Jewish Women in Philanthropy: A Conversation with Susan Stern

by Robert I. Evans & Avrum D. Lapin

Your responsibility is to give back; make the world a better place.” Susan K. Stern

Much of the most recent data tracking various “groups” of donors centers directly on women. In our professional dealings with donors and nonprofits, we know that some women donors might be more likely to fund programs designated specifically for the benefit of women. This pattern is largely a response to practices traced to the years when organizations historically were run entirely by men who were not especially sensitive to female motivations. So women donors today are making a point to speak out more loudly and are making demonstrable impact on decision-making processes . . . both in their individual households regarding charitable priorities and in institutions which are allocating precious resources.

As we look more closely at women as donors, we turned to one of the most well-known Jewish women identified as a prominent role model: Susan Stern, of Scarsdale, New York. Former board chair and campaign chair at UJA Federation of New York, chair of United Jewish Communities National Women’s Philanthropy, Chair of Government Affairs for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and Chair of the New York State Commission on National Community Service, serving as a member of Governor Patterson’s Cabinet and an influential member of a myriad of transformational and well-known Jewish (and other) nonprofits, Susie, as she is known to her friends, has had her pulse firmly on Jewish philanthropy and the impact women can and do play in the nonprofit world.

We have all witnessed a steady increase of women taking on leadership roles in nonprofits of all sizes. Susan commented on this trend and how she feels women are uniquely suited to handle the challenges and stresses of the leadership roles they assume.

Susan: “Women are uniquely suited to handle the challenges and stresses of the leadership roles they assume. Many years ago I learned from Shoshanna Cardin about how suited we are as leaders because of our parenting roles. She spoke of how she had raised 5 children and had spent every night around a dinner table in the role of negotiator, peace maker, and consensus builder. These are the very skills we use every day in our role as leaders.

In addition to these skills, you need to find and act on your passion. In my case, it happened when I started my involvement with UJA Federation of New York. I visited the Brighton Beach Y. The center was running a program teaching English as a second language to women who UJA Federation had helped bring here from Russia. As I stood there, being introduced as one of ‘the women from UJA,’ a woman from Riga, Latvia, gently took my hand and thanked me for bringing her to the United States, for the English classes and a chance at a better life. I thought, ‘there but for the grace of God go I.’ My grandparents, too, had escaped Latvia, and when that woman touched my hand I saw my grandparents’ experiences in her eyes. I knew right there that philanthropic work can really make a difference and I threw myself into it.”

In the context of today’s challenging economic time, Susan provided some personal insights into some positive trends she has seen in the philanthropic community over the last year.

Susan: “Nonprofits should focus on their core business. What do they do better than anybody else? If they focus on what they were created to do and think strategically, they can weather this bad time in the economy.”

Her advice for the next generation of Jewish women as they go forward in their philanthropic work holds:

Susan: “I think it is really important that part of what each of us does philanthropically should be for the Jewish community. It makes a powerful statement to our children about our values and priorities. Having said that, everyone should identify those things that really matter to them and determine how they can make an impact with their philanthropy, with their leadership or with their voice. I passionately believe we have a responsibility to continue the long and successful tradition of helping our own.

You never know when you will experience a life changing event. For me, I was involved in the Ethiopian rescue mission Operation Solomon and was on the ground when 14,000 Ethiopians landed in Israel. Everyone from top generals to the cameramen was in tears as we all came together as Jews. The attitude of the people I saw that day showed me that regardless of the economy or timing if you want to achieve it, you can.”

Is she “militant” about women giving to women’s causes?

Susan: “Women’s issues usually don’t come to the table unless women bring them forward so here, too, we have a special responsibility to support these issues. While we cannot be everywhere, we need to determine what we are passionate about, do our research and determine how we can make a difference. Many women’s foundations have been created to focus on issues of women and girls and they have funded areas long neglected by the mainstream community. So however you get involved, the important thing is to try.”

Are others taking her lead? The statistics would contend that they are! In a forthcoming follow-up to this interview, watch for details about how other women philanthropists are addressing this in their charitable giving.

Robert I. Evans, Managing Director, and Avrum D. Lapin, Director, are principals of The EHL Consulting Group, of suburban Philadelphia, and are frequent contributors to EHL Consulting works with dozens of non-profits on fundraising, strategic planning, and non-profit business practices. Become a fan of The EHL Consulting Group on Facebook.