Actions to Be Taken:
Insights on Giving Jewish

[This essay is part of a series from leaders in the field of Jewish philanthropy, who will offer reactions and analyses to Jack Wertheimer’s report, Giving Jewish: How Big Funders Have Transformed American Jewish Philanthropy, commissioned and released earlier this year by The AVI CHAI Foundation.]

By Chip Edelsberg

As one of the more than one-hundred individuals with whom Dr. Jack Wertheimer spoke in conducting admirably thorough research for his report Giving Jewish – and as an inveterate student of the literature on American philanthropy – I take keen interest in the study. My colleague Sandy Cardin I believe has accurately commented on it, noting that “much like he did in his 1997 report, Jack has done a terrific job outlining the current trends in big giving, making it a must read for all Jewish professionals… .”

The ten formidable Challenges and Opportunities which Jack presents on pages 45-50 of the study hold greatest promise for action to be taken. In what follows, I offer comment and critique on them, hoping to amplify recommendations embedded in that section.

Encouraging more Jews to give to Jewish institutions, organizations and causes – Jack’s first Challenge and, according to him, the most urgent need – is a long-standing perspective he has championed. Invoking social networks as fertile recruiting ground for engaging more Jews in Jewish philanthropy is a somewhat new and welcomed insight to Jack’s analysis. Surely, fewer Jewish philanthropists giving less to the established Jewish community undermine the community as we know it. But many years ago no less prominent a Jewish leader than Rabbi Yitz Greenberg opined that the Jewish establishment “is being swiftly flattened between the hammer of the open society and the anvil of vacuity.”

Jack himself cites many reasons for Jews drifting away from giving to established Jewish communal organizations, among them a “well-documented shift to unfettered individualism in American society;” “exasperation with the rigidity or cluelessness of Jewish organizations;” and most egregiously, “the patronizing attitudes of organizations toward younger people, especially women.” A view complementary to the challenge Jack identifies is for Jews such as himself adhering to forms of normative Judaism to accept the spectacular array of global Jewish renewal as expressions of meaningful Jewish life authentically relevant to its practitioners. Jewish philanthropy supporting renewal initiatives is considerable, and it is burgeoning.

Exactly what it means in contemporary society to “give Jewishly” has everything to do with one’s assessment of the state of Jewish philanthropy. For some considerable number of generous Jewish philanthropists, for example, giving to ACLU is every bit as Jewish as supporting ADL, donating to the Southern Poverty Law Center as much a genuine expression of one’s Judaism as a gift to AJWS. There is a stubbornly persistent reality which characterizes contemporary Jewish philanthropy, described succinctly by Temple University scholar Dr. Lila Berman as follows: “when the end goal of Jewish philanthropy is simply to build new institutions or to fund innovation, then it does not much matter how the money gets from the giver to the goal. But if Jewish giving itself is a way for Jews to feel invested in a meaningful approach to living and being part of improving the world, then how the money moves matters, arguably more than whether it moves toward sectarian or non-sectarian causes” (Jewish Week, “Following the Money: A Response to the “Giving Jewish” Report”). Of course, a study of Jewish philanthropy documenting, analyzing and interpreting Jewish giving in toto is a different piece of research – one much needed, I would assert.

Jack wonders, as his second most important challenge, “why is improving education for children not a high priority for funders?” (Note: it is certainly that for a small number of Jewish foundations and funders.) Day schools and supplementary schools are deserving targets for more Jewish philanthropy, according to Jack and face challenges that funders could help ameliorate: day school tuition rates are often prohibitively high (in the non-Orthodox world, for certain) and long-term sustainability unattainable; structures for engaging Jewish youth in effective supplementary Jewish education are mostly archaic and fundamentally flawed in their design. I would counter Jack’s concern by observing there are exceptional opportunities in the current state of affairs for risk-tolerant philanthropists to fund exciting Jewish educational innovation.

Enriching and improving Jewish education for Jewish young adults is another vexing challenge, according to Jack. Agreed. But the unstated fact is that for more than a decade, a steadily expanding infusion of philanthropic funding has been directed to organizations doing precisely the kind of work Jack describes. Literally tens of millions of dollars – and generous portions of it subsidizing employment of highly qualified, well-trained, credentialed Jewish educators – has been granted to Birthright, the Hartman Institute, the iCenter, Kevah, a passel of Jewish Outdoor Food, Farming and Environmental organizations, Pardes, Mechon Hadar, Moishe House, Repair the World, the Wexner Field Fellows program, etc. In aggregate, this philanthropy represents a massive capital investment in continuing Jewish education, to the point that this demographic and these programs often are frequently cited as examples when people call for more funding for programs and educators engaging baby boomers or families with young children.

Philanthropy devoted to field building rightfully gets Jack’s attention as a challenge to funders. He identifies three examples of national Jewish field building: the Foundation for Jewish Camp, the Jewish Teen Education and Engagement Funder Collaborative, and Prizmah. Omitted here, I would argue, is reference to the continuing absence of concentrated effort of JFNA, JFN, and a syndicate of major foundations collaborating in sustained field building of Jewish philanthropy. Such an enterprise is long past due, in my judgement.

In this regard, the study would do well to integrate the field building opportunity into its Challenges and Opportunities #8 and #9, which address better collaboration between and among foundations and federations and partnerships across the spectrum of the community in service of a “re-thinking of Jewish communal life,” respectively. Funder collaboration and inter-institutional cooperation executed skillfully are means by which efficiencies and economies of scale are achieved. The overall effect would be to streamline and strengthen the Jewish community, better positioning it to create a dynamic ecosystem of Jewish philanthropy replete with field building mechanisms and money.

Jack laments as a serious challenge the lack of funder and foundation transparency to both grantees and the Jewish community at-large – challenges #6 and #10. “This is something that can be fixed as funders become more self-reflective about their own internal cultures,” he contends. But I do not think a solution is this simple or reflexive. In my experience, funders and foundations fall on a wide spectrum in the degree to which they are introspective about their grantmaking culture – ranging anywhere from “more,” as Jack says, to much less. The means by which to address the challenge is to establish frameworks and standards for philanthropic effectiveness against which foundations would be measured. Presumably, measures of transparency and accountability would be incorporated into these standards. What if, for example, all foundations conducted periodic Grantee Perception Report surveys and posted results on their websites. How could Jewish philanthropy benefit from foundation Board of Director formal self-appraisal of their performance, with the non-proprietary information shared with the public? At the moment, I see no resolve to undertake an inclusive process in which stakeholders in Jewish philanthropy attempt to describe and codify what it means for a foundation to be operationally transparent and accountable. And to my knowledge, nobody in Jewish philanthropy dares to define essential, constitutive components which comprise effective Jewish philanthropy.

One matter that Giving Jewish skirts is the question of an appropriate stature for grantmaking staff, and especially – albeit not exclusively – for those personnel employed in Jewish foundations awarding millions of dollars annually. While I accept the likely charge that it is self-serving of this author to posit, it may well be time to try to establish whether or not Jewish grantmaking staff should be held to standards of a true profession. Consider this postulate: “since grantmaking professionals are typically in the position of recommending funding that utilizes other people’s money, professional influence and prestige are important factors in inspiring trust in their grantmaking and other foundation decisions. The standards of a profession lend the credibility necessary for grantmakers to influence decision-makers and the general public” (“Philanthropy: Evidence in Favor of a Profession,” Heather L. Carpenter, The Foundation Review, Volume 9/Issue 4, p.73). Professionalizing Jewish philanthropy is unquestionably a debatable proposition, ultimately worthy of critical examination only in light of its potential to generate enhanced performance among grantee beneficiaries. Yet for myriad reasons having to do with evolution and rapid growth of Jewish philanthropy; emerging sets of grantmaking competencies identified and widely condoned as critical components of responsible grantmaker conduct; standards for effective philanthropy derived from bodies of funder-grantee work producing independently vetted positive outcomes; etc. – it is time to call the question.

I agree with Sandy Cardin’s assertion that Jack misses the mark by underestimating the potential of impact investing, challenge #7. The promise here is obvious, and might well “ultimately revolutionize philanthropy of all shapes and sizes,” as Cardin predicts. What is most striking to me about this opportunity is that impact investing can create pathways for deeply-rooted expressions of both Jewish values and particularistic principles of Jewish ethics.

Finally, then, Challenge and Opportunity #10, which revolves around a set of assumptions such as “the absence of institutions that offer a credible counterforce to large foundations is a major weakness of contemporary Jewish life,” and “the philanthropic system is stacked against accountability… .” From these (debatable) assumptions come a series of wide-ranging questions, all ultimately answered by Jack referencing “the larger field of American philanthropy … embracing greater transparency” which somehow translates to an enlightened Jewish consciousness about philanthropic “accountability to the wider Jewish community.”

I do not take exception to Jack’s sanguine view of the future of Jewish philanthropy. What I find puzzling is the suggestion of some phenomenon of osmosis occurring, whereby secular philanthropy’s purported “greater transparency’’ is absorbed by Jewish philanthropy, elevating its standards and practice and re-shaping the power dynamic between major Jewish foundations and funders and the Jewish community.

Changing Jewish demographics; questions about the effectiveness of the prevailing communal organizational structure; unfettered individualism exercised at the expense of elusive collective action; fractures in a community riven by gender discrimination; counter-productive partisanship in all forms, most divisively around the issue of how to be genuinely Jewish; accelerating concentration of vast sums of capital in the hands of a very few mega-wealthy – all these knotty problems pose threats to Jewish philanthropy. But ultimately, above all, there is the matter of personal agency and power. American Jewish philanthropy has indeed been transformed by Big Funders in ways Jack Wertheimer thoughtfully describes. The transformation notwithstanding, a single, salient unresolved issue remains: can the Jewish body politic incentivize mega-wealthy Jewish philanthropies to fund consensually determined Jewish communal priorities and to feel morally beholden to high standards of philanthropic generosity and grantmaking effectiveness in service of those democratically established needs.

Chip Edelsberg was Founding Executive Director of the Jim Joseph Foundation. He now is active as a board member, advisor, and consultant to numerous Jewish communal organizations, and serves as a coach for executive leaders.