Jewish Philanthropy by Example

Last week the president of a large-city Jewish Federation and her husband announced their very generous, multimillion dollar gift to a major university. I was reminded of a similar, multimillion dollar contribution made by a wealthy Jewish family in one of the largest cities on the West Coast to the building of a civic opera house. At the time I called the director of that city’s Jewish Federation and asked if he had known of their intention to provide such a large contribution to that cultural institution. He told me he was not aware that they were making the gift until it was already a fait accompli.

Yes, I do believe that American Jews, as well as Jews in every country, should support the health, education, arts and culture, and social welfare services in their countries. However, it is important for committed and involved Jewish leaders to set an example for philanthropy in the Jewish community. They can do so by directing generous contributions to capital projects or program services in the Jewish community first, and then they can support the needs of the general society.

In terms of setting an example, there was a great difference between the two cases mentioned. In the first one, the couple was committed to the Jewish community and had been very generous in their support of Jewish programs and projects for many years. In the second case, the family was involved and contributed to the local Jewish Federation, but their gifts were never on the same level as their contributions to the culture of the city. Of course it is a donor’s prerogative how to direct their philanthropic funds. However, in the fundraising context, wealthy donors are often asked to set an example for the rest of the community by making a leadership gift. These major gifts are seen as ways to stimulate other people of means to make similar, generous gifts.

Wealthy donors can serve as examples in other ways. For example, at parlor meetings for the community campaign or for individual organizations, such donors are invited not only to contribute money to a particular cause but also to serve as an inspiration to others to join the effort. At “fundraising caucuses,” donors stand up and announce not only their gifts but what inspired them to make that contribution as a way of encouraging others to make similar, generous donations. These gatherings illustrate both the social and inspirational aspects of philanthropy and the significance of setting an example for others in the community.

Setting an example is particularly important at this time when community fundraising is experiencing many difficulties and confronting untold challenges. There is an onslaught of criticism of the traditional Jewish communal structure; young donors are discrediting and in some cases abandoning our traditional institutions. As recent research and experience have shown, people are looking for alternative recipients for their charitable gifts outside the organizations that for decades have served as the stalwart foundation for community services.

What message is delivered when a committed and recognized Jewish leader with a proven record of involvement and financial support of the community gives a major gift to an institution outside the Jewish community? And what message would be communicated to donors and up-and-coming potential donors if the same philanthropist made a similar gift to an institution in the Jewish community simultaneously?

One way to encourage philanthropists to direct their contributions first to the Jewish community is to improve the relationship between the traditional structures and the key supporters and philanthropists in our system. We should develop an approach in which our fundraising professionals and volunteer leaders become advisors or mentors to our influential donors and major contributors. In so doing, they should be able to have frank discussions with the major donors and to explore their philanthropic interests.

We might not know to what extent our conversations would have an impact, but at least in such cases as mentioned earlier, the donors would come to understand the implications of their making a major gift outside the Jewish community without making a similar commitment to Jewish institutions. Perhaps opening the issue might make a difference, and they would be receptive to either making a similar contribution to cultural institutions in the community or to splitting the gift between two organizations, one in the general community and one in the Jewish community.

Certainly I would hope that an officer or member of a Federation board would already have an understanding of the full meaning of philanthropy by example. There might be other potential donors who would be prepared to support Jewish day schools, community centers, and family services to the same level as they support causes in the general society. If they were engaged in a conversation about their philanthropic intentions and plans they might be open to such an approach to achieving their charitable objectives.

Without a doubt this is a sensitive and difficult issue to pursue with our community leaders and philanthropists. However, it is one that needs to be confronted at this time, in light of giving trends in the Jewish community. If we do not engage with those who are the key players in these processes, we will further weaken out community structures.

Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Nonprofit Management and Leadership Program and has a consulting firm focused on strengthening nonprofit organizations and their leadership for tomorrow. Stephen is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy.