Shmita: A Paradigm for Funding

Written by Charlene Seidle
 for a session at the recent Jewish Funders Network Conference

Posted on eJP on March 20, 2014

As funders, the onset of shmittah offers a good opportunity to test our assumptions and think about opportunities to support the organizations and issues we care about through a different, more holistic lens.

[myquote author=”
Sh’mot 23:10-11″]Six years you will sow your land, and gather in the land’s produce,
but in the Seventh Year you will release it from work and abandon it,
that the poor of your people shall eat.[/myquote]

[myquote author=”
Devarim 15:2″]And this is the manner of the release.
Every creditor shall release that which he has lent to his neighbor; he shall not demand the debt from his neighbor and his brother.[/myquote]

The shmittah sabbatical year kicks off in September 2014. One of the core tenets of halacha and traditionally only observed in the land of Israel, shmittah also offers a useful and meaningful model for our lives, our relationships with each other, our responsibilities to those less fortunate than we are, and our systems for community, justice and equality. The word shmittah, exactly translated, means release. More than just one year of release, shmittah is actually the pinnacle of a seven-year cycle that sustains healthy society, community and individuals. Shmittah teaches us that our land – and our resources – do not truly belong to us, that our lives can be enriched and changed in powerful ways through releasing control. Opening ourselves to the shmittah experience inspires us to reinvest or recalibrate our relationships.

As funders, the onset of shmittah offers a good opportunity to test our assumptions and think about opportunities to support the organizations and issues we care about through a different, more holistic lens.

Here are seven ideas for shmittah-inspired funding (in no particular order):

  1. Consider a seven-year cycle for granting: Often the way we fund encourages short-term, non-strategic decision making and also demands quick results that are sometimes unrealistic to achieve before we move on to the next compelling topic. A longer cycle gives us a chance to steep ourselves in knowledge, develop a balanced portfolio of grants and evaluate over time. We can pace ourselves and tackle big social challenges in phases, creating a platform for a deeper relationship between funder and grantee along the way. The cycle can apply for particular areas of interest as well as specific organizations.
  2. Think about the value of renewal and rest to actually drive creative productivity. What would it look like if we regularly funded sabbatical leaves of varying lengths for CEOs and other organization professionals? Not only has this kind of practice stimulated innovative ideas and new ways of thinking, it is a great tool for succession planning as middle managers and second-tier executives step in while the CEO is out – a very important leadership pipeline opportunity. Another component to consider is funding professional development and time for learning. In the documentation we have around how shmittah was actually observed thousands of years ago, we find that it was a year that reinvested in learning. As a best practice, we should determine from programs we fund what kinds of immersive continuing education they offer, how they invest in the continued growth of employees – and make sure this is a line item for our funding. We should look at our own organizations and do the same.
  3. Support the gift economy. Sharing, reusing and recycling improves the environment and builds sustainable community. The gemach, a hallmark of many Jewish communities, has traditionally served as a center to lend items which are generally temporarily needed, such as baby gear and now meet a wide variety of needs. Seek out gemachs and other exchange programs in your community. Learn more about them. Help create new ones. Besides support that might be needed for space or volunteer management (with huge bang for the buck), these programs’ constituents and volunteers can be important informants about community needs and ways to address them that don’t necessarily involve money. Also, consider looking for ways to facilitate peer to peer support among grantees. Are there opportunities to gather organizations working in the same field to exchange ideas and best practices according to areas of success and competency?
  4. Focus on networks and systems that encourage collaboration. The ultimate manifestation of shmittah is a community paradigm which is only possible if we all work together. What are the ways you encourage collaboration among grantees? What opportunities do we have to model collaboration with other funders by learning and granting together? Or collaboration with nonprofit partners through thoughtful learning, conversation and exchange of ideas? Shmittah helps us look at the world through a lens of abundance rather than scarcity. Shmittah teaches that nothing belongs to me and everything belongs to us. Through building a culture of trust and collaboration we can achieve the “everything”.
  5. Support organizations and efforts that connect with a local food system and ensure equal access to fresh and healthy food. When commenting about shmittah, the Rambam says that the produce of the shmittah year may not be transported anywhere beyond the Land of Israel. This focus resonates today as we see large-scale farming moving farther away from the end consumer. Fresh, healthy food is often priced beyond the means of families struggling to get by, and “fresh food deserts” in our communities rob many from even the ability to access these resources. Our Torah teaches that all shall have equal rights to the produce of the shmittah year, and that fresh food should not be reserved for only those with significant resources. In honor of shmittah, let’s find out which organizations work to address food security and access issues in our communities and advocate for a more, just equitable food system.
  6. Explore opportunities to help alleviate and reduce debt for individuals in need and organizations. Interest-free loan funds provide a bridge to self-sufficiency and are the highest form of giving according to the Rambam’s ladder of priorities. Hebrew Free Loan Societies provide funds for transportation to get to work, buy medicine and help people get back on their feet while maintaining their dignity. On the organizational front, some community foundations now offer options where donors can actually invest in a pool that provides loans for capital purposes credit worthy nonprofit organizations while earning a below or at market interest rate in order to help these organizations bridge cash flow needs.
  7. Support initiatives that provide financial and credit education and give people the tools they need to get and stay out of debt. By commanding us to release our neighbors and brothers from debt during the shmittah year, the Torah acknowledges the heavy, lasting and debilitating burden debt can wield. And in our society this burden starts earlier than ever. The average undergraduate college student graduates with about $2,500 in credit card debt that often takes years to pay off, especially when compounded by interest and late fees. Basic financial education can be critical to helping individuals of all ages make better money-related decisions.

What ideas do you have for observing shmittah in your organization? Like many of our Jewish principles, practices and teachings, shmittah provides us all with a wonderful opportunity to connect deeply with our ancient traditions and reignite them for today.

With thanks to Rabbi Andy Kastner, Director of the Leichtag Foundation’s Jewish Food Justice Fellowship and Yigal Deutscher, founder of the Seven Seeds Project and manager of the Shmittah Network for their help with this article.

Charlene Seidle is the Executive Vice President of the Leichtag Foundation and a senior consultant to the Jewish Community Foundation of San Diego