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Reflecting on Partnership and Belonging During My Time at the Jim Joseph Foundation

– by Jeff Tiell

August 27th, 2019

In reflecting about my journey at the Jim Joseph Foundation – these last 4 ½ years – an insight from Mother Teresa comes to mind. Indeed, after a lifetime of working with the poor, the sick, and the vulnerable, Mother Teresa observed that, “The biggest disease today is not leprosy or tuberculosis but rather the feeling of not belonging.” What makes this observation even more powerful is that she died in 1997 – before the digital revolution really took hold, before cell phones, social media, and widespread online communities.

It is no surprise to most of us that this disease – this notion of not belonging – has reached epidemic proportions. Type in “loneliness epidemic” into google and a flurry of articles pop up – and countries are beginning to think about how to confront the issue. Just one example, in 2018, the U.K. appointed a Loneliness Minister, Tracey Crouch, to help combat the country’s chronic loneliness problem.

We long to belong.

The Jim Joseph Foundation has been on a journey itself that intersected with my own – one that has led to a stated aspiration of working with grantee-partners to help all Jews, their families and their friends lead connected, meaningful, purpose-filled lives and to make positive contributions to their communities and the world. The Foundation is looking to help fund, support, and build meaningful connection in our lives. In my own journey of wrestling with this meaning-based connection, the Jewish theologian Martin Buber has been particularly illustrative. At the core of Buber’s theology is his theory of dialogue – the idea that entering into relationship with one another is essential – because in doing so one enters into a relationship with G-d. Buber famously speaks to what he calls the “I-It” vs the “I-You” – the “I-It” characterized as how most of us tend to operate in daily life; we tend to treat the people and the world around us as things to be used for our benefit. Sometimes this is very appropriate. After all, a toothbrush is meant for my benefit (and the benefit of those around me, I might add). But what about a person? Buber speaks to the notion of the “I-You” as addressing other people directly as partners in dialogue and relationship. Only when we say “You” to our world can we perceive its eccentricity and peculiarity and, simultaneously, its potential for intimacy.

In my time at the Foundation, I attempted to carry myself with the words “I-You” on my lips. Indeed, what does it mean to be a true partner given the power and perch that comes from being positioned at a large institutional funder? These are questions that the sector would do well, in my opinion, to keep asking – as I think they remain increasingly pertinent and meaningful, particularly in a universe where our work is about furnishing the hearth of connection. This question of partnership is at the center of what effective grantmaking is concerned with. Phil Buchanan, in his latest book, Giving Done Right (in my humble opinion a book that should be required reading for all who enter the philanthropic field), discusses what it takes to build effective relationships with grantee-partners. He provides ten rules based on his organization’s, the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP), surveys of tens of thousands of grantee-partners about hundreds of grantmakers. One of the ten in particular spoke to me: Don’t assume you have what it takes to strengthen nonprofits or build their capabilities. Ask what they need and then offer it only if you’re positioned to do it well. As grantmakers we like to think we know something. And often we do. And often we actually don’t know as much as we think we know. Just as the heart pumps blood through our body, providing it with oxygen and nutrients, our grantee-partners pump their lived experience, their work, and their knowledge to the philanthropic sector. We would be wise to listen and when we think we are listening to actually listen more.

In their book Stories of the Spirit, Jack Kornfield and Christina Feldman tell this story: A family went out to a restaurant for dinner. When the waitress arrived, the parents gave their orders, where then immediately their five-year-old daughter piped up with her own: “I’ll have a hot dog, french fries, and a Coke.” “Oh no you won’t,” interjected the parents, and turning to the waitress said, “She’ll have meat loaf, mashed potatoes, milk.” Looking at the child with a smile, the waitress said, “So hon, what do you want on that hot dog?” When she left, the family sat stunned and silent. A few moments later the little girl, eyes shining, said, “She thinks I’m real.”

Who do we believe is real in our communities? My sense, for one reason or another, is many of us have been treated like the daughter was by the parents. A question that I find myself coming back to again and again – how can I be more real and see people in all their miraculous realness? Moving from the individual to the sector perspective, this story is also illustrative of the ways in which many of us in the philanthropic sector see the nonprofit universe. Business-type thinking permeates the nonprofit world. As Phil Buchanan notes, “What we need today is a further clarifying – not a blurring – of the boundaries between the sectors. Each sector plays a distinct role. We live in a market economy, but markets have limits – and markets fail – and that’s why the nonprofit sector is so crucial.” I couldn’t agree more. No sector is superior, and the pursuit of profit and that of social impact ends may not always conflict, but they often do. As Buchanan says, “Nonprofits are often working to address the very problems markets have failed to address. So, it makes little sense to maintain that ”market approaches” are the answer to every problem.” This is often difficult for philanthropists and principals – the vast majority of them who made their fortunes in the market world – to come to terms with. And naturally so, we are hardwired to think that what worked in one situation could work in another. In philanthropy we have many examples to the contrary and more being created each and every day.

Which brings me to my last story. The psychologist and author Tara Brach writes in her work, Radical Acceptance: Mohini was a regal white tiger who lived for many years at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. For the majority of those years, her home was the old lion house, a typical twelve-by-twelve foot cage with iron bars and a cement floor. Mohini’s days consisted of pacing restlessly back and forth in her cramped quarters. Eventually, the Zoo staff worked together to create a natural habitat for her, covering several acres with hills, trees, a pond and a variety of vegetation. With excitement and anticipation, they released Mohini into her new and expansive environment. But it was too late. The tiger immediately sought refuge in a corner of the compound, where she lived for the remainder of her life. Mohini paced and paced in that corner until an area twelve by twelve feet was worn bare of grass.

So many of us find ourselves trapped in the same old patterns. The same old thinking. So many of us find our institutions trapped in the same old patterns. The same old thinking. For all of us in the Jewish communal sector, what would it look like to realize that we are actually living in an expansive wilderness and acting as if we live in a cage of our own making?

It was a privilege to be a part of and contributor to this Foundation’s work for the last 4 ½ years, to have been a colleague and a partner to many organizations and individuals in the world of Jewish education, and to continue to be inspired by the work of our grantee partners in the field – you all are the champions that made coming to work each and every day at the Jim Joseph Foundation the best job a guy could have.

Jeff Tiell was a Program Officer at the Jim Joseph Foundation until August, 2019. He can be reached now at jtiell@gmail.com.