If you’re young and you’re Jewish, chances are you’ve been touched by the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation. The foundation sponsors, funds, and partners with anyone from Taglit-Birthright Israel to Hillel and the Israel on Campus Coalition, from the service organization Repair the World to LGBT Jewish activists, creating the impression that the ubiquitous Schusterman name is the address for young Jews.
In a recent conversation with Sanford R. “Sandy” Cardin, president of the foundation he has worked with since 1994, he explains that the foundation’s arc and that of the world of Jewish philanthropy in general have followed basically the same course. We sit in swank Schusterman Jerusalem headquarters during a brief break in his whirlwind trip, during which he spoke at AMUTA21C, an annual summit of Israel’s nonprofit and business professionals.
After almost two decades with the foundation, Cardin is easily able to play professor and recite a presentation of its history in five bullet points.
“Was there a greater vision? Yes.”
He elaborates that Charles Schusterman, who died of cancer in December 2000, was a prodigious note-taker: One of the reactions from the treatments he took during his long battle against chronic myelogenous leukemia caused some memory failure and he wrote himself short reminders of important thoughts. In a note from September 1996 titled “Charity Philosophy,” Charles wrote, “We want to be known as a thoughtful, serious, efficient foundation. By our participating with a nonprofit or our recommending it, we want that to be considered a stamp of approval for others to do the same. This is positive leadership.”
There is no question that the Schusterman name is now considered the “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval” for Jewish philanthropy. It has been on the forefront of philanthropic innovation and is constantly redefining its scope to allow more opportunities for positively affecting youths’ Jewish identities.
Some claim, however, that this seal of approval has a lethal side, saying that if Schusterman doesn’t support a particular project other Jewish investors are often less likely to do so as well. Others have cited a capriciousness in the grant-making, in which organizations that have been given a leg up may suddenly find themselves with nothing to stand upon.
Cardin, who appears to not have come across such criticism in the past, says, “By no means should it be taken that the project we didn’t support isn’t a good project!”
‘By no means should it be taken that the project we didn’t support isn’t a good project!’
“People should take a look at the number of longstanding relationships we have with many of our partners. The number of years belies any criticism of being arbitrary and capricious. Many foundations avoid that criticism by being three-and-out funders [cutting off funds after three years]. But we work with the organizations we fund. And there’s always a sense we’ll continue working with them as long as the organizations continue to achieve their goals.
“Of course the notion of self-sustainability is always a goal. It is a sign of effectiveness and acceptance of organizations. But only a fraction will make that.
“We hope, for maximum value, that we should be in places we call ‘interstitial,’ which are just outside of the organization’s core activity, but important for growth. We would like to let organizations take a little more risk. For example, to finance a staff member who would be a liaison for a partnership between two organizations.”
Until 1992, Cardin was a lawyer working with his father and later other partners in a private firm. In early 1994, while working with the Jerusalem Foundation, he met Charles and Lynn Schusterman at the Jewish Funders Network and was recruited to take over the operations of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, which had been in existence since 1987. Cardin was named president within the past six years.
The foundation was formed through private family money and from 1987 to 1993, essentially supported existent Jewish organizations, the Federations, UJA and the Technion, a period Cardin calls its “institutional phase.”
From 1994 to 2000, it entered its “experimental phase,” with Cardin fresh at the helm. Cardin describes how, led by Charles, the Tulsa-based foundation was essentially learning about Jewish philanthropy and the Jewish world in general. Towards the end of this period, it created a program it called STAR: Synagogues, Transformation and Renewal, deciding the most impact could be had through a major center of Jewish life, the synagogue.
The third phase, “transition,” was necessitated through a changing of the guard brought on by Charles’s death at the end of 2000. Lynn Schusterman took the helm and the foundation began to become more people-centered where it used to focus on abstract values. The foundation became a major donor for Taglit-Birthright and in 2001, the national DC office was opened, headed by Lisa Eisen.
From 2006, the foundation has become the major influence it is today. In what Cardin calls the “expansion phase” it became less dependent on existing Jewish institutions and began building its own, including the ROI Community (which fosters relationships between young global leaders and innovators).
The post-Birthright niche is fractious and not yet considered a favorable outcome
Currently in its “network phase” since 2011, the foundation is continuing to strive to connect young leaders, from the micro — those who may even live in the same community but need a reason to meet — to the macro — work with Taglit-Birthright alumni in community-wide, cross-organizational networks. The post-Birthright niche is fractious and not yet considered a favorable outcome. As Cardin admits, ”Real success in this effort has yet to be achieved.”
Additionally, the foundation sees itself as a matchmaker of sorts, and hopes to create more partnership opportunities between like-minded organizations, with the goal of leveraging their work to a broader audience.
“We hope to be a catalyst to create networks for those who are already naturally inclined to meet, but don’t.”
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