Getting Past the Hamster Wheel

One of the most popular recurrent dreams comes in different variations, but the core feeling is always the same: we run but we don’t advance. We wake up with a feeling of being caught in an inescapable hamster wheel, a sort of eternal Sisyphean cycle of useless effort. I leave the explanation of these dreams to neuroscientists, psychologists, and astrologists, but my own interpretation is a metaphor for a deep malaise that affects that philanthropic sector: the inability to produce systemic change.

In the sector’s philanthropic practice, Jewish and secular, we do run. We spend a lot of money and energy on programs that do a lot of good. And yet, in many cases, we don’t really “move the needle”. We cumulate discrete successes that might feel big independently but, in most cases, don’t bring us closer to solving the social problem we set out to address. Providing food to 10,000 people would be an amazing achievement, but does it bring us closer to solving the issue of food insecurity in America, which affects tens of millions?

Over the years, I’ve watched various funders succeed in various ways and yet be ineffective in the big picture. One root of this problem is the lack of attention to two key ingredients of the philanthropic activity: field building and networking. These ingredients are especially vital during a spend down. The legacy of foundations isn’t measured in outputs, but rather in how a specific field was transformed through its actions.   

ACBP is a great case study of how focusing on networking and field building together with (and not instead of) funding discrete programs ensures a transformational, systemic impact and constructive spend down, one in which issues are not abandoned, but adopted by an entire community. Networks are critical for a number of reasons:

  • They offer a bridge between the individual and the collective. An individual’s drive and entrepreneurship forms the engine of the philanthropic action, but a collective platform is still needed if one wants a wider impact. Enter the network: a platform for sharing knowledge and acting collectively that doesn’t demand the ‘submission’ to a centralized body, but it respects the individuality of the funder.
  • Networks create a fluid and flexible structure for funders to collaborate, fund together, and learn from one another, thus dramatically expanding their effectiveness.
  • Networks are “learning organisms” in which knowledge circulates and increases. Moreover, networks are places where new ideas emerge. Funders can thus increase their own know-how on the field and come up with innovative ways of tackling problems.
  • Both in biology and in social structures, networks ensure sustainability. The brain is the best example of this. When a given brain cell dies, the network reorganizes itself to continue fulfilling the cognitive function. As a network, the brain has “neuroplasticity”. It’s not the individual nodes of a network, but their connections that ensure adaptability and long-term sustainability through flexibility.  Similarly, among social networks, sharing knowledge increases sustainability of that knowledge if a person or entity were to leave the network.

ACBP understood the importance of networks in catalyzing change early on. The Jewish Funders Network (JFN) and ACBP partnered extensively in creating a vital network of Jewish funders to share ideas and knowledge. ACBP recognized that as traditional collective structures decline, the role of the network becomes critical to new possibilities for collective action.

JFN became a platform where funders come together to wrestle with issues affecting the Jewish community and to find avenues to collective action and exchange. Networking is not just “schmoozing;” it demands specific structures and platforms. JFN, with support from ACBP, therefore created peer networks and affinity groups around specific funding areas, like disabilities or Jewish education. It also launched matching grant initiatives, funder convenings, and a host of other programs and services to help funders connect with one another. We call it “engineered serendipity.”

ACBP not only supported the creation of JFN’s networking infrastructure, but also actively uses the network as a platform. By living in the network, the foundation contributes greatly to its vitality and sets an example for how other funders can take advantage of such a network.    

ACBP did field building and thought leadership right, too.

To move the needle on social problems, funders should operate also at the field level by funding activities and initiatives that advance the field on a whole. This allows for systemic change and breaks the Sisyphean vicious cycle of discrete success without overall efficacy. Field building operates in two dimensions: one is the strengthening of a specific funding field; the other is bolstering the philanthropic field itself. Giving a million dollars to feed the needy through direct delivery of food is great, but using half of that money to create awareness among funders about the issue is better. Awareness-raising and developing philanthropy both have multiplier effects that generate more philanthropic resources that can be distributed more strategically.

ACBP has invested in field building by strengthening the philanthropic community and enriching specific funding fields. ACBP worked extensively with JFN in these efforts, understanding the importance of having a neutral convener that provides credibility and generates a safe space for funders to interact, without feeling that they are serving a specific agenda.

Some examples:

  • JFN and ACBP co-wrote three reports published under JFN: one on partnerships, one on the personnel crisis in the field, and one on new media to engage in Jewish life. ACBP deliberately did not publish under its name, but rather attributed it to JFN because the foundation knew that the reports would have further leverage coming from an association of funders.
  • ACBP – and Jeff Solomon in particular – understood that not knowing the complexities of the philanthropic landscape is, for funders, akin to flying blind. Therefore, ACBP with Jeff at the helm took the lead in Connected to Give, a collaborative project of a consortium of independent foundations, family foundations, community foundations, and Jewish federations working in partnership with Jumpstart to map the landscape of charitable giving by Americans of different faith traditions.
  • ACBP incubated initiatives that helped connect younger generations to philanthropy. It also became a major advocate of the concepts of strategic philanthropy and networked giving. ACBP’s support of giving circles, for examples, bore fruits, as now this philanthropic vehicle is connecting more and more young funders to collective giving. JFN was one beneficiary of these efforts; the entire community benefited, too by gaining the participation of an engaged new generation of funders, which is now revitalizing the Jewish philanthropic landscape.

Finally, ACBP understood that, for a foundation with staff, infrastructure, and visibility, thought leadership is both a responsibility and a way of achieving broader impact. Indeed, influencing through thought leadership is one of the main tools that a foundation has available to achieve its philanthropic goals. Grantmaking without thought leadership is, at best, a wasted opportunity. ACBP always conceptualized about its experience and is a learning foundation, using that learning to enrich the entire field from arts and culture, to youth engagement, to Israeli experience, to leadership development.

Not surprisingly, the spend down is another opportunity to demonstrate leadership and influence on the field by providing a live case study of a successful spend down through this blog series and other transparent actions.

Through thought leadership, field building, and networking, ACBP offers a great example of how to escape the nightmare of running without advancing and funding without achieving systemic impact. Through these tools, ACBP has managed to produce system-wide impact, ensure continuity, and leverage its grantmaking into major social transformations.

This is the twenty-fifth post in the "Making Change by Spending Down" series, produced in partnership by The Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies and GrantCraft. Please contribute your comments on each post and discuss the series on twitter using #spenddown. See related content below for more posts in this series.