Nachshon – On Embracing Risk as An Institutional Value

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Before they hired their first staff member, the board of Lippman Kanfer Family Foundation defined their core values, which were later adopted by Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah.

One of those values is:

נחשון “NACHSHON” (First into the water): Drive Forward

We embrace new insights, big ideas, and fresh initiatives with an action orientation, learning as  we go. We are willing to rise to the occasion when others cannot, do not, or will not.

The story of Nachshon is a midrash you may have shared at your seder this year – at the Red Sea, with the Egyptian army closing in, Moses stood with his arms outstretched – but the sea was unmoved until one man, Nachshon, plunged in. When the water was nearly over his head, the sea parted. In this midrashic moment we see the individual who faces risk and understand that risk personally. Nachshon had to act. And so we too see it as a responsibility — to act, to trust, to learn as we go, and to step forward when others do not.

In embracing this value, first and foremost is the sense that when we take bold steps, we are acting in accordance with our tradition.

Second, as we know from Exodus, sometimes change has its challenges. We don’t always progress in ways that are neat or easy – forty years in the desert plus a brief but significant digression into idol worship come to mind as examples – but we can ultimately learn, and with effort and course corrections both internal and external, we can make it to the promised land.

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By enshrining risk in our values, the foundation’s board made it less dangerous. And tying this value to Nachshon, allows us to connect to several rich metaphors that help us think about risk in nuanced ways and to feel more comfortable with those risks.

In classic economics, economists assume perfect exchanges of information and complete rationality. Risks are always known and quantified in a generally agreed upon manner. And the same is true of the opportunity costs that the economists frequently cite.

In the real world, it’s rare that we have ALL the information we might like, and we recognize that we all assess risks and the likelihoods of various outcomes from our own imperfect perspective. And while financial planners often bemoan that people don’t think about the tradeoffs enough when spending their personal money, in philanthropy, people appear to be highly attuned to opportunity costs, perhaps even inflating them out of fear. Most of us are acutely aware that if we invest in this program, we may not be able to support that one…or an imagined, more perfect program. Our awareness of opportunity cost is economically sound but in practice, it seems to contribute to our sector being highly risk averse.

Besides making risk less dangerous by including it in our values, how else can we think about risk to engage with it more willingly? We seek to appreciate the potential benefit if our partner is successful with the same intensity as we assess the risks at hand, and critically, we begin to independently value the experience of risk funding: go with the sure thing and you’re unlikely to learn anything.

Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah is sometimes called an “innovation funder” – a label we are proud of, but it’s often shorthand for supporting start-ups with fresh ideas and short track records. In the foundation’s approach funding innovation and risk goes beyond these young organizations. We strive to extend the “Nachshon” approach to most, if not all, of our portfolio. Our approach recalls the Talmud injunction to teach our children to swim. We sometimes act as a lifejacket while an organization explores deeper waters. All organizations have an element of risk, and knowing that allows us to better support them – What could go right? What could go wrong? Sometimes, yes, it’s not the right risk or we’re not the right funder. We tend to take more and greater risks with organizations we know well; if you can’t risk with those you know who can you risk with? And we are not cavalier with our strategies. We like to take risks when both of us (grantee & funder) are likely to learn something that will enrich our work. And we acknowledge that we look for risks where the potential reward is greater than the risk (not an original insight, but it bears mentioning since we are urging others to take a close look at their own risk assessment – we’re not suggesting anyone start making bad bets).

Caution, joy, a giant leap - however we move forward towards progress, the important thing is not being trapped by our fears.

Caution, joy, a giant leap – however we move forward towards progress, the important thing is not being trapped by our fears.

Risk gets easier the more you do it and also when you explicitly state what the risks are, what the benefits are, and why you’re doing it. We share our concerns with our grantees; hopefully in ways that help them understand we are concerned about elements we see as risky, but not that we are judgmental about their overall work and ideas. Sometimes the items we saw as “risky” were circumstances where we did not fully understand their plan. In others, it was possible to adjust plans to mitigate some of the risk. The more we can be transparent, the more we can build trust, in turn, we hope our grantees feel that they can be forthcoming. Together, we can work to strengthen our better mutual understanding in ways that do not squelch an organization’s capacity to think boldly about their work and the challenges the face.

Risk can result in a tense relationship if a funder doesn’t walk the line between constructive concern and judgment; but it can also be a leveler. Risk can make us feel like we have more at stake in our partner’s success. Supporting an organization’s ability to take risks is not only about increasing their programs and capacity, but can be about building the trust and confidence of grantees.

This is a great time of year to meditate together on the nature of risk in philanthropy. We have been through Pesach and have told the story of our liberation. Shavuot and Sinai lie in front of us. Our collective story, our traditions, are multifaceted – thank goodness we retell them each year so we can learn anew. This year, it seems that however we view all leads us to Sinai, the journey is sparked by inspiring risks: Yocheved putting her infant son in the basket and trusting the river, Batya bringing home a foundling to the palace, Moses confronting Pharoah, and Nachshon in the water.

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