What Are Funders to Do? Implications of the Pew Report

Sometimes we need to spawn many new organizations, and sometimes we need intelligent birth control.

[This essay is from “Philanthropic Priorities in Light of Pew,” reprinted with permission from Contact, a publication of The Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life.]

By Andrés Spokoiny

In The War of the End of the World (1981), Nobel Prize winner Mario Vargas Llosa wrote about a peculiar rebellion that took place in Northern Brazil in the 1890s. It was a peasant revolt against the metric system. The insurrection was drowned in blood by the new Brazilian Republic, and the conflict became a metaphor for how useless it is to try to stop time and how futile it is to fight reality.

So it is with Pew. The Pew report is not good or bad. It is what it is. It shows the complexities – some fascinating, some troubling – of living in an era of radical free choice in which the internal and external bounds that have kept us together are being dramatically reformulated. It is a reality that affects not only Jews. Rather, it is both the glory and the malaise of the 21st Century, populated by individual kings who are hyper-empowered, hyper-connected and yet, sometimes, hyper-lonely. Pew shows the triple crisis/opportunity of Judaism in the early 21st Century: a crisis of belonging, a crisis of meaning and a crisis of organizational structures.

So what are the implications of the Pew report for funders? For astute observers of reality – and most funders are – Pew is old news. It just gives figures and numbers to trends that we intuitively knew and that already guided many of our philanthropic priorities. Yet, as somebody who works with funders from all walks of life, I’d like to offer some thoughts on how the philanthropic community should respond to these new realities.

1. No “Either/Or” Zero-Sum Game

Some reacted to Pew with “I told you so.” They claimed their strategy – for example, invest heavily in Jewish education, or invest heavily in Israeli film festivals – was right. Before we even start, we need to acknowledge that a very complex, fragmented reality cannot be tackled with a single strategy. There are no silver bullets; the right approach is a mix of different strategies. Jewish philanthropy is not a zero-sum game, so we don’t need to worry about diluting resources. The Matching Grant Initiative of the Jewish Funders Network shows that a funding field can grow without hurting others. Funders need to look at a portfolio of actions that, in combination, can have a systemic impact.

2. Opening New Gateways to Jewish Identity

Some are alarmed by the fact that 30 percent of Jews have declared themselves “non-religious Jews.” For somebody like me, who grew up in a fiercely secular yet strongly Jewish community, this isn’t in any way a predictor of doom.

What this and other findings in the study show is that it is critical, even vital, to open new gateways for people to connect with Judaism. Arts, culture and language need to stop being the “poor cousins” of Jewish philanthropy. They are extremely powerful tools to build identity.

In light of Pew, funders need to help open as many gates as possible to Jewish life and, above all, not be judgmental about which ones are more authentic. After all, nobody has ownership of “Jewish Authenticity,” because that concept doesn’t exist. It is brutally simple: the more gates we open, the more people will come in.

3. Funding Inclusion is Critical

In an atomized world, everyone is a minority. The mainstream has been redefined to mean a collection of different communities. No Jewish leader runs a majority government anymore. So inclusion of people of different ideologies, of different sexual orientations, of interfaith families and of people with disabilities is critical for every organization.

4. Innovation Outside and Inside

Seeing that many legacy Jewish organizations struggle to adapt to the new realities, funders are tempted to simply write them off and fund new, entrepreneurial, grassroots groups. I’m all for start-ups. However, we also need to acknowledge that legacy organizations provide delivery systems that have unmatched scale and reach. Federations, JCCs, synagogues and other institutions still have the capacity to reach millions of people. It would be cost prohibitive to reinvent those delivery systems. So the challenge is to help drive change inside legacy organizations and foster a healthy ecosystem of innovation both inside and outside the establishment. Funders can play an important role by supporting a balance of external entrepreneurship and “intrapreneurship.” Sometimes we need to spawn many new organizations, and sometimes we need intelligent birth control.

5. Networking, Partnership and Collaboration

This may sound self-serving coming from someone who runs a funders’ network, but philanthropic collaborations and partnerships are key to tackling many of the challenges that Pew presents. The issues we face as a community are too big and intractable to be solved by a single funder. Collaboration is not just about co-funding, it is about learning from one another and creating a brain trust of funders to solve concrete issues in the community. Lack of collaboration and unexploited synergies result in millions if not hundreds of millions wasted every year.

6. Scale – Size Does Matter

There are many great ideas out there. Jews are very good at coming up with creative solutions to difficult issues. However, a scant few of those ideas are brought to scale in a way they can affect the entire system. Funders need to realize the importance of helping good projects go to scale and build a capacity that allows them to grow. Identifying those projects that can go to scale is close to an art, but one we need to master. There are some good models out there: Birthright Israel, PJ Library, Moishe House, Hebrew language charter schools and others are good examples of funders bringing projects to national and even international scale. We need more of these.

7. Funding Ideological Innovation

Much of the debate around Pew has to do with what programs work and what don’t. But that misses the point, because the biggest crisis of the Jewish people today is a crisis of meaning, not of programs, and that is due to the fact that we are running on ideological fumes.

The ideologies that organize and give meaning to contemporary Jewish life are all products of the 19th Century. They are modern inventions (Reform: 1810; Conservative: 1837; Chabad: 1814; Political Zionism: 1880s; etc.) and in a way, we are all – especially the ultra-Orthodox – reform Jews. None of those ideologies are eternal, but they were responses to a specific set of historical realities. They were useful to tackle the challenges of modernity and they are proving inadequate to respond to the challenges of post-modernity.

Yet I see few ideological innovations: new ways of understanding the Jewish people, God, society and the human condition. Probably the last big ideological innovation dates back to Mordechai Kaplan in the early 20th Century, when he founded Reconstructionist Judaism. In this post-denominational world, we desperately need new ideologies and new ways of making sense of an uncertain world. Why be Jewish? What does it mean to be Jewish in this radical free world of overlapping identities? As humans, we yearn for meaning. As Jews, we have been experts at finding meaning and relevance in different historical circumstances. Our survival depends on that more than anything else.

Walt Whitman once said “I accept reality and dare not question it.” Yet, Judaism is about executing a complex dance of acceptance and change. It is about swimming both with and against the current. As in a tango, it’s about alternatively leading and being led. It is about rebelling and embracing. As funders, and as concerned Jews, we need to learn how to dance.

Andrés Spokoiny is President and CEO of Jewish Funders Network.