Toward this end, we hope this piece will generate interest among national and local philanthropists, as well as the organizations themselves, to brainstorm ways to expand the funding base for field-building organizations. We share below some of our own, thus-far untested ideas and look forward to your thoughts.

First, ideas for field-building organizations and national funders to encourage local support for systems builders:

  • Articulate the value that these organizations can provide on a local level. Is it relevant research? Expertise? Network-building? Education? Training? Benchmarking? Be sensitive to the unique qualities of each community as you explore what expertise is applicable to its specific circumstances and needs.
  • Build relationships. Seek to learn from and to share knowledge with the local funder you wish to engage. Create opportunities for exchanging information and brainstorming without an initial monetary expectation. Financial support is more likely to develop as a result of ongoing dialogue and real understanding of each other’s priorities and aspirations.
  • Create opportunities for local representatives (funders, foundation staff and/or grantee representatives) to be involved in the leadership of national organizations; having local voices allows for connection and can help establish a sense of stewardship on behalf of the organization.
  • Be flexible about the type of financial contributions local funders can provide. General operating support is only one type of funding and isn’t always consistent with a local foundation’s mission. Some local funders might be interested in supporting a pilot program in their community or contracting with national organizations to provide expertise and services. Others might be willing to support centralized leadership and educational programs, or outreach models, offered by field-building organizations.
  • Bring ideas for potential collaborations with local funders early, before they are “fully baked.”

For local funders:

  • Learn about the priorities and strategies of national funders and national organizations that have relevance to your priorities. Reach out to have exploratory conversations. Be prepared not just with good questions, but also with a readiness to share your knowledge, connections and expertise.
  • When you find a national organization that can add value to your field, introduce them to your local funders who already support you and your mission. Advocate for the role it plays in “raising the tide.” It may feel risky, but it may also serve to strengthen your position as a confident, strategic organization that sees the benefits of being part of a network.
  • Don’t assume national organizations have all the resources they need and that your support and engagement would not be welcomed, appreciated, or capable of “moving the needle.” What kinds of creative solutions have you come up with that might be worth sharing?
  • Consider what would help your local organizations that field-building organizations are well-suited to provide and facilitate these connections. Be mindful that any engagement would need to be a financial win-win: perhaps a local funder supports collaboration between a local and a national organization.
  • Be open to learning together. As much as your local circumstances may indeed have unique qualities, you may also be surprised to find commonalities with others.

In talking with each other and at public sessions on the topic of collaboration, we have come to appreciate the mutual benefits of national/local collaboration in its many forms. We have also come to recognize that achieving collaboration requires hard work, openness, creativity and a willingness to put aside preconceived notions and expectations. We look forward to your ideas as we use eJP to brainstorm both the promise and the mechanism for collaborations.

Shari L. Edelstein is a philanthropic consultant based in Boulder, Colorado. Marcella Kanfer Rolnick is Chair of the Lippman Kanfer Family Foundation. Yossi Prager is Executive Director for North America of The AVI CHAI Foundation.