Passing on a philanthropic legacy from one generation to another may seem easy. But it’s not. At a recent Jewish Funders Network evening, two leading Foundation families shared their experiences on navigating the dynamics of multigenerational giving.
Georgette Bennett, a Polonsky Foundation board member and a first generation philanthropist from the US, and Hubert Leven, President of the Rashi Foundation and a fourth generation philanthropist from France, joined their sons, Joshua-Marc Tanenbaum and Francois Leven for a candid conversation.
Bennett, a child of Holocaust survivors from Hungary, arrived in the US with her parents at the age of six. They had no money and no support network. Shortly after their arrival, Bennett’s father passed away. Her widowed mother struggled to raise her only child. But despite the difficulties, Bennett has a vivid memory of her mother going door-to-door to raise money for the National Council of Jewish Women.
“We lacked so much and could hardly give, but my mother instilled in me the value of giving,” says Bennett. “This message has stayed with me for a lifetime and one I strived to pass on to my son.”
Leven, who comes from a long line of Jewish activists in France, says, “Charity is encoded in my family’s DNA.” His great-grandfather Narcisse Leven started Alliance Israélite Universelle in 1860 in response to attacks against Jews in Europe and the Middle East, his mother’s ancestors helped to found ORT and his uncle Gustave Leven was the founder of the Rashi Foundation. “I did not make a conscious decision to get involved in philanthropy, it was our way of life,” explains Leven.
For both Bennett and Leven, instilling Jewish values, among those Tzedakah and Tikkun Olam, was an integral part of their parenting.
“I have four children, and two are involved in Jewish life and two are not,” says Leven. “So I didn’t push them in this direction, but just as I continued my family’s tradition, I wanted my children to do so as well.”
For Bennett, whose husband Rabbi Marc Tanenbaum passed away a few weeks before Joshua-Marc was born, passing on his strong humanitarian values to their son was critical. From an early age Joshua-Marc contributed his Chanukah money to a cause, and as he got older he chose organizations to support. With her marriage to Leonard Polonsky when Joshua-Marc was eight, Georgette and Joshua joined the Polonsky Family Foundation.
Today, Francois Leven, 44 sits on the Board of the Rashi Foundation and Joshua-Marc Tanenbaum, 23, sits on the Junior Board of the Polonsky Foundation.
For the Polonsky Foundation, the multigenerational dynamics involve nine descendants. “This can get complicated,” says Bennett. The Foundation, which plans to sunset in the next 30 years, works hard to involve the next generation, while maintaining the Founder’s vision and ensuring that the Foundation’s by-laws are not violated.
“We want the next generation to be engaged in what the Foundation does, but also to empower them to support the causes that they feel close to,” says Bennett. “This is a delicate balancing act.”
“We have lots of fights. Friendly fights,” says Bennett candidly.
To avoid conflict, the Foundation devised a decision-making manual. They have set up a Junior Board, comprised of next generation family members. Each member can submit proposals for projects that they would like to support, which allows for discretionary grant making. The Foundation has just distributed a complete portfolio of grants to the next generation members to see if they would like to become involved in these particular areas. In addition, the Foundation requires unanimous decisions on its board, as does the Rashi Foundation.
“We are working with philanthropic advisors to make the next generation process, especially with a blended family, as smooth as possible,” explains Bennett.
For the Leven Family, the dynamics differ. Hubert’s father Raymond was very involved in Jewish communal organizations in France, while his uncle Gustave Leven, the founder of Perrier Water Source, established the Rashi Foundation 30 years ago. When Gustave asked Hubert to take over the leadership of Rashi, he stepped up.
“My desire to continue Gustave’s work was very much intertwined with my connection to Israel,” explains Leven. “Jewish identity and connection to Israel cannot be separated.”
The Rashi Foundation has been Leven’s main philanthropic focus. Francois does not see any reason to change this.
“I grew up knowing that there were two parts to a normal day – work and philanthropy,” says Francois. “I saw my grandfather give so much of his time to the French Jewish community, and my father’s commitment to Rashi.”
However, it was only as Francois started reading books about his ancestor Narcisse Leven, and as he dug deeper into his history, that he began to feel more connected to his family’s legacy.
“I saw how each generation had a different approach to philanthropy, and every person made their mark,” says Francois. “The more involved I get in philanthropy the more time and energy I want to put into it.”
“I also believe that multigenerational philanthropy brings families closer. Generations have differences with one another, but if both are looking in the same direction and trying to achieve the same good in the world, they can’t help but grow closer,” says Francois. “I now want to pass this legacy of helping others on to my daughters.”
Joshua-Marc, who has been sitting in on Foundation meetings and devoting much time to volunteer work since he was an undergraduate says, “I grew up in a family of activists and philanthropists and really both perspectives are fundamental to creating impact.”
Joshua-Marc says that it is important not to give mindlessly. He believes you should know what you are giving to, why you are giving and to embrace issues which provide an opportunity to create progress.
He believes that the younger generation should have a say in their family foundation through “skin in the game” and by being part of the decision-making process. His mother elaborated on this idea, suggesting that a family foundation could make allocations that will match funds that the kids put in from their own money. This will give the children a real sense of ownership of the allocation.
“It is very easy to spend someone else’s money,” says Bennett.
“Imbuing your children and grandchildren with the value and practice of philanthropy will lead to them setting aside some of their own money, at whatever level, even if the family no longer has a foundation,” continues Bennett. “Giving as a constant practice should outlive a foundation.”
About: The U.K.-based Polonsky Foundation focuses on advancing higher education in the humanities and social sciences, as well as promoting the arts in the U.K., the U.S. and Israel. Underlying its programs is a deep commitment to the democratization of knowledge and the preservation of our cultural heritage.
The Israel-based Rashi Foundation leads groundbreaking national projects that bridge educational and social gaps that threaten Israel from within. From cradle to career, Rashi reaches out to young people in Israel’s underserved social and geographic periphery and offers far-reaching opportunity for social mobility and economic independence. It develops holistic models that integrate education, social services and health components in one solution, and are measurable, replicable and scalable.
Lisa Samin is Director of Partnership Communications at the Rashi Foundation.
Courtesy Jewish Funders Network