By Andrew Adler
The Jewish Heritage Fund was established in 2012 and seeded with $100 million worth of proceeds when the Jewish Hospital organization became part of KentuckyOne Health.
Another significant infusion of endowment dollars came in 2017. Over the past decade – during which its assets would grow to approximately $300 million – JHF would become the principal philanthropic engine supporting Jewish interests in Louisville and throughout much of Kentucky. No other funding source reaches as far and as deep or touches as many lives in the regional Jewish universe. Indeed, since its founding JHF has distributed more than $80 million in grants to 110 recipients across the communities it serves.
“The Jewish Heritage Fund has been a true partner,” emphasizes Sara Klein Wagner, President and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Louisville and the Trager Family JCC., adding that “the creation of the JHF provided the gift of experimenting, taking risks and dreaming.”
Under Polson the Fund has demonstrated “an understanding of the impact of matching gifts and support during the pandemic,” Wagner says, while at the same time “bolstering our collective response to growing security needs and ensuring that the recent demographic study of Jewish Louisville became a reality. The JHF has committed itself to innovation, excellence and caring. How fortunate are we all.”
Earlier this month Community Managing Editor Andrew Adler sat down with Jeff Polson, the Jewish Heritage Fund’s president and CEO, to talk about the fund’s core programs and its post-pandemic strategies. The interview, conducted in JHF’s offices on the 16th floor of downtown’s PNC Tower, has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
I wanted to begin with a phrase I saw in your mission statement that says, “We will encourage responsible risk-taking in pursuit of excellence.” Tell us a bit about what “responsible risk-taking” means, and how that notion has evolved in a post-pandemic environment.
If you go back to the origins of who we are, you can trace it back to 1903 with the founding of Jewish Hospital. Over the decades Jewish Hospital developed a reputation for medical innovation and for medical firsts, so they were willing to take risks as was related to medical care. As we as an organization, and our board, started having conversations about ‘What is our mission?’ And the vision – the ‘responsible risk-taking,’ seemed like it was part of our DNA.
How that translates into grantmaking is working with our community partners, who really are the backbone of what we do, and helping them understand that it’s not about the things that are proven, but that we’re willing to take chances and experiment with different ways of doing things. It’s understanding that even if a specific initiative isn’t successful, if we learn something then it’s worth the investment, because hopefully it’ll help them submit better grants.
Consistent with its Jewish Hospital origins, JHF devotes the bulk of grantmaking resources to address healthcare issues. In 2022, for example, about $5.2 million in grants for Health. The next biggest support category, slightly more than $3.15 million, was went toward supporting what JHF calls Jewish Life, followed by $900,000 in grants to U of L’s Health Sciences Center.
At present, JHF is centering its Health energies on at-risk adolescents, which the fund defines as comprising 12 to 24-year-olds.
We spent quite a few rounds of grantmaking just to understand the landscape. And then we wanted to focus more closely on a specific area, so we looked at the community as a whole – where grant dollars were going, and where grant dollars weren’t going. And we identified the adolescent population. We saw a lot of funds flowing into pre-K and early child/prenatal (programs). There weren’t a lot of dollars, particularly philanthropic dollars, going into this adolescent/young adult age. So about three-and-a-half years ago, the board made the decision.
Qualifying for a grant is a multi-layered process.
It begins with a conversation with one of our program officers. And if there’s alignment, they’ll be invited to submit an application…And if there’s not alignment, we want them to know upfront, so they don’t spend valuable time on a grant that wouldn’t align with what we’re looking to fund.
That application is then reviewed by staff. We often work with partners to answer questions that we anticipate. Then a recommendation goes to the grants committee…(who) use our recommendations as a starting point. It’s then referred to the full board, which makes the final decision.
(At this point we were joined by JHF Jewish Life program officer Jamie Jorrisch)
I’m focused on building relationships with all Jewish organizations, and the folks in leadership positions there. The more I know about what they’re thinking and doing, the more helpful we can be as our role of the funder in trying to find opportunities…and the kind of impact we want to make. We think of our interactions with our partners or our grantees in a relational way, not a transactional way.
Jewish Life recipients include familiar names: area synagogues, the Jewish Federation of Louisville/Trager Family JCC, National Council of Jewish Women, several university based Jewish Studies programs, the Filson Historical Society’s Jewish Community Archives, and so on. Is there an example of a newer group entering the mix?
(Polson): There are organizations we work with that further Jewish values, like the (Journeys of Faith) grant we did recently with the Louisville Orchestra that highlighted Jewish and Black composers. That was a large, sophisticated organization, but we still needed to get to know them and what they were trying to accomplish.
(Jorrisch): I’d like to just add that some of the organizations doing the most impactful work are those small, really grassroots organizations that don’t have a big staff and don’t have the know-how and the training to be able to write a perfect grant. So in those cases, we’ll go the extra step and check our expectations about what we’re looking for, and perhaps not hold them to the same bar as someone who has a complete, professional development.
Jewish Heritage Fund grants typically range from a few thousand dollars to well into six figures. This past month, JHF gave $500,000 to Goodwill Industries of Kentucky to help construct an Opportunity Center in West Louisville, which will embrace a broad array of social service industries.
(Polson): The Goodwill grant was interesting to us because a number of partners we work within a regular basis are co-locating there.
The past 18 months have been tough on a lot of financial portfolios. Did JHF’s assets take a substantial hit?
(Polson): It’s no different from your 401(k) or my 401(k) that fluctuate with the market, but that’s the important role of the investment committee, and why we have an outside investment firm that’s tasked with monitoring that on a regular basis…It’s always the goal for the endowment to be stable or growing. But significant periods of downturn – all foundations may face that. Thus far our board and investment committee have been effective in ensuring that funds are available for us to meet requests, and that we’re able to continue to invest in all the communities we serve.
Is there ever a danger of getting too close to recipients, particularly those with a long history of receiving JHF support? Can you have a multi-year grantmaking relationship and still remain objective?
(Polson): We have a role to play, but the partners are the ones doing the hard work, who are on the front lines. We’re temporary stewards of these funds that we hope are generational. We’re just lucky to have the seats right now.