From the Foundation Team

December 2009

December 14th, 2009

The Jim Joseph Foundation (JJF) fourth and final Board meeting of 2009 – and its 17th since JJF’s inception in January 2006 – is December 6th and 7th. Directors will consider three grant renewal requests. This is really the first occasion in the Foundation’s brief history that major grant renewals have come before the Board.

In preparation for the meeting, JJF professionals developed draft grant renewal guidelines to frame this Board discussion. (We will post the guidelines on this site once Directors approve them.) It is interesting to note, I think, that our efforts uncovered few satisfactory examples – at least in the form of written guidelines – of other foundations’ approaches to grant renewal. While I think availability and easy access to this kind of information has improved during the last several years, as a field we can improve our capture and dissemination of grant making best practices. The Jewish philanthropic world sorely needs a content repository on Jewish education. JJF hopes that the newly launched JData will, in part, help to address this need.

One recent trend that I find to be particularly promising is the recent commentary proffered by a variety of stakeholders on the future of philanthropy. These remarks acknowledge growing pressure for funders and grantees alike to openly articulate goals and strategies, candidly report performance, and vigorously pursue opportunities to cooperate. Much of this discussion revolves around the need for more transparency in our work. Noted venture philanthropist Mario Morino argues persuasively that “transparency done right can help be more effective in achieving our missions. … Most foundations are too opaque about what they are doing … [and] make it needlessly hard for others to join their causes.”

In the Jewish world, the recently published Fundermentalist columns of Dana Raucher (Executive Director at the Samuel Bronfman Foundation) and Sarah Kass (Director of Strategy and Evaluation at the Avi Chai Foundation) urge re-engineering of the relationship between funder and grantee. Both Raucher and Kass opine that we cannot optimize Jewish philanthropic effectiveness unless we “rethink organizational structure” and even “re-imagine the communal work itself.” Raucher believes that “the philanthropy of tomorrow will not be based on a top down approach; it will be based on a two-way partnership between funder and grantee, grounded in the exchange of both money and ideas.”

It is quite probable that we are at a watershed moment in contemporary Jewish philanthropy. Jolted by a precipitous decline in the economy and scandalized by Madoff’s bilking of philanthropic coffers, many people now believe we need a new covenant in the independent sector which binds funders and grantees together.

With the announced spend down of both the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropy and Avi Chai Foundations, we will see a much needed infusion of capital in successful Jewish non-profit organizations. Moreover, I learned recently from Avi Chai Foundation leadership that Avi Chai intends to reflect publicly on its spend down strategies. From my point of view, this open-approach invites collaboration, both between funders as well as among Avi Chai, funding partners, and grantees. We may just have a confluence of historical events amounting to a momentous opportunity – one which Sarah Kass suggests is “an invitation to look to our people’s spiritual wealth rather than our big bank accounts to do God’s work.”

May it be so.