The Covenant Classroom: Big Change from Small Change

Harlene W. Appelman

Over the last 20 plus years the Covenant Foundation has received thousands of inquiries about funding. When the granting scope is described, most institutions go for the largest amount for the longest period of time. Large and long seem to dominate. However, what we have found is that many organizations do much better with a smaller, short-term grant.


Smaller grants can begin a conversation.

Smaller grants lower the risk and allow dreams to grow.

As one Covenant grantee put it, “The grant provided the incentive/ignition for us to think through the program and become more reflective. It helped us formalize the program and take it to the next level. It was mission-specific programming—a growth experience for our organization.”

This is why in 2007, The Covenant Foundation introduced a new category of smaller-scale grants, Ignition Grants, that provide funding of up to $20,000 for a single year. As the name suggests, these grants are intended to spark innovation and to allow organizations to “explore new, untested ideas or determine how established practices can become even more effective.” Since the stakes are not as high as in the case of larger grants, this allows an organization to test the waters.

Seth Godin, an entrepreneur and blogger who thinks about the marketing of ideas in the digital age, speaks about testing the waters this way:

Perhaps it's better to commit to wading instead.
When you do a small thing, when you finish it, polish it, put it into the world, you've made something. You've committed and you've finished.

And then you can do it again, but louder. And larger.
It's easy to be afraid of taking a plunge, because, after all, plunging is dangerous. And the fear is a safe way to do nothing at all.
Wading, on the other hand, gets under the radar. It gives you a chance to begin.
But large or small, what has The Covenant Foundation learned about day school funding?

  • A program’s success depends, first and foremost, on educators who believe that Jewish education is a positive force in changing times. These people are situated on the cutting edge of Jewish communal life, and are passionate practitioner-activists who do not accept the status quo. Their actions show that they are ready to take risks, to push back boundaries, and boldly seek out and experiment with new possibilities. The most successful projects are conceived by visionaries who translate their dreams to reality, or who have the wisdom to surround themselves with a capable team that can do so. Both parts of the equation, vision and implementation, are necessary.
  • Programs cannot succeed in isolation, but are dependent on networks, collaborations and community support. Basically, people support what they help to create. As a result, gathering a coalition of supporters, who reflect a variety of skills and interests to be part of the process, ensures that there are supporters as the project evolves and makes the task of recruitment far easier.
  • “Today’s world is amoebic, biological, organic. It’s less about the perfect solution than about constant discovery” (Tamara Ingram, group executive vice president at Grey Group). Creating change in an organization or community, while challenging, can be accomplished through a combination of effort, support, and inspiration leading to constant discovery and celebrating it.

When does a gift become a burden?

This is a resounding question in the Covenant Foundation grant selection process.

We have watched in dismay while projects and initiatives about which everyone seemed enthusiastic not only fizzle but cause strife within an institution. Be careful what you wish for: receiving a grant raises the stakes on success because not only are there dollars at risk, but also the currencies of self-esteem and reputation.

The Covenant Foundation assesses not only a project’s merit, viability and durability but also the ability of the environment to support it, and we ask potential grantees to do the same. Is the project mission aligned with its host institution, and does the host institution have enough resources, and the right kind, to support it?

Is there truly a partnership between the idea champion (meshuga la-davar) and the leadership of the institution?

Recipients, many with very limited previous experience with grant projects, not only have to be willing to learn about how to propose doable projects in a clear and concise manner, and how to articulate and craft measurable goals, but also how to administer and implement their projects in the context of ongoing institutional work, in addition to monitoring and documenting their accomplishments.

Can an organization institute a new, exciting program without exhausting the staff or diminishing the works of others? Is it possible to bring a group of the willing along and create a team that can carry on the work beyond the life of the grant, even though an entire staff or teacher body may not be ready or interested in the new work?

Regardless of the scope or breadth of a project, turbulence in the host institution inevitably stresses a project. When there are staff changes and the founding visionaries leave, projects founder; when practical implementers are unavailable, most times very promising ideas cannot get off the ground.

When all is said and done, is the risk of getting a grant worth the time, effort and the possibility of failure? As another grantee put it, “Getting a grant gave me a greater sense of purpose. It helped me understand that I wasn’t acting in a vacuum. That an organization outside of my institution was endorsing my work drove home that I was doing something for the greater good for my world, a greater sense of Tikkun Olam, as opposed to ‘my little olam.’”

Returning to Seth Godin once again:

Dreams fade away because we can’t tolerate the short term pain necessary to get to our long term goal.
Delighting a few with an idea worth spreading is more valuable than ever before.

The tiny cost of failure is dwarfed by the huge cost of not trying.
Harlene W. Appelman is the executive director of the Covenant Foundation (

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HaYidion Money Matters Winter 2014
Money Matters
Winter 2014