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Building a Movement: How the Jewish Women’s Foundation of New York Supports Women Social Entrepreneurs


When the Jewish Women’s Foundation of New York (JWFNY) was founded in the 1990s, its primary mission was to fill a gap in supporting Jewish women and girls. Within a decade, though, several other philanthropic organizations had turned their attention to Jewish women and girls and were also offering funding. This meant the need was no longer as great, explains JWFNY CEO Jamie Allen Black, so the foundation expanded its focus to include initiatives started by Jewish women to benefit other communities, primarily in developing countries.

“There were Jewish women all over the world who were working to improve the lives of the most needy,” Black says. “We felt that their work was part of our deeply rooted values of Tikkun Olam. It wasn’t just about serving our own communities; it was about having a wider global vision and reach.”

JWFNY began funding initiatives to meet the needs of underserved communities around the globe, including a project to bring Israeli technology to sub-Saharan Africa to build wells and an organization that flies medical equipment from Israel to northern Syria. After examining the granting history of the foundation, it became clear that there were many impactful initiatives led by women social entrepreneurs, and in 2018, JWFNY refined its focus to solely support women as social entrepreneurs and leaders. “This country, our community, and the world needs women leaders because women lead in a different way than men do, and their voices need to be heard,” Black says.

JWFNY’s programs include the Collective, a community of social entrepreneurs who receive funding and professional development support, and the Convening, an annual event where social entrepreneurs and philanthropists can impact and inspire each other.

Supporting Women Social Entrepreneurs

When Black envisions the ideal candidate for the Collective, she thinks of a woman who applies both a gender lens and Jewish values to her work. JWFNY affirms key values such as kehillah (community) and kavod (respect), although each grantee is free to interpret those values as she chooses. The ideal candidate is “a social entrepreneur, she’s created an organization, a not-for-profit, or an NGO, that creates social change for communities,” Black says.

Members of the current—and inaugural—Collective cohort include Mazal Shaul of WePower, a nonprofit that helps Israeli women become public and political leaders, and Tania Laden of LivelyHoods, which trains and employs Kenyan women and youth to distribute clean energy products in local slum neighborhoods. Other areas covered by the remaining eight female social entrepreneurs’ organizations include human trafficking, LGBTQ participation in Orthodox Jewish communities, mass incarceration, perinatal mortality, and legal justice, among others.

Women social entrepreneurs who are accepted into the Collective receive ongoing support. “We provide them with three years of funding for their organizations, and in their first year, they receive professional development funds to be used at their discretion. They also participate in a year-long leadership program which we have curated to address the skills and business areas that they have expressed interested in learning through us,” Black says.

While 20% of the program’s content is determined by JWFNY, the other 80% is shaped by members’ interests and goals. Thus, the program is fluid and should evolve with the changing group of participants. “Each year it will be different because each cohort will have different needs,” Black notes.

The Jewish Women’s Foundation of New York does not create women leaders—they already exist. Rather, they give women social entrepreneurs increased visibility and support to advance in their careers.

Members have the opportunity to network with each other to make valuable connections with others who can further support their work. “We’re introducing them to investors, philanthropists, and other social activists.”

The Jewish Women’s Foundation of New York strives to create a lasting impact on the lives and careers of the women it supports. Black anticipates that in some cases, a Collective member might “go on to start a different organization, or maybe she’ll get into politics. Or maybe she’ll take on a leadership role in the Jewish community. It’s not just about what the woman is doing today, it’s about the possibilities for her future.”

Leveling the Playing Field

JWFNY advocates for equal opportunities for women, requiring grantees’ organizations to treat women employees fairly. In 2016, JWFNY joined a broad-based coalition to promote paid parental leave in New York state. The same year, it began requiring prospective grantees to offer at least four weeks of paid parental leave in order to be considered. According to Black, the message was: “We want to give you money, but if you’re not supporting women in this very fundamental way, we can’t do it.” When boards realized their organizations were leaving money on the table, many decided to adopt better parental leave policies, with the foundation providing resources to help them get started.

Jamie Allen BlackThe Jewish Women’s Foundation of New York also seeks to create a level playing field through its grantee selection process. The foundation conducts research to identify potential candidates for the Collective, and social entrepreneurs can nominate themselves by filling out a short informational form. All candidates go onto a list, which is then shared with donors. “Our donors then work together to decide who they want to hear more about. That’s when the applications happen,” Black says. This way, candidates do not have to spend time and resources on a full application until they are in the running.

Those who aren’t selected remain on the list and are considered again in the future, as the thematic focus of the foundation’s support changes every year. Black notes that this differs from some other application processes. “Many times, in grant-making organizations, if a not-for-profit isn’t chosen, it’s like they’re blackballed instead of looked at again in a different light.”

JWFNY asks its donor circles to arrive at a consensus, rather than voting on which candidates will receive grants. “Consensus-building is about creating an atmosphere where everyone feels heard, and at the end of the day, when everyone leaves the room, even if they didn’t get their way, they’re still proud of the decisions made,” Black says.

Elevating Leaders

For the past few years, Jewish nonprofits have grappled with the problem of replacing leaders who are nearing retirement. Black’s goal is for the Jewish Women’s Foundation of New York to help build a pipeline of women who can step into leadership positions. She emphasizes, though, that JWFNY does not create women leaders—they already exist. Rather, JWFNY gives them increased visibility and support to advance in their careers. She would like organizations to view JWFNY as a resource in their talent search: “We hope to have such a large cadre of awesome leaders that when people are looking for leaders, inside the Jewish community or beyond, they come to us and say, ‘Who do you have?'”

As Black searches for candidates for the Collective’s next cohort, she is focused on women who are collaborating with others and inspiring action beyond their own organizations. “The most effective aspect of social change is movement-building,” she says. “When organizations are working with other organizations and individuals are working together—impact is maximized.”

Feature image: Ruth Messinger in conversation with Tamar Menassah at the Convening

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