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A pianist, a trio, a trust: What keeps everyone in tune at American Jewish World Service

American Jewish World Service (AJWS), founded in 1985 to end poverty and ensure human rights in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, was built on a commitment to respecting and supporting local solutions, putting more power in the hands of grantees. In conversation with PEAK President and CEO Satonya Fair, AJWS President and CEO Robert Bank explains how that commitment extends to their grants managers, who with an in-country team and grantee partners, create a magical “trio” effect. Bank also shares personal insights on his journey to becoming a philanthropic leader – rooted in South Africa, a love of piano, and a job with underserved youth in 1980s New York City.

Satonya Fair: Looking at your personal approach and the organization’s work, it feels like you’ve mastered the ability to empower grantees and program staff to work in collaboration. How have you been able to do that? And why?

Robert Bank: So much of it is about respect and dignity. Equity is the way we think about our grants managers and about those who our organizations were created to serve. One of the problems in the not-for-profit social sector is this idea that we would sacrifice everything about ourselves for others. How can anyone function if one is not self-empowered? And this is true for our grants managers who are so critical to our organization’s success.

It all starts from the idea of our founders. One of the founders of AJWS, a remarkable man named Larry Simon, worked at Oxfam and traveled all over the world as an international aid worker. He understood that we’ve got to trust the people on the ground 100 percent, because they know how to solve their own problems. You’re not going to fly in from the North and tell people in the South how to solve their problems. There are brilliant people in Kenya, in Nicaragua, in Sri Lanka. I still face a little bit of a challenge explaining that to some Americans.

Fair: We share that challenge. I always ask people: When you go into a community, do you start with statements or with questions?

Bank: Exactly. So that’s one side: enormous belief in our grantee partners.

But then there’s another side: running an organization that makes the space for our people to forge relationships with our partners. We can’t center our grantmaking in the lives of those we serve without making space for relationships to develop holistically among these incredible people. To build an organization that is first and foremost respectful of our grantees, we must also be, first and foremost, respectful of our grants managers and the way they work.

To build an organization that is first and foremost respectful of our grantees, we must also be, first and foremost, respectful of our grants managers.

In each of the countries in which we work – 18 across Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean – we have at least one, sometimes more, brilliant local person [on our team] who comes out of the social movements we work with and of which our grantee partners are a part. They work directly with both our grantees and our grant managers in America, and it makes this really beautiful kind of trio – I’m a musician, so I use that metaphor – and that, I think, is where the magic happens.

Fair: Absolutely: That positioning where your grants staff get to sit in between program leadership and the grantee – where the grants manager can interpret for program staff while reassuring the grantee that they’ll continue to be supported. When grantees know their voice is represented faithfully, it becomes much more a collaborative model.

Bank: I might add a fourth player – make it a quartet – for building strong partnerships: the role of learning and evaluation.

I have learned so much from the Strategic Learning, Research, and Evaluation Team at AJWS: about partnership, about learning for action, about why the key purpose of evaluation must be learning together.

We want to make sure that what we are fighting for will, over time, be achieved. The more we see evaluation as a mechanism to judge [grantees], the worse off we will be in our ability to achieve anything.

Fair: You’re right: We must learn from each investment and each interaction, otherwise we’re missing out on a great opportunity.

Lifting up those doing the heavy work

Fair: You have a large organization, doing many things, and your work is very heavy. Tell me about your role in keeping folks throughout the organization lifted up and focused on their growth.

Bank: The only way we can achieve anything is if we invest in our people. If you look at our theory of change, the first input is people. I really take my hat off to our Director of Strategic Learning, Research and Evaluation, Irit Houvras, for that: I remember saying to her, “Irit, you can’t put people as our first  input.” She persuaded me otherwise: that nothing we do in philanthropy happens without our people. It was a very powerful moment for me as a CEO.

We have a 100 staff in the U.S., 30 experts located in the 18 countries in which we work, plus a 30-member board of trustees. Those are our people. I like to say that every morning, across the world, about 170 have thought about this enterprise by the time they’ve finished their first cup of coffee.

My job as CEO is to make their experience a journey towards becoming a better leader, finding more meaning in their work, and recognizing that, yes, this is heavy and important work, and that in between work we’ve also got to have some fun.

In this year more than ever, when people have been hurting, we’ve seen how important it is for a workplace to provide people with what they deserve: A sane work environment that enables work/life balance. It’s a long journey, so I want to say with deep humility how proud I am of what we’ve done at AJWS: I’m very grateful to our Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, Kristen Kendrick, who three years ago led a conversation about whether we were really being true to our value of inclusivity in our American, Jewish, global organization.

In this year more than ever, when people have been hurting, we’ve seen how important it is for a workplace to provide people with what they deserve.

With the help of consultants, we have now built an ambitious roadmap for the organization for the next couple of years moving us towards being a fully inclusive and anti-racist organization.

We have a long way to go, but I feel so proud of the staff that are leading this effort, and we have got a staff working group that is just remarkable. In the past year, we’ve been doing work around people development, putting resources and time into building out our Leadership Development Program. We’ve been doing a lot of “culture carrier” work with our 27 director-level staff, providing them with the assessments, coaching, and tools to become better leaders so that they can carry that to their staff. I’m also very consciously trying, as CEO, to connect, when I can, one-on-one with staff at all levels in the organization particularly our millennial staff ff and ask what they think. It’s so helpful – those are the folks who are really my teachers.

Fair: That’s quite a model – and not what’s happening at many nonprofit funders. It sounds like you’re being very intentional about your own exposure to every component of your organization so that you can learn, influence, and support.

Bank: I’m on a journey!

One last thing we’ve implemented, that I’m very proud of, is quarterly two-way feedback. It’s very simple: Every quarter, everyone who reports to someone has a conversation that starts with their manager saying, “Please tell me something that I’ve done well in the past few months, and something that I haven’t done well.”

Fair: And that translates to our grant relationships – going back to what you were saying about the trio and the quartet. Practicing that feedback loop internally allows staff to be more comfortable receiving feedback from your grantees. That’s resetting the power dynamics a bit.

And it sounds like you’ve gone about it the right way, with all that has to happen alongside the training. We often find that aspirations for making an organization more equitable aren’t given the levels of support, commitment, and time they need. That’s what we’re doing at PEAK, as well. It’s really important that you not ask others to do something that you’re not trying for yourself.


From apartheid to art to activism

Fair: I want to talk a little bit about your career: How did you find yourself here at this moment?

Bank: Sometimes I look back at where I started, even just geographically, and I have this bizarre feeling: Is this the same life? Am I the same person?

I grew up in South Africa at the height of apartheid, in the sixties and seventies. I was exposed to enormous violence at a young age, and I was also exposed to this very tight community of faith: Jews who had come to South Africa because they were fleeing someplace else.

I was very young when my first cousin, the activist Dennis Goldberg – he passed away last year – was tried together with Nelson Mandela for treason and sabotage against the white South African government. It was the beginning of my route to fighting for justice.

But I also grew up in a country that was so cruel, and where I witnessed so much violence on a daily basis, that I became introverted, hidden in my room, where I started playing the piano. An aunt of mine, an incredible role model to me, taught me. I loved it.

So: I always knew that I had to leave South Africa. It’s so interesting to think about now, because in my childhood there was no vision, ever, that apartheid would end. I always use that example to illustrate why you must always believe that the arc of history bends towards justice.

Fair: Amen.

Bank: Right? Because you can be so convinced that it doesn’t.

In my childhood there was no vision, ever, that apartheid would end.

Fast forward: I did this piano “thing” and was very fortunate that I was able to come to the United States, where I went to Juilliard for four years, which was like a kind of cocoon. I learned so much – discipline, focus, the [importance of] achieving a goal – but these were artists making their art, committed to one thing, and the external world was kind of irrelevant. For a time, I was one of them.

But what happened when I needed a job was, for very low pay, I got involved with a group called the Lincoln Center Student Program, which introduced the performing arts to underserved neighborhoods. That was when my eyes were opened. I was maybe 19 years old, from South Africa, thinking I had come to this country where everyone gets a fair shot. What I learned was like a punch in the gut.

Fair: I can only imagine, especially at that time in New York City.

Bank: It really took me on a new journey, one that made sense of why I was born on the tip of Africa, why I witnessed what I witnessed, and what I was supposed to do with my life.

I became obsessed with making change in New York, my new home. I went to the City University of New York Law School, which was starting that year in 1983, and was created to train lawyers focused on doing public interest work. I had remarkable, remarkable professors, like Rhonda Copeland, an amazing constitutional lawyer who argued some of the first cases in the Supreme Court around the right to reproductive health for women. And I really learned so much about my new country.

Fair: Good and bad.

Bank: Exactly.

Which brings me to talk about the early 80’s and the confluence of the emergence of the HIV/AIDS, my struggle to come to terms with my own homosexuality, and witnessing the hate and discrimination that was so prevalent during those years..

I worked for many years at Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC), first running the legal services program and ultimately as the Chief Operating Officer, after volunteering there as a lawyer and finding out how deeply discriminatory the world of HIV/AIDS was; how women in New York, and black women in particular, and gay men of color, were so deeply and disproportionately impacted – and it’s so painful right now because we are in the same place with COVID, witnessing how long it takes for a society to learn.

That had a real impact on me, pushing me to do everything I could to shift policy and the law, but also to realize that the much more interesting, painful, and exciting work is shifting social movements and changing hearts and minds.

Fair: And that’s the work that we’re in right now, in some ways: hearts and minds. For many people, they’re still trying to figure out what’s the benefit of being an equitable grantmaker. So we’re still doing a lot of convincing. We’re helping people reset around right.


Advancing philanthropy con brio*
*in a vigorous or brisk manner – often used as a direction in music.

Fair: Here’s something we like to ask all of our guests: What do you see coming next, not only for your organization but for philanthropy?

Bank: First of all, I think we’ve learned a lot in the past 11 months that we probably should have learned long before. One of those things is that people are more resilient than we imagine them to be, and that our job as philanthropists is, once again, to trust people.

A lot of us shifted immediately: “Let’s do what we should’ve been doing more of before,” which is much more flexible funding. But I think the movement towards general operating support is still too slow. The issue of general operating support and flexible funding is incredibly, incredibly important for success – especially in the field of human rights, or civil rights, or social justice, where the change we are seeking is long-term. This is not going to be a program for one year.

I also think that the field of philanthropy is going through a very important cultural reckoning. We’ve been talking a little bit about that, about what it means for people in fancy offices in New York or San Francisco to devise frameworks and conceptual guides and ideas about what’s best for the people who are most vulnerable, most oppressed, most persecuted, and most poorly resourced. So many have said that already besides me, but I think it’s going to take a lot of us saying it a lot more to break that pattern in philanthropy. I think we need to be better interpreters – more fierce interpreters, maybe – about what works.

A lot of us shifted immediately: ‘Let's do what we should've been doing more of before,’ which is much more flexible funding. But I think the movement towards general operating support is still too slow.

Fair: Absolutely. It’s been interesting to hear some CEOs recognizing that the speed by which we all transitioned, not only to make grants very quickly but also to restructure our way of thinking and doing, our systems and our idea of risk – that our grants managers were a huge asset in that.

And it sounds like that is the way you’re operating every day. It comes back to the trio, to positioning people in a way that they can all elevate and activate each other, without letting power dynamics become a barrier to success.

Bank: One of our grantee partners in India so exemplifies what you’re talking about. HUMSAFAR is an organization whose mission is to stop sexual violence, with a center for girls and women who have been abused. Last March, India went into one of the quickest lockdowns in the world and, as you know, there were hundreds of thousands of migrant workers with no food, no access to anything. So HUMSAFAR looked at all these stranded people and immediately shifted: They were going to distribute emergency food to these vulnerable communities.

As the organization funding HUMSAFAR, we didn’t say to them, “You shouldn’t be giving food to migrant workers.” We said, “This is what’s on your doorstep, this is the life-saving work you need to do;” they shifted, and we were able to support them. What’s most important about this story is how that decision changed hearts and minds: As an organization, they were doing something that wasn’t always so popular in their community, particularly amongst the men. But all of a sudden they were a credible voice in that community: They were feeding these men who, in the past, probably didn’t like so much that they were being held accountable for their sexual violence and behavior.

Through this partnership, where we really listen and allow community leaders to do what it is they need to do, we’re also helping to build a social sector and to change hearts and minds. We have to be vigilant about that partnership, and about undoing our power.

Fair: I think that’s so perfectly said for the aspiration for the sector. Because we know that there’s much work to do in undoing that power, and to trust – just to trust.