The Uncertain Road: Story of a Collaboration – Part 1

The power of Collaboration
The power of Collaboration

By Abby Levine & Dara Weinerman Steinberg

The following is the first chapter of a story about collaboration – between funders and programmatic organizations, and among organizations within a sector. The story is one whose ending is not yet written. Regardless of outcome, we feel that it is worthwhile to share stories-in-progress of hypotheses and their active testing.

Hatching an Idea

Since 2014, Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah has focused on supporting organizations that do strong work (or want to strengthen) a particular approach to integrating Jewish wisdom into their programming. Foundation grantees seek to help their constituents apply Jewish wisdom (writ large) to guide them as they live better lives and shape a better world – an approach that takes many forms, and transcends sectors and demographic targets.

Surprisingly, the social justice sector was absent in the Foundation’s general portfolio, (although the Foundation maintains a dedicated justice portfolio, separately), despite being an area where many people were connecting with their Judaism. Several meetings quickly confirmed suspicions: there were a number of promising programmatic opportunities that connected with Foundation strategy. However, the Foundation also takes pride in strategic support of sector infrastructure, and beyond the good work being done by individual organizations, the social justice sector has taken tremendous strides in fostering collaboration, including the significant accomplishment of forming (and sustaining) the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable, which became an attractive prospect as partner.

How it Started

The Foundation approached the Roundtable with the idea of convening a subset of social justice organizations to discuss potential needs and gaps and brainstorm possible responses. The Roundtable partnered with the Foundation, thinking about how to structure and facilitate the conversations. Ultimately this resulted in a series of conference calls, designed to learn from the organizations what needs exist around applying Jewish wisdom and identify what, if any, collaborative projects might be developed that address those needs and fit with the Foundation’s priorities.

The Roundtable was asked to consider what they need and need to do as an organization in order to use Jewish wisdom more effectively in their work. They were also asked to take a field-wide view and consider how the sector might use Jewish wisdom more effectively. Recognizing that the majority of these organizations are working with very limited resources and on urgent issues, both the Roundtable and the Foundation wanted to surface ideas that would advance the organizations as well as the field, knowing that the benefits needed to be clear in order for this to be a priority. There was no expectation that a tangible next step would come out of the calls; but that was critical to openness, with a preference for going back to the drawing board over sponsoring an effort that was not a priority or critical need.

What Conversations Happened?

Two calls were held in order to have as much participation as possible, with a subset of Roundtable organizations who had already approached the Foundation about funding in this area or who we knew had an interest in exploring this topic. The Roundtable and Foundation were aware that it was not a full list, but felt it was a good sample that could be quickly expanded.

Two calls also meant a full hour to go deeper with six organizations rather than having less input from 12. Another advantage of two calls was that the conversation developed in two different ways and that gave insight into the variety of ways a potential project might evolve. One conversation stayed more at the idea generation level, whereas the other generated several ideas and began to drill down into a few specific potential projects and what resources would best facilitate participation.

The conversations also surfaced ideas that weren’t central to the Foundation but the Roundtable added them to ongoing list of potential projects to tackle with its members.

After the calls, the Roundtable and the Foundation debriefed together, then shared the notes from both conversations with all participants. The Roundtable also solicited feedback from the organizations that it shared anonymously with the Foundation. There were no dramatic comments, but it enabled the organizations to have an anonymous, trusted conduit. And the Foundation, while knowing that there still might be some reticence at being fully transparent, was grateful to know that the organizations could be candid about the value of the process and any project that might emerge.

What Next?

Ultimately, major ideas from the conversations included:

  1. The need for, some way of making tools developed by the sector accessible, with collective and expert advice on how to utilize them.
  2. The need for training on how to utilize Jewish wisdom in the work of social justice.
  3. The need for renewal opportunities for staff and others in the sector (why am I doing this work? From where do I draw sustenance?), using Jewish wisdom and behavioral psychology to combat burnout

All three broad ideas fit with Foundation strategies. But many questions remained: Who should receive training on how to utilize Jewish wisdom? Ideally everyone on staff would have an understanding but what would a realistic scope be? Were there other ideas that are higher priority? And whatever the ultimate project elements are, what is their relative priority?

The Foundation raised the idea of a planning grant and the Roundtable was receptive to having this be the next step in the partnership and recommended a more complete needs assessment be part of the planning . It was clear that there would be challenges since the member organizations were different sizes, had different capacities, different missions, and, especially pertinent to this project, different access to educators. Both the Foundation and the Roundtable felt that the time and space for strategic work provided by this planning grant was a worthwhile investment and would increase the chances that any project would better meet the needs of all the partners involved.

There is amazing potential and a variety of paths ahead. A natural subgroup may emerge with opportunities for others to join in on the work over time. There’s also the risk of going too far or too fast. One thing observed from the excellent example set by developing the Roundtable is that collaboration takes a lot of time and communication. It is preferable to invest limited time and budget into a planning grant that could still decide it’s the wrong time, scope a smaller project, or – a hypothesized possibility – a staged project that would minimize risk and allow learning and course correction along the way.

An Open Road Ahead

The 6 month planning grant has commenced and numerous organizations completed a survey to explore and fine tune the ideas surfaced. Participation is welcomed in the process and open lines of communication are valued regarding this ongoing effort, so that our collaborative team may also benefit from the open sourced wisdom and participation of colleagues. Whether these initial explorations come to a cohesive and tangible plan or a temporary but well-considered dead end, there is great confidence that this process is worthwhile.

We look forward to reporting on our findings, in the interest of mutual learning and progress for the field.

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