Four years ago, on the heels of a groundbreaking report on promising models for communities to engage teens in Jewish experiences, national and local funders representing ten communities took action.
The Jewish Teen Education and Engagement Funder Collaborative is an innovative philanthropic experiment—a network of funders working together to develop, fund, support and grow new teen initiatives designed to reverse the trend of teens opting out of Jewish life in their high school years. Co-funded by the Jim Joseph Foundation with other national and local funders, the community-based initiatives differ in their approaches but share a set of common goals. And members have become valuable peer resources, as they coordinate their efforts.
From the start, taking its lead from the Jim Joseph Foundation, the Funder Collaborative chose to hold itself accountable to measurable impact. It therefore invests heavily in evaluation, as each local initiative engages independent consultants and, importantly, a Cross-Community Evaluation (CCE) enables the Collaborative to analyze outcomes across communities; to identify the most promising practices and hopefully to spark a cascade of philanthropic activity on behalf of Jewish teens.
Preparing to Deepen Action: A Funder Collaborative Finds its Way is the second installment in a series of case studies documenting the process by which these funders have come together to do their work (the first was released in 2015) and the result of 15 months of observations and interviews. By commissioning these case studies, the funders have opened a refreshingly honest window with a view to the merits and challenges of such large-scale collaboration—particularly given that large scale, collaborative community change efforts have increasingly been a focus of study among those actively engaged in supporting these initiatives. In 2011, for example, FSG, a consulting firm focused on large-scale social change efforts, first published its framework for the conditions necessary for engaging in collective impact work. More recently, The Tamarack Institute, a nonprofit organization dedicated to understanding community development efforts mostly in Canada, proposed a revised consideration of these conditions (see Figure below).
While the Funder Collaborative is not a strict example of “collective impact,” the Tamarack Institute’s revised articulations are instructive and highlight the complicated terrain that the Collaborative is navigating as well as some of the challenging territory it has yet to cover. Each of these conditions— FSG’s original formulation and Tamarack’s revision—serve as a focusing lens to more clearly see the ways in which the Funder Collaborative has evolved over the past two years and to understand important lessons learned about effective collaboration:
1. Broad framing of success helps move from a common agenda to shared aspirations.
The Funder Collaborative’s five shared Measures of Success are bold and audacious targets, which set the bar high for a community to move the needle on teen engagement. Critically, because the Measures are framed broadly, the 10 community funders are able to pursue independent, locally relevant approaches without getting bogged down in the need to agree on a set of common strategies; this may ultimately yield a richer, more nuanced set of results than a strictly defined common agenda.
2. Nurture relationships early on to move from a backbone structure to a container for change.
The Funder Collaborative has taken seriously the need to continue its work without overtaxing the time and energy of its constituent members by contracting with a fiscal sponsor and hiring a director. Less frequently considered, but equally critical in multiparty efforts, is the larger container for change that must be nurtured; a container built on trust which allows for experimentation and learning. From the start, using consultants with expertise in facilitation, evaluation, and teen development, members of the Funder Collaborative have been investing in relationship building and expanding their own conceptions of how to do this work.
3. Let high leverage opportunities for change lead to mutually reinforcing activities.
Some collective impact initiatives begin by choosing strategies that lend themselves to cooperation and ignore other strategies that might complicate cooperation. Although some members would like to see more opportunities for coordinated collaboration, each community is first committing to the highest leverage opportunities for delivering results locally. Only as it becomes apparent that some communities are deploying similar strategies, are there emergent opportunities for learning with and from each other. It remains to be seen if this will yield more impactful change over time.
4. Implementing shared measurement does not guarantee real-time, strategic learning.
The Cross-Community Evaluation’s work of aggregating data from local evaluations has only just begun and it is still too early for Collaborative members to have robust findings that speak to the impact of the work unfolding in each of the ten communities. Moreover, as communities grapple with their real-time local learning needs, it has become clear that cross-community evaluation of the shared measures of success is a critical but insufficient dimension of the learning agenda of the Collaborative. Efforts are underway to consider how best to enable the funders to learn about their efforts, both locally and across all ten communities, in effective, timely, and relevant ways.
5. It’s not easy to move from continuous communication to authentic community engagement.
The Collaborative has been intentional about designing initiatives that emerge out of a robust community planning effort at the local level, intended to engage as many of the relevant stakeholders as possible, including teens themselves. As many of the communities have launched their initiatives, however, it has become clear that keeping these stakeholders engaged requires significant time, political finesse and creativity. In many communities, local program providers are also satellite organizations affiliated with a national partner. The Jim Joseph Foundation has led the charge, together with the national funders, to engage these national organizations in other forums, most notably through the support of the Summit on Jewish Teens, but it is not yet an organic and integrated component of the Collaborative’s agenda.
The Collaborative has evolved into a healthy, dynamic mix of local and national funders and implementers who come together to discuss, dissect and tackle shared areas of interest. Moving forward, as more initiatives are underway in communities—and opportunities for shared learnings increases—we believe the Collaborative will continue to provide exceptional pathways for exploring the most efficient and effective means of collaborating for collective impact.