Jewish Women’s Philanthropy: The Big Picture

Many women love having the money to make change – and are busy figuring out how to give the most bang for their buck.

by Joan Kaye

Today’s Jewish women philanthropists can almost all be characterized as venture philanthropists, a term coined in 1984 to describe people who address social issues by funding projects or organizations using some of the practices initially used by venture capitalists when funding new businesses. Venture philanthropists share the following characteristics: the need to make a difference, a commitment to sustainable funding, leveraging funds, strengthening institutions, and reciprocity or partnership with recipients.

First and foremost, Jewish women philanthropists feel the need to make a difference in the world; they are passionate about using their wealth to create significant change. Often, a negative experience provides the imperative that drives the change engine. It could be prejudice experienced as a woman or as a lesbian; it might be failure to find life-saving resources; it might be an unhappy experience with Judaism or Jewish education. Whatever the cause, the result is often a fervent desire to make a difference for themselves, their children, their society. They are idealistic, yet practical. One woman, who gives away $500,000 per year, states: “You’re not going to change the world with the level of giving that we’re capable of. I’ve given to things I think will make a difference in the world, that will help people have better lives in some small way. Human being by human being, you can do some good to some human beings.”

There are different ways to organize

Leveraging, in the form of fundraising, is another essential part of the practice of venture philanthropy. One woman founded an institute to help women business owners by convening 13 of her friends and asking them to contribute. Another finds it most effective to agree not only to fund a specific part of a project, but also to be part of the fundraising effort for the remainder. And a third makes it clear that collaborative fundraising is not only more effective, but better for the long-range health of an organization. This is just one type of collaboration that exists within the practice of venture philanthropy. Another has the funder bringing together multiple organizations to accomplish a task. As one young philanthropist says:

“We also put our organizations together when we can. If two organizations that we’re working with seem to be serving either a similar purpose, or complimentary purposes, I might say, “Have you talked to them? If you’re going to be on the same Indian reservation, they’re doing literacy stuff and you’re doing medical; why don’t you let the same people who are coming in for tutoring get their health screenings while they’re there?”

And, finally, there is the kind of collaboration traditionally attributed to women: here, a kind of reciprocity between grantee and grantor. Unlike more traditional philanthropy, which begins and ends with writing a check (with maybe a pro forma written evaluation along the way), these philanthropists insist on being involved in what they fund. They want to create projects and then be a part of them; they want to be partners when funding others’ projects. And they are incredibly sensitive to maintaining reciprocity and not abusing their power. One funder, talking about pulling back from participating in an organization she started, states: “I worked there every day for the first seven years. And I tried so hard not to be the ‘funder.’ But they couldn’t get used to the fact that I meant it when I said, ‘It’s a vote, however it goes it goes.'”

Reveling in the power to make change

It is not that these women are afraid of money and the power it brings; on the contrary, it is that they choose when and how to use their money to create change in the world. While much of the current research talks of women’s difficulty in accepting the power and responsibility associated with money, Jewish women philanthropists revel in the power for creating change that their money brings them. One woman sees her ability to give away millions of dollars as, “an incredible opportunity, a very rare and glorious position to be in.” Another clearly understands and uses the power her money brings:

“As long as you’re using money in a good way, and the power in a good way … of course, it’s my own rationalization, and I understand that, but … now I get to go into the athletic director’s office because I’m a big donor, and have a conversation with him. And there aren’t many women who do. I think I’m the largest female donor to athletics at my alma mater, and maybe the largest donor to women’s athletics. And it gets me an audience that I couldn’t otherwise have. So being able to get those sorts of audiences and then get people to think differently, and then to watch something different happen as a result of it, that’s good.”

With some clear exceptions, Jewish women philanthropists have not yet chosen to apply that power specifically to women’s issues; nor have they created the kind of mega-partnerships (such as Birthright trips to Israel) that men have. Will this change as women come to control significantly more funds, either on their own or in equal partnership with their husbands? Will our top women philanthropists start to receive the kind of respect and recognition that historically has been given to the major male philanthropists? These are just a few of the questions to be answered as we enter the next decades of significant giving by Jewish women.

Joan S. Kaye Ed D, completed her doctorate in organizational leadership at Pepperdine University. Her dissertation, “Portraits of Jewish Women Philanthropists,” was one of the first academic treatments of the subject. Since retiring after 18 years as CEO of the Orange County, CA, Bureau of Jewish Education in 2007, Dr. Kaye has continued to pursue her first love, teaching. As an adjunct faculty member, she teaches “Ethics and Social Justice” at Pepperdine University.

This article originally appeared in 614: HBI eZine – an online magazine published by the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute to spark conversation among young Jewish women about hot topics relevant to their lives. Reprinted with permission.