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.

“AJWS will run a smaller number of service and learning trips to countries in the developing world, and those trips will focus on educating key opinion leaders of all ages,” the organization wrote in a summary of the strategic plan, which it shared with the Forward. “These trips will ensure that participants connect their international travel experience to AJWS’s advocacy campaigns in the United States.” The new trips are based on short service trips the group has previously run for rabbis.

AJWS will select student leaders and other participants for a role in these trips with an eye toward the advocacy work they will do when they return.

Seven staff members currently working on volunteer programs will be cut, and the budget dedicated to service-learning will decrease, as well. The organization says that the group’s overall staffing level will actually rise in 2013, to 156 employees from 147 employees in 2011.

In the meantime, the group will be increasing its spending on stateside advocacy. The organization will open new local offices in five cities in the United States to supplement its current locations in New York and Washington, and has hired a former J Street government affairs deputy director to run its advocacy programs and campaigns. Two of those new offices will be located in San Francisco and Los Angeles, respectively. The group has already begun hiring local staff in some cities.

Overseas, AJWS will dedicate the same amount of money to grant making, but will narrow the number of countries in which it operates, 32, to 19. The group said it would no longer be operating in Afghanistan because of security challenges. Work in Ghana, South Africa, Bolivia, Colombia and other nations will also be cut.

The organization said that grantees in countries where it will no longer make grants have been given years’ worth of advance warning, and that the withdrawals will come at the end of funding cycles.

The plan also defines three specific areas where it will focus its work in the developing world: the rights of so-called sexual minorities; situations in post-conflict societies, and food, land and water access for indigenous peoples.

AJWS plans to use its increased advocacy resources to pressure the American government on these and related issues.

“The notion of working on two tracks says that there are ways we can influence U.S. policy — which needs a lot of influencing in terms of its global work — that will have huge implications for the partners we have in the developing world,” Messinger said.

As the group realigns, it could meet resistance from alumni and from supporters of the longer-term service programs. Anna Levy, who went on a seven-week AJWS program in 2004 and led shorter programs in 2011 and 2012, said that she sees value in the longer programs, which give young people time to “stew in their own discomfort for more than a week before spearheading or taking full agency in terms of change initiatives.”

Contact Josh Nathan-Kazis at nathankazis@forward.com or follow him on Twitter @joshnathankazis


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