Jewish Philanthropy in 2011: Some Thoughts

by Felicia Herman

Jewish tradition warns us to stay away from prophesiers (Lev. 19:26; Dt. 18:10 and 18:14), which drove much of the collective Jewish skillset away from augury and into strategy. In that spirit, I offer not a list of predictions about what will happen in Jewish philanthropy in 2011, but rather some reflections on what I think needs to happen if the Jewish philanthropic world is going to expand and grow stronger in the coming years.

Where you stand, of course, depends on where you sit. These reflections are the product of my having had the privilege to be involved with The Natan Fund for the past seven years, working together with the exceptional young philanthropists who make up Natan’s membership, with the groundbreaking emerging organizations around the Jewish world that Natan is honored to support with our grants, and with our many dedicated partners and colleagues throughout the Jewish philanthropic and nonprofit sectors.

1. We must find new sources of philanthropic capital.
The Jewish world is in desperate need of new givers – of all ages, income levels, and philanthropic inclinations. The numbers of people giving to Jewish causes has been in decline for some time for a variety of reasons, and the “usual suspects” – the generous institutions and individuals who do so much good in the Jewish world and beyond – need partners and successors. In 2011, everyone who wants Jewish philanthropy to have a vibrant, expanding future needs to experiment with and support creative models for engaging new philanthropists who are eager to support Jewish and Israeli nonprofit organizations.

1a. This needs to happen within Federations…
Existing Jewish philanthropic institutions, especially the Federations, are still the biggest game in most towns, with unparalleled resources and infrastructure.

Federations must retool in order to meet the expectations of 21st century givers, who are conditioned by technological advances to have almost unlimited transparency, control, and access to information in their giving. One way to do this is to replicate the model of venture funds housed within Federations, such as Solelim, Bonim Atid, and Neshamot at UJA-Federation of New York, and the LA Federation’s Jewish Venture Philanthropy Fund.

But Federations must also create more comprehensive mechanisms to enable donors to understand – and even to direct – where their money goes within the system. Proactively, they must expand the opportunities for people to become involved in the intellectually, socially, and even spiritually meaningful process of allocating communal funds. And more Federations need to be driven by big-picture thinking and not limited by their particular organizational boundaries. If more Federations (and community foundations and donor-advised funds) were in the proactive donor matchmaking business – helping donors to find organizations that are the most meaningful to them, whether they are Federation agencies or not – donors would be happier and more generous, more organizations would find support, and the rising philanthropic tide would lift the collective Jewish boat. (Oops – that was a prediction.)

1b. …and it must happen independently.
At the same time, entrepreneurial philanthropists at all levels of giving and from all walks of Jewish life need to create new, parallel philanthropic vehicles that meet the needs and expectations of themselves and their peers. We need to strengthen, expand, and replicate hands-on giving collaboratives like Natan and the Slingshot Fund. And more nonprofit organizations should be experimenting with creating their own hands-on philanthropic vehicles, like PresenTense’s PT Investments.

Giving collaboratives like these are infinitely customizable according to members’ needs and desires, and they build on members’ varied personal and professional networks. They offer a transparent, direct, and inspiring opportunity to engage with philanthropic peers, in a powerful network and meaning-filled community. I believe that they hold tremendous potential for bringing new people to Jewish giving.

2. Funders of all stripes must invest deeply, seriously, and patiently in innovation.
Emerging nonprofit organizations are transforming the Jewish world, creating new access points to Jewish life for countless people worldwide. Yet they remain ridiculously starved for resources. To inspire new and current Jewish philanthropists, to reinvigorate the Jewish communal system and infrastructure, and to meet the demand for the program and services that new organizations provide, Jewish philanthropists and philanthropic institutions must begin to make serious, “mezzanine-level” investments in expanding the capacity of successful emerging organizations. In 2011, both Bikkurim and the Lippman-Kanfer Family Foundation will be releasing studies that will offer critical insights into the needs of organizations that have passed the startup stage. Such insights will offer a roadmap for stakeholders into how to enable successful organizations to reach their full potential.

Individual funders and foundations cannot do this alone. Federations need to begin to play a role comparable to that which governments play in innovation ecosystems outside of the Jewish world: providing the significant, long-term investments that emerging organizations need to go to scale, and “nurtur[ing] settings where brilliance can happen.” In 2011, we need to seriously discuss mechanisms for more closely linking the Federation world with the “innovation” world, such as Jeffrey Solomon’s call for a kind of Jewish Social Innovation Fund, where each Federation would set aside 10% of its annual allocations for innovation – spread evenly between local, national, and international initiatives.

3. Funders need more analysis and more data to guide their decision-making.
The Jewish philanthropic and nonprofit sectors must improve the quality and quantity of their data-gathering about both Jewish philanthropy and Jewish organizations. Aside from organization-specific data, we also need recurring sector- and field-wide studies, similar to the Giving USA Foundation’s reports on American philanthropic behavior and Blackbaud’s annual study of the nonprofit industry. While Natan, Jumpstart and The Samuel Bronfman Foundation have begun to examine new Jewish organizations such sector- or field-wide studies of organizations are inexcusably rare if we are truly striving for excellence and if we expect to inspire new funders to be inspired to join us.

Most broadly of all, the contemporary Jewish world also needs more scholars and researchers from a variety of disciplines to help us to understand the changes the community is going through within (at least) two contexts: the ongoing evolution of the Jewish people and broader trends in the contemporary societies in which Jews live. In 2011 and beyond, we need more scholars from fields like history, anthropology, religious studies, Jewish studies, cultural studies, economics, business, political science, technology and new media studies, and so on – to reflect upon the incredibly dynamic, event frenetic historical moment in which we are blessed to live and work.

4. And yet – we also need more risk-taking and giving from the heart.
Let’s not become victims of our own professionalization, data-gathering, and strategic thinking, however. There must always be room in the philanthropic portfolio for untested and/or beloved ideas. Not everything can – or should – be measured. Some ideas are too new; some are too ground-breaking; and some just speak to our hearts. The word philanthropy, of course, derives from the Greek word for love. In 2011 and always, funders of all stripes need to continue to support the things they love: missions that touch them, ideas that uplift and inspire them, and entrepreneurs with irresistible enthusiasm and passion.

Felicia Herman is Executive Director of The Natan Fund.