From the Professional Team

The Great Unknown: A Brief Look Back on Our RFP Process

– by Barry Finestone

December 1st, 2017

Midway through the Jim Joseph Foundation’s fall Board meeting, members of the professional team stepped outside to call representatives from 21 different organizations who were receiving grants following their submissions to the Foundation’s Requests for Proposal (RFP). It was the culmination of a new and different grantmaking process for the Foundation—and the beginning of the next stage of implementation for these initiatives. While certainly the organizations being invested in expressed excitement on the phone—as they should—I also saw genuine excitement in those Foundation professionals delivering the good news.

This Foundation prides itself on relational grantmaking going hand-in-hand with long, steady development of grant proposals. So we understood that the RFP process would be a departure from this approach, as it inherently put the onus almost exclusively on the grantee to craft and refine the proposal. Thus, the Foundation somewhat became the bystander on the sideline, albeit one “cheering” people on as initiatives were submitted for funding consideration. At the same time, we’ve learned that relationships cannot be entirely separated from any grantmaking process, including the RFP. As certain organizations progressed from initial inquiries, to submitting official Letters of Inquiries, to submitting full proposals, to eventual selection for grants, a different type of relationship between funder and grantee organically emerged. Those phone calls made regarding the awarding of funds were indicative of that.

Any time an individual or organizations tries something new, there are things one knows, things one doesn’t know, and things one doesn’t know they don’t know. The sense of excitement was unexpected. I shared some other initial learnings midway through this process, many of which continued to crystallize through the end of the selection. We look forward to gleaning more learnings through a survey recently distributed to organizations that submitted a proposal. As the Foundation continues to think about the most effective ways to cultivate and support effective Jewish learning, we want to be unafraid of the unknown. Risk-taking, failing forward often leads to the most substantial learnings that can guide future work. And the largesse of modern day realities—from the changing landscape of Jewish life to the heated and sometimes hate-filled rhetoric prevalent in society—demand action that inherently has risks.

The Foundation welcomes that challenge, with a humble understanding that we don’t know what we don’t know. We are excited that the 21 new grants into the portfolio, by far the most new investments for us at one time, are vehicles to address the two primary areas we identified—Jewish Educator Professional Development and Leadership Development in Jewish Education.

At the same time, we want to continue to push ourselves to try approaches that will lead to more uncovering of unknowns in Jewish education and philanthropy. We feel a pressing need to be experimental in our approach, embracing an increased level of risk with the opportunity for great returns. Grantee partners, peer funders, and independent consultants will continue to play key roles in our grantmaking and evaluating endeavors moving forward. Together, we can have a profound influence on the lives of young Jews.


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