Engaging Female Donors: Learning from Jewish Women’s Foundations

by Sara Rose Gorfinkel and Emily Muskovitz Sweet

There has been much discussion of late about the Modern Jewish Woman Donor (MJWD), and whether she may be overlooked in today’s Jewish philanthropic circles. In fact, she is active and thriving, not just in Jewish federations, but particularly within Jewish women’s foundations (JWF) across the country.

The MJWD is being hailed as a new paradigm, but she is far from new. Organizations and communities looking to further reach female donors in meaningful ways can learn a lot from our model, which has been effective in engaging women, raising dollars and empowering women as philanthropic leaders in our communities for more than 17 years.

Jewish Women Donors are, in fact, reshaping the face of Jewish philanthropy and have been doing so through the Jewish women’s foundation vehicle since the mid-1990s. Indeed, many of these foundations were created by women who had grown frustrated by the lack of gender-specific funding in our Jewish communities and the lack of opportunities to engage in philanthropic giving in meaningful ways. Through the creation of Jewish women’s foundations, these women donors recognized that when they pooled their philanthropic resources, they could speak with a collective voice and make an even larger and more strategic impact on the issues they sought to address.

Female donors are indeed interested in doing more than writing checks, as reported in the recent Bank of America Merrill Lynch 2011 Study of High Net Worth Women’s Philanthropy. The giving circle model employed by Jewish women’s foundations taps into the very heart of what these modern women donors are seeking – a place to actively participate in focused and directed giving, giving that supports the issues they are passionate about. Through their involvement with JWFs, members are given the opportunity to read grant proposals, discuss pressing issues, and participate in site visits to see for themselves where their money is going and how it will be spent.

Jewish women’s foundations have long known that women give differently, and to great effect. During the past 15 years, the Jewish women’s foundation movement has been steadily growing, engaging thousands of women throughout the country and allocating millions of dollars to programs serving Jewish women and girls in the United States, in Israel and throughout the world. Jewish women’s foundations also have been effective in bringing attention to pressing issues such as domestic violence, sex trafficking, and agunah rights – the plight of “chained” women trapped in marriages where husbands refuse to grant an official bill of divorce in Israel and in the United States.

To be sure, the collective funding and fundraising activities of the JWFs do not enjoy the same brand recognition as the Lion of Judah program, which also highlights the power of women’s giving. But JWFs offer women donors a different kind of opportunity to engage and connect to our Jewish communities. This connection and engagement grows stronger each year.

Just look, for example, at what has been happening over the past several months as the representation and rights of women in Israeli society are garnering unprecedented global attention. Seventeen Jewish women’s funds and foundations from across the United States and in Israel recognized the potential of our collective impact and began working together to make our first collaborative grant. With more than $160,000 now collected, women within these funds are working to identify potential grantees that are affecting change on behalf of women and girls in Israeli society in the arena of “Rights, Inclusion and Representation” for a 2012-2014 grants cycle. This exciting and unprecedented initiative highlights the power of women’s philanthropy and the vehicles of social change harnessed within the Jewish women’s foundation movement.

The unique model the Jewish women’s foundations offer is just what today’s modern Jewish donor is looking for – a very hands-on, collaborative and democratic philanthropic experience, one that provides them with a seat at the table, a place to be heard, to learn, to connect and to effect change.

And this model is working. Over the years we have seen a dramatic increase in giving among those members of JWFs who are actively involved in the grant-making process. These members also are spreading the word to their friends and family members, actively engaging their daughters, sisters, mothers and friends to create a truly multi-generational philanthropic experience.

Perhaps our job now is to make this work more visible, so that our peers in the funding community can learn from our own lion-like strength.

For more information about the Jewish Women’s Foundation in your community or how to start one, please contact the authors at sara@towf.org and EmilySweet@juf.org

Sara Rose Gorfinkel is Executive Director, Tikkun Olam Women’s Foundation of Greater Washington and Emily Muskovitz Sweet is Executive Director, Jewish Women’s Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago.