How to Succeed in the Business of Philanthropy (While Really Trying)

by Jason F. Israel

Engaging Jewish donors is a challenging endeavor, especially when you’re young. Being committed to helping my fellow lanzmen is rewarding, yet daunting. As a “young” lay leader, it seems that once you’re involved with a community group, every organization wants your time, money and help. Honestly, it’s very easy to get burned out and just say, “Enough with this!” There are moments when I just want to spend time with my family and engage in organizations by giving a check. But, having volunteered on boards of many Jewish philanthropic organizations, I discovered that helping the community really comes down to one’s personal passion, perseverance, and fortitude.

Four years ago, I had the great honor of meeting Harold Grinspoon during a Wexner Foundation retreat. He told me about his incredible program, PJ Library, which gifts beautiful Jewish-themed children’s books to 100,000 children worldwide each month. Along with my dear friend and Wexner Fellow Alison Betts, we learned that attempts to start the program in Phoenix had been unsuccessful for a number of years – but that there was eagerness from the Grinspoon Foundation to bring the program to our Phoenix community. We felt this program was invaluable to our Jewish community. We had to have it.

This is where fortitude and passion came into play. We had never initiated a program in the Jewish community, nor had we raised money on this level. Alison was newly married at the time; I had only been engaged for a few months. Neither of us had children, but we knew the true value of a Jewish education. We both came from secular, non-Jewish day school backgrounds and knew that Jewish education must begin at home from a very early age. We thought PJ Library could help our Federation and Bureau of Jewish Education in attracting new families in the Phoenix area. Not only would it benefit the agencies involved, it would strengthen our community as a whole. Phoenix faced a 75 percent rate of disengagement from Jewish families in our community, and there was limited programming to reach out to them. PJ Library, a Jewish education program, would help build Klal Yisroel. Who wouldn’t want it?

At that time, Phoenix was going through the worst recession in its history. Many Jewish donors were embroiled in unfortunate financial schemes that destroyed much of our local Jewish wealth. People’s homes were being foreclosed on, our Federation’s annual campaign was cut in half and many were losing confidence in our Jewish community. Despite doubts, we realized that if there was to be a Jewish community in the future, we needed to invest in PJ Library now. Failure was not an option.

We faced a variety of challenges in collaborating with the Jewish establishments who all had their own goals and objectives, but were determined to identify commonalities across organizations in order to bring the PJ Library to Phoenix, so everyone could benefit. We wrote a business plan and compiled the most comprehensive list of Jewish families our community had seen in 20 years. We identified donors for whom PJ Library would resonate. We hired a program administrator to run the day-to-day operations. We engaged with 20+ community partners to help implement and market the program.

It took hard work, perseverance, and dedication. As a result, we raised $300,000, to get PJ Library up and running in our community. In keeping with Harold Grinspoon’ s vision, the PJ Library investment is paying off as more families join synagogues, federations, community centers, and activities that center around Jewish life.

I’m proud to say that in just two years, the PJ Library has become the largest Jewish educational program in the State of Arizona with more than 1,200 participating families annually. Next, we plan to be part of the Harold Grinspoon Foundation endowment campaign, “PJ Promise,” to ensure that the program will continue for generations to come.

Invigorated by the success of PJ Library – which mailed its 3 millionth book this year – and the amazing impact here in Phoenix, Alison and I are motivated as young philanthropists to see where the powerful combination of conviction and community leads. We welcome all committed young philanthropists to join us on this important journey for a bright Jewish future.

Jason F. Israel is owner of Creative Healthcare Concepts, LLC. He is a Wexner Heritage Fellow alumnus who is active in Jewish life around Phoenix where he lives with his wife, Arlene, and their son, Russell.