Modern Jewish Women Donors: A New Paradigm

by Robert I. Evans and Avrum D. Lapin

The Modern Jewish Woman Donor (MJWD) appears to be reshaping the face of Jewish philanthropy, especially as we found in recent conversations with several prominent Jewish women philanthropic leaders. Interviews, together with tangible results, support findings from various studies showing that women approach giving and nonprofit priorities in more focused and strategic ways than men, they often become very involved with the organizations they support, and increasingly they expect to partner with their funding recipients.

While talking with four women does not suggest major decision-making differences are afoot, we do urge non-profit organizations, as they develop their 2012 fundraising strategies, to reflect an understanding of the distinct motivators, priorities, and decision making processes of MJWD.

While Judaism certainly honors women, the evolution and new-found power of the MJWD is often overlooked as Jewish nonprofits mature and adjust to new realities in the philanthropic arena. Studies confirm that women are increasingly influential and drive decisions relating to charitable giving, and that they routinely give better and more passionately than do men. As we look around today at donors of all types and ages, we see ways that (Jewish) women address philanthropy today and see why (Jewish) women are such good donors.

Perhaps best known for more than 20 years in Jewish giving circles is the Jewish Federation system’s Lion of Judah program, where thousands of donors have become Lions of Judah, representing an annual campaign of $160 million a year and pledged endowed assets of more than $550 million. The Lion of Judah “brand,” the widely recognized jewelry identifying participating women in the Lion programs, have become signatures of committed and passionate women donors and a recognized instrument for donor development and motivation. And the success has provided focus on the networks they have nurtured, along with building financial support in communities across North America.

In reviewing the landmark 2011 Study of High Net Worth Women’s Philanthropy, conducted by the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University and sponsored by Bank of America Merrill Lynch, we learned that motivating women and their attitudes toward giving is translated into generosity. This reality cuts across religious affiliations, and much can be learned and applied to Jewish women with diverse giving capacities. The study’s key findings included:

  • Women are strategic in their charitable giving, with 78% creating an annual giving strategy and/or budget. As a comparison, about 25% of high net worth individuals have neither a giving strategy nor budget.
  • Women often look for a deeper and more collaborative experience with the organizations they support.
  • Personal experience with a nonprofit, and the organization’s ability to communicate its impact, are important factors for women when they make their charitable giving decisions.
  • 80% of women donors expect that the nonprofit will honor their request for how the gift is used, and 45% expect that the organization will share with them the positive impact of their gift.

There are several important factors that motivate women’s giving and set them apart from their male counterparts. Most women (82%) expect to see how their gifts can make a difference in the world and how to set a good example for the next generation. Efficient use of their gifts and giving back to the community were among the top motivations for women donors.

Responses suggest, too, that women are typically more loyal to philanthropic causes, more educated and informed about philanthropic choices, and more trusting of non- profits than men. Women in giving networks are more intentional about their gifts of time and money. They have a greater awareness of the needs in the community and are likely to express more confidence in the ability of non-profits and individuals to solve societal and global problems, arising from the value that women generally place on having personal engagement with the organizations they support.

In considering these and other points, we interviewed four Jewish women philanthropists to learn about their personal philanthropy and decision making processes. Mrs. Diane Wohl, of New York, an active Jewish philanthropist for several decades, supports many organizations both individually and through her family foundation; the common thread is that she supports organizations that make a concrete difference in people’s lives and their communities and that 95% of her giving is to Jewish causes. While she and her husband work as giving partners and support each other’s priorities and activities, she directs significant philanthropy to women’s causes. She regularly evaluates the organization’s effectiveness and its sustainability when making her funding decisions and has remained loyal to causes over many decades.

Equally important to her giving are connections: Board involvement, hands-on participation in activities, and meeting the staff and recipients of the organizations’ services. She is proud that her example has positively influenced her children, who follow in their footsteps in both deeds and words and are very committed to Jewish philanthropy.

Dina Karmazin Elkins comes from a family with a long history of philanthropy and is the executive director of the Karma Foundation, which since 1996 provides grants in areas important to her and her mother, although her having an autistic child has impacted significantly the priorities they identify. When she donates to charitable causes, she, too, selects organizations where she has a personal connection, such as her synagogue and local organizations, changing the giving model she inherited from her mother’s and grandmother’s generations. Site visits and reviews of proposals and organizational documents from her grantees and applicants contribute to her knowledge of determining the value of a nonprofit organization’s work, how effectively they are advancing their mission and goals and their level of transparency.

Ms. Elkins identified generational differences in the process she and her parents use to evaluate their giving. As a 40 year old, she is more inclined to consider where an organization is heading, and always wonders if their programs and services are relevant today or are becoming dated, and if an organization should continue to be funded simply because her foundation has awarded funds to them previously.

Susan Pearlstine, 54, a fifth generation Charlestonian, joins her family in supporting a variety of local Jewish and secular causes. Jewish giving is a high priority for both their foundation and for her family members individually, particularly the stewarding of the next generation of donors in that direction … but she definitely confirms that her approach differs from that of the men in her family.

While she and her family members are often in agreement about which organizations to support, the decision making process takes on different approaches. Ms. Pearlstine considers her applicants’ willingness to partner with her and other nonprofits, to be open to different ways of creating long term sustainability, and to be transparent financially. This has clearly set a different tone, especially from the men in her family. And she is grooming her children to assume their identities and become involved in decision- making responsibilities in philanthropy.

Another philanthropist, 51, preferred to remain anonymous for this article, reflecting her charitable giving approach, too. Also coming from a long line of family members who give generously, she prioritizes her giving to local Jewish organizations, such as her synagogue, women’s organizations, and causes that nurture community and personal connections and relationships. Her philanthropic parents made significant influences on her and she looks to be a good role model for her children and guide them in their own volunteering and giving decisions, especially as they begin to give independently. Unlike her husband, she prefers to remain anonymous so that the recipient does not feel there are any strings attached or undue requirements on them as a result. For example, while her husband may wish to fund a scholarship, she is more comfortable giving funds to a school which then underwrites the scholarship.

But the power of women donors cannot be underestimated, especially with a challenge coming from Diane Wohl to other MJWD. “We all have a voice, and we can all make a difference and a lasting impact. The key is not how much you can give, but to care enough to give. All contributions matter.”

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 nonprofits on fundraising, strategic planning, and non-profit business practices. Become a fan of The EHL Consulting Group on Facebook; TWITTER: @EHLConsultGrp