by Abigail Pickus
What began as Lana Volftsun’s biggest bummer ended up being her biggest blessing.
It all started with her bat mitzvah, back in 2000, when her mom announced that she had to give away all the money she received to charity.
“I was pissed,” recalled Volftsun. And really, what 13-year-old wouldn’t be?
But then an interesting thing happened.
Volftsun and few other teens in Northern Virginia where she lived pooled their money and together decided which organizations in the area and in Israel would receive their gifts. This was through the Jewish Youth Philanthropy Institute (JYPI), an organization her mom had helped co-found. Both immigrants from the former Soviet Union, Volftsun’s parents felt indebted to the Jewish community for bringing them to America and made it their mission to teach their daughters the importance of tzedakah.
“For me, everything changed at this time,” said Volftsun. “I was basically really pissed that my parents made me give my money away and then my bubble burst and I realized there are all these problems in the world and I could actually make a difference.”
“Now, as an adult, I look at my colleagues and my friends who still don’t think they can make a difference and as a 12-year-old I was owning the world philanthropist,” she continued.
Today, the 27-year-old Volftsun is the Executive Director of the One Percent Foundation (OPF), whose goal is to inspire and enable Millennials to give at least 1% of their income to philanthropic causes.
Since she took the reins at OPF three years ago when she was only 24, Volftsun has helped boost its giving circle and scale it to new heights. (Giving circles are a form of participatory philanthropy where groups of individuals donate their pooled money to charities of their choice.)
But the seeds for promoting and popularizing giving circles happened before she even ended up at OPF.
A few years earlier, Volftsun was working at a consulting firm in Washington, DC, and was miserable.
“I felt like I sold my soul,” she said.
To counter this, she started “drowning” herself in volunteer work, including running a program for 8th and 9th graders through JYPI, the organization that had first opened her eyes to the power of philanthropy at age 13.
It was then that she decided to start her own giving circle for her peers in D.C.
“I became obsessed wondering why my colleagues who were making a lot of money, and who were passionate, engaged and generous people, were not giving to charity?” she said.
Volftsun narrowed down the barriers to Millennial giving to a few causes.
The first was affordability, or its perception. Because even those making good salaries were often juggling financial obligations, like paying back student loans, the thought of giving to charity seemed daunting to many Millennials; it seemed like something only the “established” older generation could do.
The next obstacle is knowledge.
“There are over 1.5 million nonprofits in the U.S. How do you decide where you want to give your money? And how do you know what they will do with your money?” asked Volftsun. (Studies have shown that unlike previous generations, Millennials are more hands-on in their giving and often want to know the break-down of how contributions are being used.)
“Even if they know of a great nonprofit, what is my $500 going to do? It’s not going to make a difference. One day when I’m a millionaire I will get involved in charity,” said Volftsun, channeling the common cry of her generation.
This, she realized, was a task for the giving circle.
In doing research to form one in D.C., she reached out to the OPF and ended up having a four-hour conversation with one of its founders on everything from how to engage young people in philanthropy to community building.
Serendipitously, a couple of years later when OPF was looking for an executive director, Volftsun had quit her job and had decided to pursue a career in millennial giving.
She got the job and re-located to San Francisco, OPF’s headquarters.
In 2007, OPF launched a giving circle with 30 people. As the circle’s members began to relocate across the country, it continued to grow as the original members added new friends along the way.
“When I came on board, the plan was to grow this giving circle to become huge,” said Volftsun. Indeed, from 30 members and $500 donations a quarter they swelled at one point to nearly 300 members, giving away $2500 a quarter.
“But the bigger we became, it was amazing how much money we could give away, but we weren’t having the impact on every individual we were hoping for,” she added.
To address that, OPF decided to do a major pivot in its growth strategy.
In October, they launched an updated website, which was restructured as a giving circle platform. Instead of one circle, their mission is now to spark many smaller circles around the world where people can grow as a community, do due diligence about the causes that speak to them and find their passion, according to Volftsun.
Circles run the gamut from a handful of people who meet in person to close to 100 people who “meet” and make decisions online. While OPF offers support and training, and the website automates the process, it is up to each circle to decide how they want to run things and which charities will receive their support.
Examples include everything from New York and education-centered circles to ones that only support Holocaust survivors living in poverty in the U.S. or nonprofits in Israel.
The power of giving circles, said Volfsun, is being part of a community, making decisions together and recognizing that by pooling your resources, you can make a difference.
OPF also aims to create a habit of philanthropy.
“I don’t want to do fundraising campaigns where people give one time. Instead, I want to create a habit where they give their whole lives and hopefully in a more strategic way,” said Volftsun.
While OPF is not a “Jewish” organization, Volftsun estimates that over 60% of its members are Jewish and as such, Jewish causes receive a high percentage of their support.
For her part, being Executive Director of OPF has not diminished her appetite for giving back. Among other volunteer positions, she is on the board of Slingshot, a collective fund that provides support for innovative Jewish organizations.
And while she remembers the sting of her bat mitzvah “gift” back when she was only a teen, these days she thanks her parents for helping lead her towards a life of philanthropy.
“I am really lucky I have such a wonderful role models in my parents,” she said. “My sister and I grew up with a really strong Jewish tradition of tzedakah that I have also seen in many other families and it’s been a gift throughout my life.”