Can There Be Symbiosis Between the Federations and Mega-Donors?

By Will Schneider

I work for one of the most active philanthropists in Jewish life today, and part of my job is to oversee PJ Library’s relationship with more than 135 Jewish Federations in the United States and Canada. So the recent discussions on eJP about the demise of the Federation system and rise of the mega-donor obviously caught my attention. These articles and their comments reach consensus in three different areas: 1) the value of working with the majority of the Jewish community, 2) the decreasing interest from that community, and 3) the outsized power of mega-donors to drive local strategy, regardless of the wishes of the community. So given those conclusions, does private philanthropy have a responsibility to sustain local structures?

My two most recent employers are philanthropists who use their wealth to help bring about positive change in the Jewish community. For Charles Bronfman, I worked on the outskirts of the mainstream to engage “next gen” funders and entice unlikely philanthropists to explore Jewish life via Slingshot. I left Slingshot three years ago to join Harold Grinspoon and the PJ Library juggernaut. Our monthly books-to-homes program for young families is fast becoming as normative an experience for Jewish families as Hebrew School and the Birthright trip. From my perspective, it would not be possible to work on a national scale without local communal infrastructure. It isn’t a moral imperative, but rather a structural reality that national funders need local partners, and communal organizations need to make sure they have a strong relationship with their local Jewish community.

One of my colleagues recently showed me a passage she was studying from the Talmud about a widespread failure in the education system of first century Babylonia. At the time, many parents were not capable of teaching their children in their own homes, and children did not travel to study at schools until they were in their late teens.

PJ Library faced a similar dilemma at the time of its founding: Parents didn’t always have the resources to offer Jewish learning to children by themselves, and a central system can only go so far.

In Babylonia, Yeoshua ben Gamla seized the opportunity to mandate that every town in every province must have a local education system, so children could begin their education at a much younger age.

PJ Library founder Harold Grinspoon came to a similar conclusion as Yeoshua ben Gamla, and modeled PJ Library a bit like a franchise. The national office works with one agency in nearly every community, and these agencies oversee PJ Library at the local level. The national office chooses, buys, stores, and mails 170,000-plus books each month in the U.S. and Canada. The books drive change in the home. In a recent survey of 25,000 families, 94% said PJ Library influenced their family to add or build on a Jewish tradition at home.

The program is designed so that a family’s relationship is with one of our 200 local partners, 135 of which are Jewish Federations. The partners share the costs of providing free books to families and are in charge of local programs: story times in Seattle, sukkot meals in Columbus, concerts in Central Park. PJ Library has an audience – it is estimated that the program is reaching more than 50% of the Jewish community in cities like Chicago, Montreal, New Orleans, and even Athens, Georgia. In those communities and hundreds of others, PJ Library is many people’s first-ever contact with the Federation system. Our partners can then take it further, connecting families to each other and to local community organizations. This system works. Sixty-nine percent of the 25,000 parents who responded to the aforementioned survey reported that PJ Library has helped their family feel more connected to a local Jewish community, and nearly half have attended an event for young families.

PJ Library is an excellent identifier of future customers for a wide range of Jewish organizations. For example, 28% of families say PJ Library influenced them to enroll their child in a Jewish day or overnight camp, and 17% of families say PJ Library influenced them to enroll their child in a Jewish day school.

In the Talmudic story about Yeoshua ben Gamla, noncompliant towns were pariahs. We can identify communities with thriving PJ Library programs by breaking down survey data locally, and sharing best practices with community partners across the system. Of course we can’t – and don’t want to – abandon any town like Yeoshua ben Gamla might have. Instead we use best practices, identify local leaders, create growth strategies, and address program gaps.

We know that PJ Library cannot be run as a monolithic national organization and have the effect we are now tracking. Just like first-century Babylonia, PJ Library needs a local presence to have that impact. Does private philanthropy have a need to sustain those local structures? I say yes. The Jewish community needs strong local institutions if any projects are expected to scale, and philanthropists should be investing to strengthen those hubs.

As Leslie Dannin Rosenthal said in her piece, “The Federation world we once had is gone.” Many Jewish Federations are no longer in direct dialogue with the majority of Jewish families in their community, and many are only funding the essentials as defined by a shrinking portion of the Jewish community. However, many Federation leaders are working to re-establish their relationships with the majority of the Jewish community, which is a critical piece of the puzzle. As I see it, philanthropists should continue to be aware of the systems that exist now and historically, and work to strengthen that ecosystem to amplify their own giving.

Will Schneider is Director of Advancement at PJ Library.