Leadership Limmud: Purim and Effective Grantmaking

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Leadership Limmud is a bi-weekly blog post by the Schusterman Family Foundation Leadership and Talent team. It blends traditional Torah commentary with contemporary leadership lessons linked to that week's Torah parsha or upcoming holiday. We hope you enjoy!

Purim Summary: The holiday of Purim begins at sunset on the 14th of Adar and celebrates the the savior of the Jewish people from the villain Haman by the heroine Esther, a Jewish woman of color. Esther is crowned queen after winning a beauty contest designed to find King Ahasuerus' new wife, after he banished his former wife, Vashti. Mordecai, Esther's cousin and one of the earliest known examples of a court Jew, uncovered a plot to kill King Ahasuerus and reported it. Scared for his safety, Ahasuerus promoted one of his advisers, Haman, to a special, more powerful position. Mordecai refused to bow before Haman (many suspect because it was idolatrous) and in return, an angry Haman sought revenge by planning to kill all of the Jews. After Haman put his plan into place, Mordecai and Esther prepared to stop it through an intervention by Queen Esther with her husband, the King, at a banquet. King Ahasuerus grants Esther's request and condemns Haman to die on the gallows that he built for the Jews. Purim traditions include dressing up in costume, eating triangle shaped cookies, hamantaschen, (supposedly in the shape of Haman's hat), hearing the story of Purim be read aloud, taking care of the poor and having celebratory feasts.

Purim Commentary: While Purim is often celebrated as a joyous occasion, complete with feasts and merry drinking, Rabbi Sharon Brous reminds us that this reflects just one reaction to our annual journey to the edge of the cliff that is Purim. Brous muses that on King Ahasuerus' whims, the characters in the Purim story saw their whole world flipped upside down repeatedly: a queen was exiled (Vashti); an orphan becomes royalty (Esther); a Jew is condemned and then redeemed (Mordecai); a general hung from his own gallows (Haman) and lesser discussed, but still important, a people deemed for genocide take up arms and kill their enemies instead (the Jewish people). Our celebration of Purim reflects an annual reminder that “no matter how hard we work to control our lives — how diligently we plan and prepare — life is inescapably unpredictable”.

And yet, more than celebrating and embracing gluttony, the Book of Esther tells us to celebrate by providing “gifts of food for each other and gifts to the poor”. Brous articulates that while we cannot control the world we live in, we can respond to the messiness of life by “making generous contributions to the people who need it most” and “addressing the fortunes that leave some with abundance and others with nothing”.

The way we are supposed to give on Purim is also unique. The rabbis teach that we should give to anyone and everyone who is in need. Reflecting the uncertainty of life, Brous tell us, “give generously today, for tomorrow it could be you begging for a little spare change”. More importantly, give because while we celebrate the Jewish people's survival, there are others suffering, and in desperate need of assistance, and it may only be an accident of history that we are here and they are there.

Let's get down to Tachlis (nuts and bolts): The story of Purim features Esther and Mordecai saving the Jewish people from the genocidal plot of Haman. Rather than being a story simply about the Jewish people being saved from a villain, Purim teaches us that life is “inescapably unpredictable” and that we need to respond to this by helping those in need

What this means for leaders: Similar to the ideas expressed on Purim of our need to embody flexibility in the face of changing systemic practices, the Ford Foundation has discovered and embraced learnings from their Building Institutions and Networks (BUILD) initiative that have upended traditional grantmaking practice. The BUILD initiative is an investment “in the long-term capacity and sustainability of up to 300 social justice organizations around the world,” with the goal of reducing inequality in all its forms (echoing the charge on Purim to give not because someone deserves help, but because they need it).

The five-year general operating grants deployed by BUILD are designed to provide significant capacity-building support to nonprofit organizations in an effort to combat the muted market and an infantilizing power dynamic. The muted market is the reality that nonprofits are not paid by those they work to serve or represent, but by a third party that may have different interests or priorities. Unfortunately, this may lead to a disconnect between the nonprofit organization and those it serves, depriving those individuals and/or communities of the power that the organization was working to address. An infantilizing power dynamic occurs when the funder creates controlling mechanisms, such as short cycles of funding and restricted grants, giving little decision making authority to the grantee.

In its two years of operation, the BUILD initiative has learned the five following lessons:

  • When accountability is given to the grantee they can be more responsive to the needs of the field, network partners, extraneous circumstances and their own learnings, rather than just to the funder.
  • When nonprofit organizations have greater control of their resources, funds can be used in flexible ways that generate the most strategic leverage in their work.
  • When organizations have the freedom to strengthen their administrative systems and organizational culture as their work demands, the technical, inclusive and adaptive work will further drive impact and engagement.
  • With a more secure base of financial support, nonprofits take on risk more confidently and develop additional sustainable streams of funding.
  • Funder confidence can be leveraged across a grantee's network. As Ford demonstrated confidence in a nonprofit, a stream of momentum and security encouraged other funders to also invest in that organization.

Ford's BUILD initiative is turning traditional grantmaking on its head. In a world where nothing can be guaranteed, this type of innovative thinking strives to build a more accountable and sustainable grantmaking system.