Making a List, Checking It Twice: Jewish Mega Donors and the Public Relations Challenge

dollar signBy Robert Evans

Jewish professionals and lay leaders bemoan the fact that the wealthiest Jews are supporting worthy non-Jewish causes such as universities, museums, and hospitals. Sound familiar? It should. That is exactly what they were saying back in the 1980s, when I oversaw the annual campaign for a major metropolitan Jewish federation. The story hasn’t changed much since.

The reasons are manifold: Younger generations are less particularistic and less connected to Jewish life than their predecessors. The most prestigious institutions, once all but closed to Jews, now welcome Jewish donors and board members with open arms. Giving to religious institutions, once the leading recipient of American philanthropy, has been sliding for decades. Despite all that has changed in philanthropy – the emergence of the “donor as investor” mindset, the birth of online fundraising – and all the effort that has been expended to change the conversation and inspire the wealthiest donors, the biggest Jewish gifts are more likely to go to an alma mater or a symphony than a synagogue. This is clear from analyzing The Chronicle of Philanthropy’s list of $1 million or higher announced gifts in 2014. I culled through the list and found that, of the 846 gifts listed, 115 were made by 100 Jewish donors. (Admittedly, identifying Jews like this is not a foolproof exercise.)

I am a realist and believe in looking at trends analytically. We in the Jewish community, and in nonprofit fundraising, must often confront hard truths. But sometimes, focusing on the negative just breeds more negativity. If we say enough times that wealthy Jews aren’t supporting Jewish causes, people might just believe it. But, of course, wealthy Jews have always made transformative gifts to Jewish organizations, and continue to do so. And right now, American Jewish wealth is at an all time high. The resources are there, if we can only manage to inspire the gifts. The Chronicle list shows that Jewish organizations – especially those connected to the arts and higher education – certainly received generous mega-gifts in 2014. For example, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum received the largest gift in its history, a $25 million donation from William Levine of Arizona. Of the gifts on the list from Jewish donors, 13 were made to explicitly Jewish or Israel-related charities. Yes, I will not deny that Jewish philanthropy faces a true substantive challenge: How to inspire the wealthiest donors to invest in the Jewish future. But Jewish philanthropy also faces a public relations challenge. Too often, failures are magnified and successes are downplayed. Perception can become reality, if we let it.

Even if Jewish giving is being championed in Jewish forums such as, it is not being highlighted nearly enough in outlets like The Chronicle of Philanthropy. One way to make Jewish giving seem like it matters is to highlight it in places that reflect what is going on in the general culture. The folks at The Chronicle have made clear that the 2014 list is not complete or exhaustive. Ginnie Titterton, senior public relations manager at The Chronicle, wrote in an email that “the information there generally comes from news releases we receive, messages sent to gifts@philanthropy, or through news stories about publicized gifts from reputable sources.”

It appears that The Chronicle is not scouring Jewish media and that our organizations aren’t alerting the publication and other venerable outlets. For example, in December, the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent reported that Bernard “Bud” Newman, president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, and other family members committed $10 million to Federation through life insurance policies. That gift didn’t make The Chronicle list. In my interactions with private clients, I know for a fact that others were omitted as well.

Still, the list is an informative look at how and where wealthy donors are giving. Here is a snapshot.

The three largest gifts made by Jewish donors were:

  • The Diller-von Furstenberg Family Foundation gave $130 million to the Hudson River Park Trust in New York City.
  • The Sidney Kimmel Foundation gave $110 million to Thomas Jefferson University, a medical college and hospital in Philadelphia.
  • Henry R. and Marie-Josee Kravis gave $100 million to Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City.

For comparison’s sake, here are some of the largest gifts from Jewish donors to Jewish institutions:

  • Sheldon and Miriam Adelson gave $25 million to Ariel University in the West Bank. They also made the fourth Jewish largest gift, $16.4 million, to SpaceIl in Israel, an organization devoted to landing the first Israeli spacecraft on the moon.
  • Len Blavatnik, a Ukrainian-born businessman, gave $20 million to Tel Aviv University.
  • The Ben B. and Joyce E. Eisenberg Foundation gave $15 million to the Los Angeles Jewish Home.

Other notable gifts to Jewish organizations included:

  • William and Audrey Farber’s $10 million donation to Temple Israel, a Reform synagogue in West Bloomfield, Michigan, represented the only gift on the list to a synagogue. The funds were given to establish an endowment for the synagogue preschool. (The couple appears to be one of the few major philanthropists to heed Jerry Silverman’s call to make Jewish pre-school education a top funding priority.)
  • Howard and Marcie Zelikow gave $6 million to Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion to rename the School of Jewish Communal Service the Zelikow School of Jewish Nonprofit Management.
  • Amit, which operates a series of schools, youth villages, and family residences in Israel, received a $6 million gift from the Koplow family following the death of board member Ellen Koplow.

One aspect of this list that I found discouraging was that most of the gifts to Jewish organizations came from older donors – and a few were bequests. This is coming at a time when young tech entrepreneurs are playing an outsized role in shaping philanthropic behavior. In The Chronicle’s Philanthropy 50 – a separate list – 12 of the year’s top 50 donors hailed from the tech sector, doubling the representation from the previous year. Most of the techies, like Sergey Brin, are on the younger side. We all know this. And we all know that Jewish organizations must find ways to inspire the Sergey Brins of the world in the same way they inspired mega-funders of Jewish causes such as Dr. Miriam and Sheldon G. Adelson and Lynn Schusterman.

As much as we need to face the challenges in Jewish life today, we must celebrate what is going right. Success, I have found, inspires success. We must celebrate those philanthropists who make major financial commitments to supporting the Jewish future. As I said earlier in the column, I know there were $1 million Jewish gifts announced in 2014 that were left off the annual list. We need to hear about these gifts, to acknowledge them, and to promote them. That may inspire more Jewish donors to give Jewishly. It certainly couldn’t hurt. Please, let me know about any $1 million Jewish gifts that The Chronicle missed last year or that have been announced so far in 2015.

Comment on this article or write to me at There are reasons to be optimistic and to see the Jewish world as one big glass half full. Let’s find a few more.

Robert Evans, President of the Evans Consulting Group in suburban Philadelphia, has more than 35 years of experience advising nonprofits on fundraising campaigns and strategic planning. A member of the Giving USA editorial review board and a board member of the Giving Institute, Mr. Evans is frequently quoted in media outlets such as The New York Times and is a regular contributor to