Nurturing Small Experiments

By Seth Linden and Jeff Tiell

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 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. Further, there is a sense at the Foundation that many organizations need support and do good work but are not equipped, or ready, to take on a large investment. However, 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 in Jewish education, vis-à-vis 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. 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 At The Well as an organization 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.

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.

This support comes as the Foundation sees the demand for these types of smaller organizations by their beneficiaries. These 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.

The Jim Joseph Foundation continues to evolve in the ways in which we stay current and stay 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.

This blog was originally published on the Jim Joseph Foundation website.

Seth Linden