Sector Grants: An Experiment

dara 330 2014


by Dara Steinberg, Executive Director



If we were taking the Nonprofit SATs the analogy might be: “Leverage is to Funders, as Sustainability is to Nonprofits.”  To be flip, it’s the buzzword each constituency wants most.  In seriousness, it’s a prompt to take a thoughtful look at “How can we be better and more effective using our resources?”

As a small-to-mid-sized foundation, we are constantly thinking about how we can make all of our work – grants, programming, thought leadership, and communications – more effective and have stronger and wider impact. A recent planning grant to the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable is exciting, not only because of the grant’s own merits, but because it is our first experiment in what we’ve been referring to as “sector grants.”

One of our foundation’s central goals is to help programs increase the ways they apply Jewish wisdom, whether that means internal shifts or enhanced focus for program constituents, our “end users.” To leverage our grantmaking, we have relied on small investments around questions where we feel the results have potential to apply more broadly, to advance the work of multiple organizations, and then we broadcast our learnings in hopes of doing so. Practically speaking, however, this means we meet with a lot of organizations and choose one or two to invest in, a process which has inherent subjectivity, and may hinder collaborative culture, even when attention is paid, post grant, to sharing insights. We have been wondering what we might do at a system level, in a field ripe for inter-organizational cooperation in strengthening their Jewish content, and have been looking for clusters of organizations that might fit the bill.

Jewish social justice and service struck us as one of those fields. We had made a few grants in this area for general operating support through our small Justice portfolio (in which the grants do not need to connect directly to applying Jewish wisdom) but we hadn’t made any applying Jewish wisdom grants to social justice organizations. We met with several strong organizations and then turned to Abby Levine, Executive Director of the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable and asked whether she’d be willing to help us think through a series of phone calls to bring together a subset of JSJR organizations to identify: 1) their needs around applying Jewish wisdom in their organizations and 2) their willingness to work together to see if there was a potential project we could fund.

We’re excited that those initial calls turned into a 6-month planning grant for them to go deeper in scoping a project for a subset of the sector and to see who would like to be the initial organizations participating. Each field differs, but we’re hoping to learn from this process how we might fund other collaborations that both meet our strategic goals and truly serve the sectors’ needs around creating life-relevant and substantive Jewish programming.

What does that look like? Read our co-authored article in eJewishPhilanthropy on the process so far.

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