Using Data to Inform Grantmaking Decisions
January 11th, 2024
This piece ran originally in Kaleidoscope: The Prizmah Monthly
The Jim Joseph Foundation is committed to strategic learning and informed decision-making. We have a diverse array of research and evaluation studies that currently shape our approach to investments. This work transcends the conventional role of a mere accountability tool. Instead, we see our learning agenda as a dynamic process that contributes to the strategic growth and effectiveness of our grantmaking. With this perspective, we foster a culture of curiosity and continuous improvement and field-building.
Studies in our learning agenda generally fall into one of four categories:
Beyond individual studies, we also invest in the development of talent to ensure a robust, skilled, and diverse research and evaluation pipeline. This is meant to help grow the capability of communal organizations to apply learnings.
For the foundation internally, we look to integrate insights and learnings into our own day-to-day operations, thus modeling being a learning organization. We lean into our First Principles, which include staying curious, centering youth, and being in relationships. We listen for themes and trends and actively question our assumptions. As we pride ourselves on being a relational grantmaker, we regularly preview early research findings with relevant grantee-partners before public dissemination. Program officers prioritize learning in conversations with grantees and with other funders, often asking what program providers are hearing from target audiences, or what adjustments are being made as a result of learning. We also read other research (that we are not funding) and share what we are reading, either with grantees directly or publicly. If necessary for improvement, we are unafraid to pivot to model being a learning organization.
The program team meets regularly to discuss important evaluation findings and shares reports on an internal platform. We continue to support individual evaluation work both with funding and non-grantmaking support.
We keep our board informed of our research by maintaining an internal website of the most widely used and relied on evaluation and research the foundation has commissioned, in addition to individual memos to the board detailing new research findings when warranted. All grant recommendations presented to the board for approval are grounded in data. Based on learnings from past research, in 2023 the board approved new initiatives that focus on early childhood educators, early-and mid-career Jewish professionals, immersive travel to Israel, new modes of rabbinic training, and a convening of communal professionals to discuss the talent pipeline issues facing the field. In other words, research leads to actions.
For the first category of investments—individual grantee evaluations—we have many evaluations in progress at any given time. The fact that dozens of grantee organizations collect and use evaluation data internally is a positive sign that the field values the use of data and the capacity to collect it. Our signature grantees are sophisticated consumers of evaluation data and have proven time and again to be thoughtful partners. Many times, these individual evaluations provide insight into the grantee’s work and illuminate themes related to audiences, interventions, and settings that others share and are of interest to the foundation. For example, a recent RootOne evaluation provides learnings for The Jewish Education Project as well as others interested in teens and their parents, and in immersive Israel travel in general.
The foundation’s cross-portfolio evaluations are increasing and are generally major endeavors that can yield a plethora of data and insights relevant to many in the field. For example, stemming from the success of our teen initiative’s cross-community evaluation and the development of shared outcomes and measures, we have applied learnings to think about shared outcomes and measures in other grantmaking areas as well.
In one project, Rosov Consulting and five signature grantees that directly serve young people convened to discuss the pilot phase and plan a second phase of their shared data collection initiative, which will incorporate a series of focus groups with participants who have been deeply engaged across multiple programs. These five organizations are not siloed; high proportions of their alumni also participate, over time, in the other organizations’ offerings. The more programs can collaborate in their data gathering, the wiser they will be about the extent to which they are meeting their participants’ needs, especially those from under-represented populations. Collaboration of this kind should also help programs gain a better understanding of both their own value proposition and their ability to contribute to a broader cross-communal effort.
Of the multiple studies the foundation commissioned last year, the Study of Online Jewish Learning by Benenson Strategy Group embodies much of our approach to research. This study aimed to gain a more thorough understanding of the diversity of the online Jewish learning experiences for young adults who identify as Jewish, the motivators for engagement, and the benefits of online Jewish learning and virtual experiences. The methodology consisted of a series of focus groups, a survey of 300 active online learners sourced from 14 providers of Jewish online learning, and a survey administered to a national sample of 800 Jewish young adults.
We learned that online platforms and sources play a significant role in how young Jewish adults go about learning about and connecting with their Judaism. While differences exist in how, why, where, and how often, many young Jewish adults are engaging and interacting with online and virtual sources in some way. Further, there is evidence that learning and engaging with and through online platforms help establish and foster an individual’s sense of connection to Judaism, meaning, and purpose.
Importantly though, online platforms are complementary to other non-digital sources. There is a role online plays, and benefits that are unique, but it is not the only source young Jewish adults are relying on for information, connection, or meaning in their lives. This study, along with several new grantee evaluations, will inform our grantmaking decisions in this arena and our stewardship of grants that utilize online Jewish learning.
In all areas of our work, we look forward to bringing more evaluation and research to fruition in 2024 to benefit our grantees, our internal team, and the field at large.
Stacie Cherner is Director of Learning and Evaluation at the Jim Joseph Foundation