Friday, August 21, 2009

A Model Partnership
by Jacob Berkman

August 20, 2009

There have been some loud splashes in the philanthropy world over the past couple of weeks, from the start of Madoff book mania to more public concern over day schools to the closing of the Professional Leaders Project.

But it's a relative ripple in the nonprofit world that might have the most to teach organizations this week.

The 14th Street Y in Manhattan's East Village and Storahtelling, the avante-garde theater troupe that takes biblical stories and translates them into modern theatrical pieces, announced this week that they had formed a strategic alliance.

Under the agreement, Storahtelling will move into the newly renovated Y, which is owned by the UJA-Federation of New York, saving the troupe tens of thousands of dollars a year on infrastructure overhead. In return, Storahtelling will become something of an artist in residence and will provide monthly performances and holiday programming.

The executive directors of both groups are calling it a win-win.

Storahtelling's Amichai Lau-Lavie told me that going forward the organization was going to focus on transmitting to others around the country its expertise in teaching Jewish messages in a more modern way. But the group badly wanted to have a home base in which its troupe could showcase itself and its work, particularly in New York, where those performances would be easily accessible to potential donors; their new space in the Y will allow them to do so in a way the group couldn't previously.

"We wanted to be very local," he said. "We have a headquarters. But it wasn't a place we could invite people in. A lot of what we have been doing has been going out and seeding change. That is becoming our focus. It was recommended to us and urged to have a local center to showcase our change, especially to New York funders and supporters."

From the Y's perspective, it has a new space and has been trying to figure out programming that would attract members of the East Village's diverse and eccentric Jewish community.

The collaboration is a great example of how the older, more established Jewish organizational world can help foster the growth of new, innovative Jewish projects out there -- a source of great concern over the past 12 months as funding for those organizations is very much in doubt.

The project was very much born out of the establishment. Both Lau-Lavie and Stephen Arnoff, the Y's executive director, are recent alumni of the Mandel Jerusalem Fellows program, a one-year residence in Israel that helps foster professional leaders of Jewish organizations. Though they have known each other for years, the two both credit their involvement with the Mandel program as a catalyst for their collaboration.

Arnoff, though, said that the Y is trying to set an example for an establishment that is obligated to take under its wing the new wave of innovative Jewish organizations.

"It is criminal that larger agencies are not taking on more responsibility to sustain at least a decade of Jewish work," he said. "Some of it is in real danger because of the recession. We have so much infrastructure in the community. We have many, many, many buildings that are not performing to best of their missions, underperforming or not performing at all. This is a way to combine the old and the new in a way that is a win-win for both parties."

Fundermentalist's Take: I hope the rest of the organized world studies the example of Arnoff and Lau-Lavie, and sees if there is something to be learned. Instead of fighting over the philanthropic pie, it might be time to figure out how we can better share it.

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