Q&A: Understanding Jewish organizations working in global development

A hand-washing activity in Ghana organized by Tzedek, a U.K.-based Jewish charity and partner organization of OLAM. Photo by: OLAM via Facebook

WASHINGTON — Jewish organizations working in the global development space are, by and large, younger and smaller than their other, primarily Christian, faith-based counterparts and in some cases balk at being labeled as faith-based at all.

It wasn’t until the last few decades that many of these organizations were founded, in part because the Jewish community was focused on its own needs. After the Israeli government pulled back international development funding and support in the 1970s, Israeli organizations stepped in to fill the gap.

OLAM, an organization with more than 50 partner organizations that self-identify as Jewish or Israeli and work on development and humanitarian challenges, helps to organize the community and highlight and share best practices.

Dyonna Ginsburg, CEO at OLAM, spoke with Devex about Jewish organizations in the development space, what sets them apart, and some of the key challenges they face today.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

How do you think Jewish organizations compare with other faith-based organizations? Are they unique in some ways?

When you compare Jewish organizations to other faith-based organizations — which is very much in line with how Jewish identity is defined — it's not always a religious identity, and even the term “faith-based” doesn't always feel super comfortable to many of these organizations.

Focus on: Faith and Development

This series illuminates the role faith actors and their communities play in strengthening global development outcomes.

There is a range of the extent to which they wear the Jewish part on their sleeves or not — quite literally — or is that very much behind the scenes in terms of the values that inspire their work — perhaps their funders or some of their professional leadership — but doesn’t necessarily play out in the work that they do.

I think unlike some other faith-based organizations that may have roots in a missionizing agenda or may have some piece of their work that's also about religious work, that's not the case, by and large, for Jewish organizations — almost all of whom would describe themselves as both Jewish and secular at the same time.

How would you describe most Jewish organizations working in this space?

I would venture to say that, by and large, OLAM partner organizations are much smaller in their budgetary size and also in staff size than many of their other faith-based counterparts outside of the Jewish community. It's just a much smaller and younger sector. A significant percentage of our partner organizations were founded after the year 2000 and many in the last decade.

Why are so many of the Jewish organizations in this space so young and small?

Jewish communities around the world, up until the second half of the 20th century and probably just the last decades of the 20th century, were either persecuted minorities themselves or were struggling in the aftermath of World War II and the Holocaust. And so as communities, very much the focus was inwards on internal Jewish needs.

“Something like 70% of [OLAM member organizations] somehow deal with issues of refugees and migration. That is not a coincidence; that resonates deeply with Jewish historic experience.”

— Dyonna Ginsburg, CEO, OLAM

It wasn't until the ‘80s and ‘90s and 2000s that the Jewish community was confident enough in its own standing in the various countries and societies in which it lived and well resourced enough to think about addressing needs or concerns or partnering with others outside of its own immediate local, narrowly defined Jewish needs.

And there were definitely some inflection points or watershed points. In the United States, for example, the Jewish consciousness around international development was a direct outgrowth of Live Aid and some of those initiatives. And then you had another major, major inflection point, which is around Darfur. … And that, without a doubt, put issues of global import on the Jewish radar screen in ways that it wasn't before.

I think more recently, images of refugees primarily from Syria on boats, or at borders, on trains, walking by foot, have had tremendous resonance with the Jewish community.

We do a biannual survey, and something like 70% of [OLAM member organizations] somehow deal with issues of refugees and migration. That is not a coincidence; that resonates deeply with Jewish historic experience.

How have Jewish and Israeli organizations working in the development space been impacted by COVID-19, and how are they responding?

It's really reflective of how it's impacted the field in general. Many of them experienced a loss of revenue. A bunch of them have had to lay off staff or [had their staff] pivot. We've seen a trend of organizations that were doing ongoing community development work move a little bit to humanitarian aid work related to COVID-19.

They've had to stretch themselves in response to local community needs in ways that they haven't before. I think they're trying to figure out and navigate that reality with their local community partners and make sure that they're best suited to meet that and that they're doing that in a way that's equitable.

Last month, you held your annual conference virtually. What were some of the key issues that emerged for the community?

There are many within OLAM’s network who are really thinking through, in very thoughtful ways, the ethical mandate towards localization and figuring out how to do that well. And I think there's been an increased awareness within our partner organizations about issues of power dynamics and savior-ism culture and the importance of anti-racism work.

I can, without a doubt, attest to a real awakening towards power dynamics and a genuine desire among our partners to be shifting the balance of power towards local communities and in a real way.

A concern on the minds of a bunch of our partners, it's first what are the funding sources. And in general, they are interested and have always been interested in diversifying their funding sources. So this might force them to do that and accelerate that process.

A bunch of them are reliant for a chunk of their budget on Jewish philanthropy. ... There's a real question mark at this moment in time whether Jewish philanthropy is going to step up and meet some of these needs and the needs of these NGOs.

I am hopeful that it will be sort of a both-and scenario where Jewish philanthropy will step up to the plate and our partners will continue doing quality enough work that they'll succeed in getting funding sources from elsewhere. But that's definitely a concern that's on their minds.

Devex, with support from our partner GHR Foundation, is exploring the intersection between faith and development. Visit the Focus on: Faith and Development page for more. Disclaimer: The views in this article do not necessarily represent the views of GHR Foundation.

About the author

  • Adva Saldinger

    Adva Saldinger is a Senior Reporter at Devex, where she covers the intersection of business and international development, as well as U.S. foreign aid policy. From partnerships to trade and social entrepreneurship to impact investing, Adva explores the role the private sector and private capital play in development. A journalist with more than 10 years of experience, she has worked at several newspapers in the U.S. and lived in both Ghana and South Africa.