Welcoming in the Stranger, Along with Our Own

As Jews around the world soon sit down for Seders, we are reminded again of our tradition’s powerful message to welcome the stranger. Some heed this call year-round; others do it once a year; still others maybe never have, but commit to do so now. While we rightfully focus on this message, we also should remember to welcome in those in our community in meaningful, sustained ways.

At the Jim Joseph Foundation, welcoming in others in our community is a core principle of our relational approach to grantmaking. Often this philanthropic approach is interpreted as grantmaking implemented with a funder and grantee coming together for a deep and meaningful relationship. While this relationship is a critical component of this strategy, it is by no means the only one. Rather—and in particular to meet 21st century challenges—the funder-grantee relationship is just one of many that comprises relational philanthropy. The Foundation is determined to plan for and implement effective grantmaking strategies by welcoming in, and building long-lasting relationships with a range of key funder colleagues, other organizations, and individuals.

Here is a snapshot of what this strategy looks like, and the reasoning behind it:

The Jim Joseph Foundation is continuously experimenting with meaningful ways to engage not only with grantees but with evaluators, technical assistance experts, and other foundations. We are pursuing myriad configurations of stakeholders in problem solving conversations both to hone our critical thinking and to expand the network of resources we bring to our work as well as to that of Foundation grantees. The goal, in this regard, is ultimately to improve the effectiveness of the Foundation’s philanthropy.

– Working in a Relational Way, Edelsberg, October 2012
This excerpt is from my “madrich” narrative that I presented to the Foundation Board at the 2012 Fall Board meeting. Nine other selected thought leaders did the same, all with the intent of answering the question: What “big idea” for supporting Jewish education would you propose the Jim Joseph Foundation fund?

I tried to present a vision then of a Foundation deeply committed to working with others for everyone’s benefit. Not only do I believe that relationships premised on knowledge-sharing, with different partners bringing different expertise to bear, are mutually beneficial; I believe they are wholeheartedly necessary to achieve lasting success in our field. As I noted in that madrich narrative:

The Jewish people value education and cherish life-long learning. The interplay of accelerating global interdependencies, decentralizing of authority, democratizing of knowledge, and peer networking lead me to propose my big idea for the Jim Joseph Foundation to ponder. It is this: the Foundation and its grantees as well as its technical assistance providers and funding partners must come together in much more highly interactive, problem solving, knowledge producing ways.

As I reflect back three and a half years ago, I can point to substantive progress we have made in our relationship building efforts by welcoming in various members of our peer funder community. In just over the last three months, these relationships have yielded important knowledge sharing, necessary to both advance the Foundation’s specific efforts, as well as the interests of many others in the field of Jewish education.

We welcomed Marina Yudborovsky of the Genesis Philanthropy Group to our offices for a full day of meetings so our professional team could hear directly from her about their approach to Russian-speaking Jews. This is her specific area of expertise. This demographic is the sole focus of the group of funders who she represents. We had much to learn from her in the way of thinking about and developing grants with this demographic in mind.

In another instance, Rella Kaplowitz of Schusterman Family Foundation came to the Foundation to share her deep knowledge about data and evaluation—an increasingly important area of the Foundation’s efforts as we seek to foster our evaluators consortium and the cross-community evaluation of the teen initiatives in which we are involved. I believe that Rella is one of the few individuals in our field with a true expertise in evaluation. The Foundation, I believe, is fortunate to have another in Senior Program Officer Stacie Cherner. The two of them learn with and from each other in an ongoing manner. As always, however, nothing substitutes for face-to-face interactions, offering other members of our team the opportunity to learn from Rella as well.

Finally, the Foundation also was privileged and proud to host Jon Aaron, Board Chair; Darin McKeever, Chief Program and Strategy Officer; and Kari Alterman, Senior Program Officer; of the William Davidson Foundation. The day long meetings allowed time for the foundations to thoroughly familiarize one another with respective strategic grantmaking priorities, to discuss common grantees, and to begin conversation about potentially productive ways to work closely with one another in the future.

These are critical, lengthy interactions among peer funders. Of course they take time, resources, and planning for them to be as rewarding and as mutually beneficial as possible. But again, they are necessary if we as a field hope to achieve sustained success.

Reflecting on these recent meetings on the heels of the JFN conference emphasizes even more the approach to relational philanthropy now engrained in the Foundation DNA. At JFN, the Jim Joseph Foundation was represented by eight professional team members, four board members, and our incoming President and CEO. We participated in four different panels, sharing our experiences in early childhood education, collaborations, evaluation, and organizational and institutional capacity building. We held numerous formal and informal meetings with peers.

Thankfully, none of these interactions feel like an exception; they are how we try to operate every day. As I survey the field, and our involvement in it, there are important developments occurring now in early childhood education and young adult engagement—led not just by one or two key funders, but by a committed larger group determined to build those respective areas in strategic ways, positioned for the long-terms.

Fall 2012 seems like a long time ago. But the rapidly changing and interconnected world I described then has only increased in that manner. On Passover, this world seemingly comes to a head: we ask questions together, we seek answers together, we tell a story together. Whoever is at the table—regardless of age, experience, background, or knowledge—does this questioning and answering and storytelling with the group. Such is the case for the Foundation, as it seeks the big answers in Jewish education while deeply engaged with peers and other stakeholders in the field daily. We know that sharing our knowledge, learning from others, and being transparent about both successes and challenges advances us all.

Chag Sameach.