Relationships and Learning: Two Sides of the Same Coin in Grantmaking

Contrary to intuition, there are times when intellectualizing common-sense practice is a good thing. Take Institutional Learning, for example. Time and time again, I heard professors underscore the value of working for organizations that evaluate and adjust their own systems of operation. But it was only when I entered the workforce, and was fortunate enough to find myself working for actual learning institutions, that I realized how critical this ethic is to strategic, impactful changemaking. 

Early in my career, I worked in museum membership, a field that relies heavily on direct marketing to cultivate major donors.  I observed the strategy around building and reworking donor lists, while working with talented writers to tweak tried-and-true appeal language. What became crystal clear is that, in addition to being able to articulate their raison d'être, nonprofits have to cultivate meaningful relationships with their constituents in order to effectively steward their missions. 

“A timid person cannot learn...and in a place where there are no mensches, strive to be a mensch.”
— Pirkei Avot 2:5

When I joined the Mayberg Foundation’s staff, one of the aspects of our grantmaking work that interested me was the Foundation’s emphasis on strong relationships with beneficiaries.  The professional team and trustees consider charitable contributions investments, a term that implies a real sense of commitment to programs and people we believe are essential to a dynamic Jewish community. As a representative of the Foundation, I attended JPRO Network’s 2019 conference, in part to better understand how we could contribute to and learn from the ongoing professionalization of Jewish philanthropy. While leading an informal lunch-and-learn conversation on program evaluation, I was struck by my colleagues’ hunger for conversations around institutional learning and for committed thought partners to help formulate strategy out of our ideas.  Could it be that across the philanthropic and nonprofit sector, funders and beneficiaries are wondering how they can leverage their relationships to retain talent and scale impact?

It is this need for relationship-building, informed by our own individual curiosity as grantmakers, that has catalyzed our grantmaking team to formalize the Mayberg Foundation’s approach to institutional learning. We intend to deepen our commitment to cultivating relationships and building trust in two ways: by developing a robust set of protocols, conversation guides and measurements designed to help us and our beneficiaries understand what is and isn’t working; and by scheduling significant time to analyze our findings. In the spirit of ongoing exploration, we have named this process Reflection, Assessment and Learning

Abbreviated to “RAL,” our approach emphasizes not just the outcomes of our beneficiaries’ programs, but also our service delivery as grantmakers. Our grantmaking team assists its beneficiaries through a range of services tailored to individual organizations’ needs. Our team members, or program officers, bring their professional expertise to beneficiaries while simultaneously expanding their knowledge of the respective field through targeted inquiry. This ongoing system perpetuates itself through our commitment to learning both as individual program officers and as a grantmaking foundation. By truly getting to know the programs and people we think will have a lasting impact on the Jewish world and working directly with beneficiaries on everything from strategic planning and fundraising to communications, marketing and back-office services, we are prepared to contribute to the Jewish communal sector’s important conversation on professionalization through thoughtful relationship-building.

While still in its formative stages, RAL has manifested through a number of steps, including:

  • a comprehensive database management system that tracks the entirety of the funder-beneficiary relationship, allowing us to reference immediately relevant documents, conversations and observations from our program officers in the decision-making process;

  • a best practices guide that includes communications templates, technical procedures and ethical discussions for the Foundation’s program officers to use in ongoing conversations with beneficiaries;

  • a collaborative application process in which nonprofit staff members are guided through the entirety of the application and review process by program officers to ensure they put their best foot forward and receive valuable feedback that can be applied to other grant applications;

  • an evolving matrix of beneficiary check-in procedures, exploratory conversation guides and program officer self-reflections that demand honest reflection and, if necessary, follow-up action items. Of our beneficiaries, we ask - besides money, what keeps you up at night? How can we help with that? Of ourselves, how can we be as supportive as possible after this grant is awarded? What are we learning about this program and the field in general? 

  • a philosophy of radical transparency, rooted in the Foundation’s commitment to Foundational Judaism and Collective Effort. 

I believe that there is often a chasm between theoretical and applied knowledge and an even greater void that separates knowledge from the kind of holistic understanding that is only achievable by means of authentic relationships. As I strive to cultivate my own wisdom, and hence become a better grantmaker, my personal approach to Reflection, Assessment, and Learning draws from Jewish wisdom. 

Our mystical tradition teaches that there are three degrees of intellectual faculty: wisdom (chochmah,) understanding (binah,) and true knowledge (da’at.) I firmly believe that if personal understanding, informed observation and a lasting commitment to the individuals working to change the world act in concert, we will continue to be instrumental in building a Jewish reality that we can be proud of.  Perhaps this is the result Rabbi Gamliel hoped for when advising in Avot 2:5, “A timid person cannot learn...and in a place where there are no mensches, strive to be a mensch.”