by Lisa Eisen
The two decades leading up to the near-collapse of the world financial markets in late 2008 was a period of enormous growth in private philanthropy. This was especially true in the Jewish community, which saw the establishment of some nine thousand Jewish family foundations with assets totaling $30 billion.
Then everything changed. The recession and the Madoff scandal created a perfect storm that severely damaged the philanthropic community; on average, private foundations are reported to have lost about 30 percent of their assets, and some smaller foundations reduced giving by as much as 60 percent.
Times are tough, and surviving is not a question of simply downsizing and taking cover until the storm abates. Few believe 2010 will be a better year for philanthropy than 2009, and the nonprofit landscape may have changed permanently.
Our foundation has used this period of uncertainty to explore how we can be more efficient and effective in our philanthropy. Our answer is rooted in three interwoven strategies, the seeds of which we planted a few years ago but the implementation of which we have accelerated. Together, these strategies allow us to navigate the new environment while still achieving our philanthropic goals.
First, we are investing in organizations that seek to address issues and catalyze change on a system-wide – rather than individual program – level. Second, we are incubating programs and funding incubator organizations as a way to foster innovation and feed successful new initiatives into those systems. And third, we are employing rigorous evaluation to measure impact, refine approaches, and boost the effectiveness of the organizations we support and the fields in which they operate.
Systemic change. Our funding decisions used to come down to a simple question: Does this organization do a good job of solving a particular problem? Increasingly, we are broadening the scope of this question to ask: What collection of perspectives, new approaches, and aspirational visions are required to effect long-term social change? Consequently, in each of our program areas we are intentionally forging partnerships with other foundations and nonprofit organizations to either build upon existing programs or create new initiatives. We are targeting our investments primarily toward ventures we believe have the potential to effect systemic change across a sector or issue area. And we are committing our financial and human resources to help launch and develop platform organizations designed to advance entire fields and inspire movements for positive change. Our goal is to build awareness around a problem, focus our collective energies on developing a field, create seamless networks, and ultimately build movements where none currently exists.
Within the field of Jewish service, for example, we recently joined forces with the Einhorn Family Charitable Trust, the Jim Joseph Foundation, and the Nathan Cummings Foundation to form Repair the World, a new nonprofit aimed at building a Jewish service movement and making service a defining element of Jewish life. Likewise, within the field of pre-collegiate Israel education, we partnered with the Jim Joseph Foundation to launch the iCenter, a national initiative designed to integrate innovative Israel education into the learning experiences of young people. The net result of these and other efforts are platforms for change; initiatives that enable increased cross-sector collaboration, information and resource sharing; and learning and measurement that creates efficiencies, leverages investments, and maximizes impact.
Incubation. While systemic change is our overarching goal, we realize it is not enough simply to plant a huge tree – we also need to help plant seedlings and cultivate a forest. In addition to encouraging innovation within large institutions, we also support several incubator organizations – including PresenTense, Joshua Venture, and the ROI Network – that are working to unleash the power of young social entrepreneurs who can develop new solutions to longstanding problems.
We are also developing our own initiatives to test evolving theories and strategies within our fields of focus. For example, REALITY Israel Experience for Teach For America is a program we created in partnership with the Center for Leadership Initiatives, the Samberg Family Foundation, and Teach For America. Through the program, forty TFA corps members spent ten days exploring Israel from a service and education perspective while exploring their service as teachers through a Jewish prism. The pilot not only met its own goals for connecting young Jews already involved in secular service with Jewish values and community; it also will help inform Repair the World’s strategy for working with secular service organizations, as well as Teach For America’s approach to values-based reflection and learning for their corps members.
Evaluation. How did we know the pilot achieved its goals? Because we tested it with two evaluations, one focused on the program’s impact on participants and another that shed light on the effectiveness of collaboration between Jewish and secular service organizations. We are placing a premium on formal evaluation to ensure we are defining, measuring, refining, and amplifying the impact of our investments. Such a process not only provides valuable information about the initiatives we are supporting, it also allows us to learn about the fields in which we are operating, the interplay of different approaches, and how we can better do our work. Ultimately, we believe that evaluation enables us to be good stewards of our philanthropic dollars and to glean vital learnings about the most effective strategies for driving change. All told, we have found that addressing challenges systemically – fostering new partnerships, creating synergies, and finding savings in a time of cutbacks – is paying dividends. This approach has also provided sharper focus to the programs themselves, while at the same time encouraging creative collaboration among them. At the same time, we are helping our grantees break out of their “silos” and to work cooperatively with each other on shared agendas and toward a common vision, and we are doing the same with our colleagues at other foundations – all with the aim of fostering a more collaborative and systemic approach to communal transformation.
No one can say with certainty when the economy will recover or what the philanthropic landscape will look like when it does. But by taking advantage of the current situation to pursue a more effective philanthropy, to stimulate more creative and collaborative solutions to social problems, and to achieve more measurable and lasting impact, we are working to make the most of these challenging times.
Lisa Eisen is national director of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation.
This article first appeared in the Philanthropy News Digest.