Implementing the Buffett-Gates Initiative in the Jewish Community

Two weeks ago I reported on a philanthropic initiative developed by Warren Buffett and Bill Gates to bring together mega-wealthy people to join them in signing a Giving Pledge that they would set aside a majority of their assets for use in philanthropic ventures. I thought that their idea had relevance for the Jewish community. In response to the posting I received a number of inquiries that endorsed the idea and asked how could such an idea be implemented in Jewish communities.

In response, let me suggest guidelines and steps for developing a philanthropic initiative that would involve the wealthiest people in our Jewish communities around the world. Obviously, these are not written in stone, and they would need to be adapted to the culture of giving in each of the individual communities. The following should be seen as a suggested approach to initiating, developing, and implementing a sustainable group of philanthropists who will be pacesetters in the community. This initiative would be led by a major donor or donors and professional staff who would be involved initially to guide the initiative’s leaders to help them develop strategy.

  1. The first step is for the leaders of the initiative to hold a series of face-to-face conversations with one or two of the most significant donors in the community. Each conversation should have not only a historical and philosophical focus but also a practical one. It is important to elicit these donors’ thoughts and feelings about the present state and future directions of the Jewish community in general, as well as the specific needs of their local community. Begin with committed leaders and contributors who have an ongoing commitment to the community. Yet these conversations are more than “preaching to the converted;” they focus on these special donors in recognition of the critical role they play or can play in the community.
  2. Following these individual conversations with the philanthropists who are initiating this effort it is best to bring a small group of people together – at least three but no more than five or six people. The identified leaders should approach and engage others who are capable of providing large philanthropic sums. It is only through their being approached by their peers that they may respond not only positively but also enthusiastically. At this point, it is best to move toward consensus around the need for there to be a unique group of philanthropic leaders in the community. The focus of discussion should not be on specific initiatives or projects at this early stage, but rather on the donors’ shared commitment to the continuity of the Jewish community and the Jewish people. Some may be more interested in meeting the needs of the local community, and others might be passionate about strengthening the concept of Jewish peoplehood or they may be uniquely devoted to the well-being of the Jewish state of Israel. The most important goal in this step is to achieve a collective buy-in to the concept that there is a broader interest than just responding to an emergency appeal or to the annual community fundraising campaign.
  3. The third step is to identify the individual interests of those committed participants to this process. One possibility is to develop a menu of projects or programs related to a long-range view of the community’s needs or the issues confronting the sustainability of the Jews in the community or in the particular country that the group represents. There is no reason to limit this process to North America: there are people who have financial resources in Jewish communities throughout the world, including Israel. This is a process that can be implemented wherever there is more than one person who has the wealth and commitment to the Jewish people and our communities.
  4. Once a menu of ideas is developed and agreed to by the small group, the members should reach consensus about programs and projects they would fund that reflect both their individual interests and also work for the good of the broader Jewish community. Of course there would need to be some general guidelines guiding these decisions.
  5. The group members may desire informal educational programs to increase their knowledge and understanding of the issues they are interested in pursuing and the creative responses they would like to initiate. If there is a professional staff person assigned to work with this group then he or she could be the resource person responsible for creating the educational program.
  6. As the small group begins to work together it is important to create a name for it that would identify it as having a special status and position in the community. It is less important to publicize the group and more important for the name to be something significant with which donors can identify and that they feel represents their interest in strengthening and sustaining the Jewish community. There will likely be some members who will want to be discrete and not have their philanthropic activities publicized, and this should be respected.
  7. This core group can begin to reach out and discuss this approach with other people in the community and invite them to join this creative effort. The uniqueness of this initiative is that it allows individual donors to support those efforts that reflect their priorities.
  8. As individual members and the group as a whole become more sophisticated about their approaches to specific issues in the community they may request an assessment or evaluation of the effectiveness of their initiatives. The organization in the Jewish community that is facilitating this creative philanthropic approach can guide this evaluation process and steer the group to available resources that could assist in assessing the effectiveness of the philanthropic efforts undertaken by the group.

It is time that Jewish communities started to think about creating local groups that would be willing to experiment with the Buffett-Gates approach. These groups can guide the community in developing both creative and sustainable approaches to ensuring Jewish continuity. In time they will gain momentum and I hope, will gain status that will attract new members – engaging those who are capable not only of contributing to programs and projects on a small scale but are also prepared to foster significant change in the way Jewish communities approach our future.

Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Nonprofit Management and Leadership Program. Stephen was Director of the Israel office of the Council of Jewish Federations (CJF), 1986-94, and Director of the Israel office of UJA Federation of New York, 1994-2008.