by David Russell
Young British Jews are giving less to Jewish causes and to all charitable causes, and feel no responsibility to give more, reported the first, and thus far only, systematic study “Patterns of charitable giving among British Jews” (Institute of Jewish Policy Research, 1998).
The Happy Givers, a program launched in London on September 23, 2009, will introduce what some feel is a missing factor amongst young Jews balancing whether and how to give philanthropically: peer pressure. The Happy Givers will introduce public competition into the giving process through quarterly events. For each, four projects will be selected based on innovation, need, and interest. Any charity with a Jewish connection – supporting Jews in need or Jews helping others in need – may apply, with smaller projects prioritized. At the event, the presenters have six minutes to make the case for deserving funding using any means: film, comedy, even in-person appearances from beneficiaries. The audience has a six-minute window to fire off questions. Then, the audience votes. Attendees are given back £10 of their £20 entrance fee to add to their personal funds to publicly pledge to the project of their choice. The £10 balance covers the cost of organizing the event and grant administration.
The competition between the charities is designed to appeal to our generation, brought up on the likes of X Factor and Big Brother.
“When the idea of such competitive and public giving was suggested, I must admit I was not immediately convinced,” says Teddy Leifer, 26, a founding member of The Happy Givers and creator of the RISE Foundation, which funds education programs for underprivileged children. “From personal experience, I know how hard it is pitching to prospective donors.” “But the more we considered the possibility,” Leifer adds, “the more sense it made, knowing how easy it is to give little or nothing at all at synagogue or charity dinner appeals with pledge cards. There is no fun in that either. But whether this model of giving is ultimately successful will be proven by the funds raised.”
That is where the master of ceremonies will be critical. A U.K. Jewish television celebrity will cajole and encourage the audience to secure ever-greater sums, which the group hopes will be matched by an established philanthropist. The aim is to raise at least £1,000 per project at the first event, which over 100 young Jews will attend, before it is matched.
The Happy Givers idea was developed by Dame Hilary Blume, director of the Charities Advisory Trust and leading social entrepreneur. Previous projects include restoring an Indian palace in Mysore as a community-run “green hotel,” pioneering ethical present-buying catalogues, and Peace Oil, a joint venture between Israeli and Palestinian olive farmers. “I always look for easier, fairer ways to do things,” she says. “Instead of seeing a huge problem… I’ve always believed that if everybody could help just three other people, we’d have a great world.”
The Happy Givers takes its name from the sign above Mother Teresa’s orphanage, “God loves a happy giver” – a sentiment with which Maimonides concurred. Whether young British Jews will ever ascend to more noble (anonymous) giving, as Maimonides details in his eight levels of tzedakah, remains to be seen. First, more people must be urged onto the first rung of the giving ladder. Dame Hilary says, “Giving is an act of happiness, not hardship. It should be enjoyable, and sociable.” The Happy Givers aims to do just that in order to foster a new generation of British Jewish philanthropists. To learn more about The Happy Givers, visit www.charitiesadvisorytrust.org.uk.
David Russell is the Director of the Rwandan Survivors Fund and an NYU Reynolds Fellow in Social Entrepreneurship. He continues to work on being a happy giver.
Illustration by Shaina Hirsch