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  • Andres Spokoiny

Coronavirus Is a Test for Funders, and Failing Isn't an Option

“These are the times that try men’s souls,” said Thomas Paine. And these times are trying ours.

These are times in which our character is being tested; our wisdom; our empathy; our compassion; our selflessness and being tried.

These times are testing our optimism; our faith in our fellow humans, in our governments; in our institutions, in our community, and for some, they even test our faith in God. In sum, they are trying our souls and the souls of our communities.

These days, I, like many around the world, am rereading the classic, “The Plague,” by Albert Camus. There are many interpretations of that literary masterpiece; many argue that the book, written in 1947, refers to the plague of totalitarianism that had just swept through Europe, causing millions of deaths. But that is not what struck me about the book.

For me, the most intriguing part of the book is how the plague reveals the true nature of the characters. Dr. Rieux, one of the protagonists, is cynical and detached, but when the plague breaks out, he becomes a selfless helper of the sick.

Joseph Grand is a grey and anonymous city clerk, living a boring life, but when the disease spreads he finds his mettle, forming volunteer groups and becoming, according to Dr. Rieux, “the true embodiment of quiet courage".

But there’s also Cottard, another character, who becomes a profiteer, selling overpriced items on the black market (they didn’t have Purell back then, but you get the idea). Cottard ends up panicking and goes crazy. And then there’s the Prefect, the mayor, who is worried only about how the plague might affect him politically; he first calls the plague a hoax (yup…that’s true); then calls it “just a fever” and blames others for the outbreak. Only reluctantly does he agree to protective measures, too late to make a difference.

There is a paradox in the plague; people wear masks to protect themselves, but, in fact, the plague makes the masks fall and reveal our true selves.

So the question for us is what will we see about ourselves when the mask falls? Will we be responsible and wise, like Dr. Rambert, or will we be like Cottard, losing ourselves into panic? Will we be courageous and empathetic like Joseph Grand, or will we shirk responsibility like the prefect?

As Thomas Paine said, our souls are being tried. And the plague is going to confront us with who we truly are; who we are as individuals, and who we are as a country, as a people and as a community.

Needless to say, for us, as funders, the challenge is even greater, because we are in a position of power and influence, and our attitude will reverberate across the entire community.

It is already a truism to say that this pandemic will confront us with unprecedented challenges. The challenge is, of course, not just the sickness but the economic recession that is already upon us.

The interconnectedness of the community doesn’t only make it easy for a virus to spread, but it also magnifies the impact of the crisis. It’s hard to say where the chips are going to fall and what the actual impact of the crisis will be, but we can be sure that there will be a domino effect that will end up touching the entire community.

For starters, four national community systems, that are key for Jewish life, are going to be particularly vulnerable:

  1. Our JCCs, 50 percent of which are already in danger of insolvency;

  2. Our camps, which, if they can’t conduct summer sessions, will face a budgetary hole impossible to surmount;

  3. Our day schools, which may suffer loss of students and tuition;

  4. Our human services agencies, which may crack under the pressure of added caseload and reduced funding

They are, of course, not the only ones. Innovative start-ups that worked hard to go to scale may be considered “superfluous” in times of crisis. Many innovative programs will need to compete against basic services and, if they lose, the entire community loses. Synagogues, many of which are teetering in a good year, will have a hard time collecting membership dues from impoverished congregants.

And if needs are big in America, Israeli nonprofits are hit even harder. There the crisis comes after a year without a government, in which nonprofits couldn’t count on reliable government money.

It’s important to remember that all nonprofits face, in times of recession, a double whammy: a reduction in donations and an increased demand for services.

And then, of course, there’s the more vulnerable; those that always fall through the cracks of any systemic response. People with mental health issues; people with disabilities, the elderly, Holocaust survivors; people without families or safety nets. For them the whammy is not double, but triple or quadruple.

So, what can we do?

First, in the crisis, our funding practices need to change. We can’t continue operating with a business-as-usual approach.

We need to cut nonprofits some slack. When people are working round the clock, we need to reduce our demands for reports and controls and make our application processes simpler and shorter;

We need to give the nonprofits undesignated, general-operating funds to allow them the flexibility to respond fast to extremely rapid changes;

We need to cease regarding the 5 percent payout as Torah from Sinai. By law, the 5 percent payout is a minimum, not a maximum. If there’s a time to dig deeper in our endowments, this is it. This IS the rainy day we’ve been saving for.

Be mindful that nonprofits count on events, galas and conference to raise dollars that are critical for their survival (JFN knows this from experience!). Don’t cut your support: If a gala can’t be held, you can still buy a table.

We need now, more than ever, to treat our grantees as trusted partners. Listen to their evolving needs, offer not just money but expertise and guidance, and simply friendship and support. We need to be aware of how much weight our words carry with grantees. Last week, I was with a nonprofit executive when she received a letter from a foundation. It was a two-line email. It simply said, “We appreciate all you are doing, and, don’t worry, we have your back”. I saw tears of relief on her face when she read it.

As funders, we need to look at existing platforms that can be leveraged during the crisis.

Families are cooped up at home? We have PJ Library that delivers educational material to 300,000 families; People need loans? We have Hebrew Free Loan that has been doing this for 100 years; We depend on distance learning? Many of you have been investing in educational technology and web-based learning for years. We need information about our how the crisis affects the local community? Your local federation has the finger on the pulse.

Just as in wartime, a car factory can be repurposed to produce tanks, many of our communal programs can be repurposed to confront this crisis.

And speaking of platforms, we, at JFN, are committed to help you, the community of funders, and the community at large to navigate this crisis. Yes, we are sad that we had to postpone our conference, but we don’t have the leisure to sit down and lick our wounds. We are in a position of leadership, and we need to act now.

Over the years we have built a network, a community of peers and colleagues. Now is the time for that network to maximize its connectedness; to leverage its connectivity; the time for each of us to use the relations that JFN helped us build; to learn from one another and to find avenues for collective action. Now cooperation is not a “nice to have” but a “do or die” element of our work.

So, JFN is taking several actions to help the community in this critical hour.

  1. We have started a database of needs and philanthropic response. We think it’s critical for funders to know what the needs are, but it’s also vital to know what is being funded and what isn’t. We have sent you a survey asking both what you are funding and what you are hearing from your grantees in terms of needs. PLEASE fill it out.

  2. That mapping is going to help us identify gaps in the philanthropic response. We’ll be able to point funders to key areas that are being neglected.

  3. We are convening conversations among clusters of funders that care about a specific issue, so that they can coordinate their responses to the crisis. In each area, we will seek to identify priorities for philanthropic involvement.

  4. Because the crisis has a lot of unknowns, we are embarking on a wide scenario-planning exercise to help the community prepare for alternative futures that this crisis can bring upon us. This will not predict the future but will help us be ready whatever that future may be. Thinking about scenarios also implies identifying positive changes that the crisis can catalyze. Throughout history, for example, wars have accelerated scientific research (think of the dash to produce penicillin at the end of World War II – or the Manhattan Project). Can this crisis be also a catalyst of change?

  5. We will be holding at least one virtual convening a week on the issue of COVID-19 and its impact. It’s important to note that today and tomorrow we’ll be talking about things in general terms, but over the next few days and weeks, we are going to dig deeper into each one of the issues that are being raised today.

JFN now has a key role to play; we want to give to our members, a community of 2,500 funders, the tools to make intelligent and compassionate decisions during the crisis. So, besides the activities that we are conducting, don’t hesitate to call us, to consult with us.

We are a resource for each and every one of you.

At JFN, we’ve been talking to you about networking and collaboration for years: now is the time to leverage the trust that we’ve built with one another. It is true that this crisis finds the world – and America – at the lowest point in terms of how much we trust our governments and our institutions. Precisely because of that, we need to be able to trust one another. As my friend and colleague Lisa Eisen said at a JFN webinar last week: “We can only move as fast as the speed of trust.” True always, even more today.

My dear friends; the word responsibility comes from the word “response.” We as JFN, all of us as a network, and each of us as funders, have the responsibility to respond to this crisis.

And responsibility in Hebrew is “achraiut”, from the word “acher,” the other. In this crisis, we need to think of the “other” out there; the other that is not as fortunate as we are, the other that is worried about a loved one, the other that doesn’t know if she’ll have a paycheck at the end of the month.

I know we are all anxious and afraid. This crisis is force-feeding us a huge dose of humility.

Despite our arrogance, our power, our self-assuredness; despite out technology and our rockets that reach the stars, there’s still a little creature, a single strand of DNA, so small that it’s invisible to the naked eye, that can bring us down. This dose of humility can re-center us. It can make us value the important things in life. Think how petty and insignificant many of the problems for which we were fighting two weeks ago now seem. And maybe they were insignificant and petty; maybe this crisis can refocus us in what is truly important.

We are anxious and afraid, but one of the advantages of being a people with 4,000 years of history is that whatever history can throw at us, we’ve been there before. We say today what countless generations of Jews have said: Gam zeh ya’avor, this too shall pass. And this message of resilience and hope, the belief in a future that will always be better than the past, is something that the Jews can give each other and the world.

My friends, when we talk about illness and disease, we need to remember that in Hebrew, the word for healing “lehachlim” has the same root as the world “lehachlom,” to dream. This is not the time to stop dreaming. Rather the opposite: This is the time to dream of a better community emerging on the other side of this crisis, even if the crisis is long and harsh.

These are the times that try people’s souls, said Paine; times in which our masks drop, said Camus.

When our true self is revealed in the mirror of crisis, let’s make sure that we, and the future generation are proud of what we see.


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