Nurturing Small Experiments

One of our favorite thinkers, Buckminster Fuller, once said, “There is no such thing as a failed experiment, only experiments with unexpected outcomes.”

At the heart of this quote is the notion that experiments are about learning – and learning should never be regarded as a failure.

Indeed, what would it mean for the Jim Joseph Foundation to begin to invest in some small experiments as a way of learning about the creativity and innovation that is happening in the Jewish world? Further, for a Foundation accustomed to awarding grants in the millions of dollars, what would it mean for us to make smaller bets?

These questions have been guiding our work as the Foundation explores its next chapter. There is a sense that many organizations need support and do good work but may not be equipped, or ready, to take on a large investment. However, through our relational grantmaking and listening to grantee-partners, we understand that a small investment with an approach of “let’s experiment” can be more aligned with the organization’s needs in the moment and begins to build an effective and meaningful funder grantee relationship.

In addition, there is a nimbleness to these grants. They can be awarded relatively quickly and in response to what’s happening in the field and on the ground. More so, as the Foundation continues to work to understand and build relationships with organizations doing good work, via small grants we are inherently engaging with more organizations, more types of Jewish life and learning, more visionary leaders and educators, and more strategies and models. We still are able to approach this grantmaking in a strategic and focused manner by staying true to our funding priorities and mission to support compelling and effective Jewish learning experiences. And, these touchpoints are leading to more learning here at the Foundation, which we then can share with the field.

One example of this work is a small investment to At The Well, an organization that “brings women together at the intersection of wellness and Jewish spirituality.” Founder and executive director Sarah Waxman describes the organization as one that “connects women to body, soul, and community through wellness education and Jewish spirituality.” As wellness through a Jewish lens, delivered with Jewish wisdom, is a growing node within the Jewish education landscape, a small grant will enable the Foundation to stay proximate to this exciting work. Six women smiling while holding papers

Another example is an investment in a new Cross Community Learning Exchange that creates a peer learning cohort so Jewish Early Childhood Education (ECE) educators in Denver, Boulder,  and Chicago can share their talents and increase their knowledge. Senior Program Officer Lisa Farber Miller of Rose Community Foundation, which also is supporting the Exchange, explains, “Jewish ECE centers play an influential, yet often unrecognized, role in introducing children and their families to Jewish life and provide a venue for lasting Jewish friendships.”

Similarly, small experimental investments to JPRO Network; to Board Member Institute; to The Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) Women in Leadership; and to Jewish Interactive are relatively new and represent somewhat still unknown areas for the Foundation. All of these investments are less than $100,000 and all offer the potential for targeted impact, relevant learning, and great opportunities to build relationships with organizations. Of course, the grantee-partner also has the opportunity to leverage the Foundation’s investment for potential grants from other funders as well.

This support comes as the Foundation sees the demand for these types of smaller organizations by their beneficiaries. Additionally, the Foundation always discusses these smaller investments with the grantee-partner in advance, so both parties understand how it can be used most effectively. Of course, any funder and organization has to make its own determination about the smallest (or largest) amount of an investment that aligns with its goals and operating capabilities. In our world, these smaller organizations almost inherently are focused on a specific area of Jewish learning or engagement and are therefore highly resonant with a specific audience. An investment in them can go a long way toward building their capacity so they can meet this demand while enabling the Foundation to learn about these organizations and the spaces in which they operate. While evaluation for a smaller grant may not be as robust as for a larger one, we are finding opportunities to evaluate different grantees together to better understand this type of grantmaking strategy. Some smaller organizations also have talent on their team to produce an evaluation internally, which can offer much learning and value.

The Jim Joseph Foundation continues to evolve in the ways in which we stay current in relationship with our grantee-partners. What we learn from these small experiments will undoubtedly lead to more and better knowledge on the dynamism in the Jewish education world and continued ways to find and fund this work more effectively.

About the author(s)

NextGen Milwaukee

Founder and Principal
Gather Consulting