Toward a Strategic Philanthropic Approach to Field Building

By Susan Kardos

[As The AVI CHAI Foundation prepares to sunset, a year-long series from their staff about philanthropic lessons learned.]

About ten years ago we, at The AVI CHAI Foundation, set out to determine our spend-down strategy for our Jewish day school work, which we have been documenting and sharing here. Our intention was to spend down thoughtfully and strategically, and we came to understand that we would also have to think about both the ecosystem within which our programs operate and the long term viability of that ecosystem. In short, as we embarked on the spend-down planning, we learned that our vision for what the Jewish day school field would look like when we closed was not dependent on the effectiveness and sustainability of any one program or even group of programs. Indeed, if we wanted a strong and sustainable Jewish day school field, we’d have to invest our resources toward that end.

Here’s how it happened: Our staff and trustees first prioritized programs in terms of mission alignment, return on investment, audience served and other salient factors. Our trustees were, at the time, “program trustees,” which meant that each trustee presided over her or his own set of programs, and prioritizing forced our trustees, Executive Director and program officers to shift away from program advocacy. I mention this process because the work of prioritizing programs was the Foundation’s first big step (and a big mental shift) toward an integrated and strategic approach to our spend-down grantmaking.

The driving questions we constantly asked ourselves were:

  1. What programs and initiatives can we support that will best enable Jewish day schools to graduate students who will be the energizing nucleus of young people poised to lead the Jewish people intellectually, spiritually, politically, and culturally into our glorious future?
  2. What do we want the Jewish day school field to look like on December 31, 2019, the day we say our final goodbye, shut the lights, and lock the door at 1015 Park Avenue, our New York office?

For us, these questions were embedded in our longstanding conviction that a vibrant Jewish future depends on a commitment to Jewish living, learning and peoplehood and our belief that the best hope for attaining this vision of the future is through focused investment in immersive and intensive educational experiences for Jewish youth – primarily in Jewish day schools – which are meaningful, engaging and full of joy.

Guided by these questions and assumptions, we set up active work groups of program staff, trustees, and field experts from outside the foundation in the following topic areas: (1) Jewish day school finance, (2) Strengthening Institutions, (3) Educational leadership and innovation , (4) Generating philanthropic support for day schools, and (5) Knowledge management. Although we started with these categories and groups, the focus, participants, and work changed and evolved considerably over time. For example, “Strengthening Institutions” morphed in surprising ways and ultimately led to our work in organizational capacity building, mergers, research, and thought leadership.

As we continued the strategic planning work, we began thinking not only about programs but about their relationship to one another, to others in the field, and to the larger context of the field itself. We saw a framework of a strong Jewish day field begin to emerge: four distinct but overlapping and interdependent categories of interventions we believed to be essential for a vibrant and sustainable field:

  1. “People and Networks” – which referred to educator, school leader, lay-leader and program provider talent and robust ways for them to connect with each other
  2. “Institutions” – which referred to schools and intermediary organizations with the capacity to deliver a high quality education, services, or programs in an efficient and financially sustainable way
  3. “Ideas and Knowledge” – which referred to research evidence, working theories, and innovative ideas and mechanisms to engage members of the field with these ideas and knowledge
  4. “Resources” – which referred to the business models and philanthropic revenue needed to sustain the Jewish day school field.

What became increasing clear, with 10 years left to operate, was our overwhelming desire to leave behind a strong Jewish day school field with the talent, institutions, resources, and ability to learn and innovate – a field that could meet the evolving educational needs of Jewish youth.

In order to do that, we determined that we needed to make meaningful philanthropic investments in each of the 4 identified “strong field” areas. Thus, we set out to do the planning that would enable us to build a meaningful and strategic portfolio of old and new programs and initiatives. (Notably, the Jewish day school framework that emerged for us had some shared features with, but was different from, “The Strong Field Framework” that the Bridgespan Group wrote about in this report sponsored by the James Irvine Foundation.)

It was this thinking that guided us to the programmatic portfolio we ultimately developed, which is summarized in this “AVI CHAI by the numbers” infographic showing our efforts in day schools and summer camps in the context of our strong-field framework. It also led us to support the merger of the national denominational Jewish day school umbrella organizations to create Prizmah.

The AVI CHAI Foundation has long been known for its laser-like and disciplined focus on supporting programs and providers in our mission’s bullseye, and our staff and trustees have developed keen expertise in identifying or creating grantees and programs to advance our mission. But building a field is not the same as funding programs; field-building requires something more. It requires a deeper and longer view of programs and grantees which takes into account program and organizational capacity and sustainability. It requires a collaborative stance with grantees and other funders which privileges partnership and co-creation over solo grantmaking. It requires more listening, learning, and experimenting which bring the benefits of field expertise and prototyping to the grantmaking. It requires believing in people and making grants that provide leeway for them to be creative and make mid-course corrections. It requires the persistence needed for iterative, complex problem solving. It requires risk-taking and imagination. It requires integrated and strategic thinking. And it requires leaps of faith.

In the end, context matters. If we aim to do anything more than support individual programmatic interventions and their sustainability, and instead support and build a field, foundation staff and trustees have to shift their mindsets, decisions, and actions. Our spend-down thinking led us to field building. What we have come to believe is that spend-down thinking is not just for spend-down foundations. We believe that field-building is a key strategic approach for philanthropies to make meaningful and sustainable change in their sectors of interest.

If you think that field building might be a useful way to think about your own programmatic or funding work, please feel free to contact me or one of my colleagues at AVI CHAI. We would love to help.

Susan Kardos is the Senior Director, Strategy & Education Planning at The AVI CHAI Foundation.