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  • Andres Spokoiny

How to Change the World: A Conversation with Charles Bronfman and Harold Grinspoon

At the recent Jewish Funders Network conference, I sat down with two living legends of philanthropy: Harold Grinspoon and Charles Bronfman. My job was to interview them and find a common thread between their charitable works.

These two men have very broad philanthropic interests, but they are each best known for one of two programs that have, in the last couple of decades, transformed the Jewish world: Birthright Israel (Bronfman) and PJ Library (Grinspoon). Our conversation offered a unique glimpse into the mind of these two visionary leaders, and revealed that they both possess a number of shared characteristics that have directly led to the success of their programs.

The first is their incredible menschlichkeit. At no point did either funder take credit for his own impressive achievements. Charles credited his parents, and spoke about his humbling sense of responsibility for the legacy they entrusted him. Harold spoke about his mentors – like Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, fellow philanthropist Michael Steinhardt, and business partner Jeremy Pava – and about his wife Diane as the ones who started him on his journey.

The second is the way in which they bring their business acumen into the philanthropic practice. Generally, when businesspeople try to transplant business practices into the nonprofit world, they fail. The two worlds are very different: the motivations differ and the dynamics of power radically diverge. Yet, both Charles and Harold managed to isolate the specific business practices that are translatable to and useful in the philanthropic field, like measurement, planning, and data.

Third, they are both team players who rely on diverse groups of professionals. They don’t live in echo-chambers, but instead encourage cognitive diversity in their teams. They are loyal to their staffs and they expect to be challenged by them. Neither of them has a choir of sycophants and yes-men. They are also team players in that they don’t think that independent philanthropy is at odds with communal philanthropy. Charles is a generous donor to three federations – he is still the biggest donor to Montreal’s Federation – and Harold has been a strong supporter of Jewish life in his home community of Western Massachusetts for four decades.

Fourth, they approach life with gratitude. This may sound sentimental, but it has very concrete implications. Because they are grateful human beings, they want to share and give; because they believe that the world – and people – are intrinsically good, they face challenges with an inveterate optimism, and they see opportunities where others see problems. Neither of them is alien to trouble or even tragedy, but their basic outlook is one in which we can always make the future better than the past.

Creating Programs that touch the lives of millions

While our conversation revealed the shared personality traits of these two visionaries, it also showcased the similarities that have made their most well-known programs so successful. There are over 500,000 Birthright Israel alumni and roughly the same number of current PJ Library/Sifriyat Pijama recipients. It can be said that they are the only programs that managed to impact an entire generation. Learning how they did so is key.

First of all, both were big, bold bets. The Birthright Israel funders believed that it was possible to send every Jewish young person to Israel. Harold believed that it was doable to get every family raising Jewish children to read Jewish books. The need for bold bets in philanthropy seems obvious, but as somebody who has a balcony view of the philanthropic field, I know that bold bets are the exception and not the rule. As a community we underinvest in both time and money. Birthright Israel and PJ Library work because the funders and their partners invest in accordance with the magnitude of the challenge, and because they invest for the long term.

Second, both programs have low entry barriers. The universal approach that they’ve espoused allowed them to reach unprecedented numbers of participants. The fact that there are no preconditions to accessing the programs makes every participant feel included and welcomed. Moreover, the programs are designed so that Jews of all stripes, whatever their denomination and level of Jewish engagement, can access them without feeling judged or excluded. Naturally, the price point – free – also helps, but the low entry barrier is more structural (perhaps one might even say ideological) than financial.

Third, the genius of both PJ Library and Birthright Israel is that they are “adjacent possibilities.” As I have discussed before, the cleverest way of innovating is to find the “adjacent possible.” An adjacent possibility is not a radical new idea; it’s not something that one creates out of nothing. Rather, it’s a creative extension of a concept that already exists. Birthright Israel and PJ Library do this by leveraging existing practices that are already experienced as normal in their target populations. PJ Library taps into the fact that parents already read to their children every night at home. Birthright Israel uses the same approach: “If you are going to travel overseas on a college break or a post-college trip, make it a trip to Israel.”

Fourth, both programs used a unique partnership model, in which both local and national funders collaborate. Birthright Israel offers federations, communities, and foundations opportunities to fund specific programs, while PJ Library allows for local funders to “own” the local deployment of the program. This partnership model is a win-win that allows funders to leverage each other. On the local level, a community can benefit from a successful program without needing to reinvent the wheel. On the national level, allowing a degree of local ownership helps extend the program and bring it to international scale. This intentional decision by both Charles and Harold to empower partner organizations and foster a shared sense of ownership has been crucial to the success of their flagship programs.

These leaders – in their lives, their commitment, and their ways of looking at philanthropy – are an ongoing source of inspiration for me, and for countless others. The millions of lives they have touched thus far with their philanthropy, and the communities they have transformed in the process, are the best testament to the legacies they are building – legacies already firmly established, but still very much works in progress.

This article was published in eJewish Philanthropy.


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