The aspen tree, from which that beautiful Colorado town takes its name, is a remarkable plant. An aspen forest is, in fact, one single organism. All nearby trees are linked by their roots, making them, de facto, a single plant. It’s said that an aspen forest in Utah is the world’s biggest living organism. The interconnected nature of the aspen trees makes them incredibly resilient. Nutrients and water circulate freely among the trees, and the stronger help the weaker to the entire forest’s benefit.
The aspen is on my mind because I recently returned from a retreat in Aspen, organized by the Harold Grisnpoon Foundation. The gathering mixed immersion in nature, networking, and deep conversations about philanthropy, the Jewish world, and the Foundation’s programs. Gracefully conducted by Winnie Sandler Grinspoon, under the inspiration of Harold himself — who turned 87 during the retreat and puts some of us to shame with his biking abilities — and animated by other stars of the Grinspoon constellation (like Tamar Remz, Lou Cove, and Will Schneider), the meeting made me think a lot about the interconnected nature of our philanthropic work.
As Jews we are, in a way, like the aspen tree. Separate offshoots of a single organism, we remain linked in an inescapable network of mutuality. In the Jewish people, and in any network, each tree keeps its individuality but their connectivity gives them enormous strength.
It is fitting that HGF hosts its retreat in Aspen; they have pioneered philanthropic partnership, and, through it, they have created one of the few Jewish programs to grow rapidly to national and international scale. Today, about half a million families worldwide are part of the PJ Library network. The PJ Library model is like the aspen forest: each program is linked through the roots — they all share content, books, and the logistics chain — but the deployment of programs is independent, allowing each community to customize it to their specific needs. Like the aspen, local programs share DNA, but the phenotype of each one is different.
The aspen tree feeds in two ways: through shared roots and through photosynthesis that takes places in every individual tree. Likewise PJ Library feeds in two ways, with a model of shared funding that includes grants from HGF (the shared root system) —and donors that fund various programs and communities (photosynthesis).
The aspen has also performed a great feat of adaptation that allows it to thrive during the harsh winters of the Rockies. While most trees rely only on their leaves for photosynthesis, the aspen uses its bark. No leaves in winter? No problem; the aspen’s photosensitive bark captures the pale winter sun and converts it into calories. In the same way, HGF has adapted PJ Library’s strategy, activities, and support base to better benefit from changing circumstances. The PJ Alliance, for example, which is a collaborative effort of major funders around PJ, uses PJ as a platform upon which to create a system of programs and interventions that deepen subscriber engagement and create community connections.
The book distributions are still important for HGF, but they are now the linchpin of a larger system of programs that strengthens Jewish families and communities. Each program finds “adjacent possibilities” that help them expand the depth (more content for the same target audience) or the breadth (reaching new target audiences, like parents or older kids). The new programs are an adaptation, but the partnership model of the alliance is also an important evolution in the PJ model, bringing disparate minds and resources to a joint table to identify and seize new opportunities that PJ’s initial work opened.
Not all is rosy for the aspen tree; sometimes interconnectedness can be a problem. Due to climate change, a blight that used to come only occasionally to the Rockies now appears twice a year. That insidious microorganism hijacks the trees’ DNA. Since they all share the same genetic code, when a single tree gets infected, the whole forest is at risk.
This also should make us think. As Jews we live in a permanent paradox of strength and vulnerability. We “punch above our weight” and our connectedness gives us power to do great things. However, we can’t regard a threat to another Jew as something that won’t affect us, because we are all part of the same organism. (We may not love all our limbs, but what can we do? They’re all part of us.) The aspen forest can’t allow weak trees, because that’s where the blight will enter the system. The same is true for us: every piece of the community network needs to be strengthened, and we need to look at the health of the system as a whole. If we ignore what happens to other trees, we may be next.
The HGF understands that Jewish life is a journey, and to be successful we need to strengthen all links in the chain. With that in mind, it’s easy to understand the expansion of the PJ system to new markets and locations. What’s the point of serving the children but ignoring the parents? What’s the point of serving the family but ignoring the community?
For somebody like me, who spends his days spreading the “gospel” of collaborative, impactful philanthropy, these are powerful case studies and great examples to follow. When we embrace our connectedness, like HGF does, we can achieve amazing things. When we see the entire forest, instead of just our own tree, we can have enormous impact. There are many ways to collaborate (see JFN’s Handbook for Funder Collaboration) and each funder needs to find the one that best fits her strategy. Indeed, the HGF model may not be adequate for everybody, but it can certainly serve as an inspiration, as a ”proof of concept”, that collaboration is the best way to realize one’s philanthropic visions.
Thank you, the Harold and the HGF team, for seeing both the trees and the forest!