Giving Wisely and With Impact

For many Jews, giving is a part of who they are. After all, tzedakah literally means “justice,” even though it’s often translated as charity. It’s a way to create a world where fairness is the rule rather than the exception. Since giving is a central tenet of Judaism, tzedakah is also a way to manifest the values Jews hold most deep.

But it is one matter to give. It is another to give wisely and with measurable impact. Achieving the latter goal is laudable but not easily attainable. To help with that process, Jewish Funders Network and the Jewish Communal Fund published “Your Jewish Philanthropy Roadmap,” a publication to help make Jewish philanthropy more strategic.

This four-part series is adapted from the “Roadmap” and will focus on milestones that funders and donors inevitably encounter on their philanthropic journey. Rather than provide a rote set of answers, the “Roadmap” offers options to address several issues that are the framework of any decision to give.

Part 1: Why we give

The motivations behind philanthropy are many and varied. To complicate matters further, those motivations can change over time and with experience. So, it is vital to articulate those motivations and what drives them in order for any giving program to succeed. Only then can philanthropists properly weigh their priorities.

Here are a few of the more common considerations that often shape the motivations of philanthropists. It is by no means an exclusive list, but many of these components must be addressed for a giving program to have lasting power and impact.

  • Tradition. Philanthropists, including Jews, often base their giving around their religious and spiritual beliefs. This goes beyond donating to a synagogue, but also supporting groups and causes they hear about in a faith-based environment. Jews have a long tradition of helping those in need, in keeping with the importance of tzedakah. Indeed, Jewish values can often influence and inform giving, even when it’s not for specifically Jewish causes.
  • Heritage. The Diaspora has been responsible for moving billions of dollars across the globe from philanthropists who want to help the communities and countries from where their families emerged. This can take the form of successful immigrants who support other immigrants, or backing cultural institutions that preserve their heritage.
  • Family. The values and experiences imprinted by a family legacy often influences giving. At the same time, however, those traditions can be frayed or shattered outright by new generations who have shifting priorities that could splinter or redefine a family’s pattern of giving.
  • Legacy. Legacy philanthropists want to be known for more than their wealth. Perhaps the best example is the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and its $42 billion endowment largely funded by Microsoft riches. Then there is the Giving Pledge, an idea of the Gates’ and Warren Buffett. With the pledge, billionaires agree to give away at least half of their net worth. But even on a smaller scale, legacy often plays a big role for philanthropists who want to make a dramatic grant or donation to demonstrate their commitment to a better world.
  • Experience. What areas of philanthropy to focus on is often tied to personal experience. It could be a serious illness, the formative experience of a college education, or transformational moments in the arts. Giving decisions can also be guided by travel and the experience that emerges from bearing witness to challenging conditions abroad and domestically.

All of these factors are guided by a philanthropist’s values, which so often factor into many giving decisions. This is the case even when motivations may be mutually exclusive or difficult to integrate. Nonetheless, they remain centered around the guidepost of tzedakah. For giving is how Jews can best fulfill that obligation and manifest the values they hold so dear.

Part 2: Determining what you want to achieve and how to make change happen