I was once told that “when you’ve seen one foundation, you’ve seen one foundation.”
Every foundation, public or private, is different. Each foundation is passionate about the issues they support but the way they “do business” differs vastly. Some foundations solicit applications, distribute funds and this is the extent of their involvement. Others are very private about their funding while some are very public.
Since I became president of the Ruderman Family Foundation, I have pursued a path of going “narrow and deep” for the main issue we advocate for: the inclusion of people with disabilities in our society. Twenty percent of the U.S. population has some form of disability and it’s the only minority group almost all of us are guaranteed of joining at some point in our lives.
In order to change attitudes, build awareness and affect long-lasting change, our foundation’s narrow-and-deep approach manifests itself in two ways: our strategy of partnerships and public advocacy.
Unlike many other foundations, our foundation does not accept unsolicited proposals or LOIs, except for one specific campaign (see below). Our foundation actively seeks out partners and works with them to craft new, innovative programs to further full inclusion.
Our work with our partners in the field has given us the knowledge of what needs to be done on the ground - and who can best carry that out. We then turn to a specific organization (both national and local ones) and begin discussing potential programs, implementation, measurements, and what a successful outcome would look like. Together with the organization our staff builds the grant and once it is approved, the organization begins its operations on the ground.
Our approach does not guarantee success. Sometimes partnerships do not work out the way we initially anticipated - as with any partnership. But seeking out partners allows the foundation to craft programming and results that we wish to see and which will hopefully advance our mission.
Once a year the foundation does accept applications for the Ruderman Prize in Inclusion. This $250,000 annual prize is granted to five Jewish organizations around the world who have demonstrated their commitment to the full inclusion of people with disabilities into the Jewish community through innovative programs and services. We receive 150 applications on average. This process provides the foundation a look at what is being done on the ground globally and is a catalyst for new ideas and partnerships down the road.
Many family foundations do not have a website or social media presence, let alone staff dedicated to communications. Our foundation has all of those and more. Our belief is that disbursement of funds is not enough to change society; providing leadership, building awareness, and being vocal in advocating for full inclusion will benefit the entire movement.
Our foundation does not shy away from publicity. The foundation welcomes the chance to be in the public eye and be seen as forwarding the conversation. Our website is dynamic, we are active on Facebook and Twitter and we publish blog posts twice a week from experts in the field, community leaders, parents, siblings, educators, and people with disabilities themselves. The goal is to reach the global audience the Internet and social media provides access to.
We are also very active in the media - whether through interviews, being asked for quotes by reporters, writing op-eds, or simple mentions of our programs. For some family foundations, this kind of “invasion of privacy” is anathema to their very nature of wanting to be private with their giving.
By lending our voice to millions of people who are universally marginalized, we use our privilege to champion the cause.
Narrow and Deep
The vast majority of the funds we distribute are invested in advancing full inclusion. This translates into partnerships in the areas of employment, housing, elementary and higher education, self-advocacy, houses of worship, summer camps, issues related to human rights, leadership development, and more. By focusing narrowly on a specific issue and then delving deep into as many aspects of that issue as possible, we have begun to see change in our community. More people have become aware of the topic, more people are speaking out and community leaders have begun to demonstrate a passion for providing everyone a seat around the table.
We are fully aware that the road is long and change does not happen overnight. Legislation on both a federal and state level is required to guarantee rights and build a more equitable society. Attitudes in schools and the workforce need to be adjusted. Society as a whole needs to embrace the 60 million among us who have a disability as opposed to treating them as second class citizens.
I am proud of what our foundation has been able to achieve and accomplish until now. We will continue to push this issue and ensure that it is on society’s agenda. We are focused, vocal, and ready for change. Are you?
Jay Ruderman is president of the Ruderman Family Foundation. He will be speaking at the session titled, "Connecting with a cause: Social media, prize philanthropy, and other techniques," at the 2015 National Forum on Family Philanthropy in Seattle. Follow Jay on Twitter @JayRuderman