AJWS Plans Shift in Focus To Advocacy

World Service Plans Fewer Overseas Service Trips

Shifting Focus: The American Jewish World Service, led by Ruth Messinger, believes it can have a more powerful impact by focusing on advocacy and running fewer overseas service trips.
Morgan Soloski/AJWS
Shifting Focus: The American Jewish World Service, led by Ruth Messinger, believes it can have a more powerful impact by focusing on advocacy and running fewer overseas service trips.

By Josh Nathan-Kazis

Published December 14, 2012, issue of December 21, 2012.
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American Jewish World Service, a Jewish social justice group that focuses on the developing world, will cut back on its service-learning programs while bulking up its domestic advocacy efforts, the organization has told the Forward.

The results of a recently concluded strategic planning process, shared for the first time with the Forward, will have the group devoting more resources to changing America’s policy toward the developing world.

The changes come at a moment of strength for the organization, which has grown exponentially over the past decade. The cuts to the organization’s service-learning programs, however, represent a departure from an effort that has defined the organization’s public profile.

SOURCE: FEDERAL TAX FILINGS

“We have to make sure, as we attract additional support, that we’re using the support that we get as strategically as possible,” said Ruth Messinger, AJWS’s president. “When we applied [our] theory of change to our operations, it looked like we needed to make some strategic adjustments.”

AJWS was once a relatively unknown Jewish organization, and now it’s among the largest in the country. In 1998, the year Messinger arrived, the group received $1.9 million in contributions. The group raised $48.7 million in 2011, according to tax filings available on AJWS’s website.

AJWS spends millions a year on grants to grassroots organizations in the developing world and has a modest advocacy arm based in Washington.

The organization has been best known, however, for its service-learning trips. The programs, which run as short as a week and as long as a year, send Jews to do service work in the developing world. Though the programs make up a small minority of the organization’s financial commitment each year, they play a large role in the Jewish community’s conception of the group — due, in part, to the large numbers of alumni that the organization’s service trips have produced.

According to financial documents, the group spent $3 million on service programs in 2011 and just $1.5 million on advocacy. AJWS made $35 million in grants that year.

The new strategic plan, which the group has already begun to implement, will vastly reorder the organization’s operations.

Messinger said the new plan focuses on grant making in the developing world, and on “mobilizing and organizing for United States political change that will help that same [developing] world in which we’re making grants.” To that end, the group is cutting back on its trademark service-learning trips. The new trips will be shorter programs geared toward preparing participants to work in advocacy when they return home.


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