In the day-to-day, nonprofit organizations focus a large amount of energy on operations – the how of what they do to serve their communities. Sometimes nonprofits don’t have the resources to carry out their services well, even when they are funded. Nonprofits focus on how best to strategize what’s happening on the ground floor, but their issues are not always traced back to this particular kind of capacity. Jay and Shira Ruderman of the Ruderman Family Foundation believe that there is more that funding institutions, in particular family foundations, can do: they can communicate externally on behalf of their grantees and raise awareness, and they can show nonprofits that there is a necessary relationship between service and advocacy. Shira, the Director of the Foundation, says that every action they take as funders and public advocates “starts from the philosophy of responsibility, social justice, and accomplishing things together. There are not many family foundations who advocate. It puts us in a very interesting but sometimes complex role and reality, but it’s possible.”
The Ruderman Family Foundation began in 2001 as a family venture with its home office in Boston. Originally, the Foundation made investments that centered on the local Jewish community, but after Jay Ruderman took over as President in 2008, they took a narrower approach. The Rudermans currently focus their funding enterprises on organizations working towards the inclusion of people with disabilities in society, as well as educating Israeli leaders on the American-Jewish community. These issues in the nonprofit sector leave somewhat of a vacuum for leadership, which has allowed the Rudermans to make much progress. For disability rights in particular, organizations are “not well-funded or well-integrated. The history of people with disabilities includes institutionalization and segregation, and we’re still living through that period. People with disabilities are placed in separate schools, separate group homes, and sheltered workshops instead of real employment.” Jay says, “I was energized because I saw pretty clearly that this was a civil rights issue that didn’t have widespread understanding.”
The Ruderman Family Foundation does more than simply gift funds for organizations working towards the civil rights of people with disabilities, however. They engage in a unique kind of advocacy that not many foundations and the organizations they fund are aware is possible. Jay explains what he calls rapid response. For example, if a public figure mocks someone with a disability, the Ruderman Foundation will release a statement. They will respond directly on social media explaining why a post or Tweet is inappropriate and offensive. Their aim is to “engender conversations” that break society out of the mindset that people with disabilities are somehow separate from the general population. “Our focus,” Jay says, “has always been on trying to speak to society about the value of including people with disabilities from a civil rights perspective.” This value is also communicated in commissioned internal and external white papers. A recent release explored the issue of police brutality and people with disabilities; another took a deeper look at representation of actors with disabilities in Hollywood. “The whitepaper on police brutality has a life of its own,” Jay says. “It just keeps coming back. It’s fairly well-researched and pointing out something that’s not well-known in society. The media misses that story”
This kind of advocacy helps amplify the Foundation’s grantmaking operations greatly. But why can’t organizations themselves do this kind of response and advocacy? Why does it fall on the funding entity to do this kind of work? Foundations hold a unique place in the nonprofit world, Shira notes, which sheds some light on why they have the ability to advocate where organizations themselves may not. Halfway between a corporate business and a nonprofit, foundations occupy certain aspects of both worlds. “We expect a lot from foundations and philanthropists, but we don’t as a society judge them by the same measures of success or impact that we would judge businesses by. We’re not giving credit to how hard it is to run a foundation, which is basically a business when it comes to financials.” Additionally, running a business is much more clean-cut than running a foundation. “When you don’t profit, you cut services or products, and everyone understands,” Shira says. “But with foundations, everyone raises their eyebrows if you make a decision to cut a partnership or strategy.” In both cases, running a foundation is about making hard decisions about what is most impactful or effective for society.
On the other hand, a foundation as a business-like entity is not beholden to funders in the same way that organizations are. There is an autonomy within foundation work that allows for the Rudermans’ public advocacy involvement. “Inclusion has to be a public discussion,” Jay explains. “If someone says something offensive, I don’t have to go through a whole process before we release a response. I can release a response immediately.” By operating like a business, the Ruderman Family Foundation has the opportunity to be less bureaucratic, more adaptive, quicker to respond, and willing to take on more risk.
Despite the Ruderman Family Foundation’s commitment to advocating on behalf of their grantees, their goal is not simply to do that work for organizations. They hope that organizations begin to understand the necessary power of raising awareness. “While it’s a challenge for organizations to do advocacy,” Shira says, “many times, it’s a philosophical issue for organizations. They believe that their job is to provide services, not carry out advocacy work. Services are important, but if we can’t gather more people to know and understand an issue, we’re not operating.” Operations are advocacy, and vice versa. Philanthropy and foundation work is uniquely positioned to show their grantees how important this is to social justice.
Jay Ruderman is the President of the Ruderman Family Foundation, which focuses on the inclusion of people with disabilities worldwide and educating Israeli leaders on the American Jewish community. He also has served on the Board of Directors of the Jewish Funders Network and is a member of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee Executive Committee.
Shira Ruderman is an Israeli philanthropist who serves as the Israel Director of the Ruderman Family Foundation. She has extensive management experience which includes: Chairwoman of Kesher – the NGO for special families, Board member of various international organizations and associations, including the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and more.
Krystin Gollihue is a current doctoral student in the Communication, Rhetoric, & Digital Media program at NC State University.