Philanthropic Horizons and the Future of the Jewish Funders Network

If you spend enough time around philanthropists you quickly realize that their diversity of passion is equaled by their diversity in motivation. That is, they each have a different catalyst for their philanthropic activity – for some it is the result of family, for others is it is the result of personal experience. For many philanthropists it is the friend they found that activated their philanthropic impulse and for an equal number it is their internal value system that finally found an avenue of expression. Whatever the case, each philanthropist is the lead character in their own charitable narrative – a story for which they are often the author and the editor.

In the context of the broader philanthropic narrative, the Jewish Funders Network (JFN) is an interesting story. An organization that is dedicated to “advancing the quality and growth of Jewish philanthropy,” it serves a role as a meeting place of Jewish philanthropists to gather, engage one another and learn from and with peers; a place where these diverse charitable authors can hone their craft. And in a world where philanthropic activity has matured in professionalism, complexity and scale, JFN has developed into an organization that provides resources and important support to the funders who are, in turn, providing important support to our communities. In sum, at a time where funders are grappling with the new language of philanthropy, JFN plays an important role helping those individuals convert that language into impact.

Nonetheless, in light of Mark Charendoff stepping down as the president of JFN at the end of 2010 and in anticipation of the naming of his successor, it is fair to wonder what the future of JFN holds. As it looks to write the next chapter of its story, JFN’s leadership needs to look beyond the present and boldly envision the future of a changing JFN in a changing Jewish world. With that in mind, here are four suggestions for the JFN leadership as they write the script for the post-Charendoff era:

  1. Establish bold philanthropic horizons. Yes, supporting the needs of individual funders through education and services must remain an important part of JFN, but to make an indelible impact on the size and impact of Jewish philanthropy, JFN must help the broader Jewish philanthropic community set goals that inspire action. If we were to envision our optimal Jewish philanthropic landscape ten years from now, what would it look like? How many philanthropists would be active and what would their activity in the Jewish world look like? These are questions JFN needs to boldly ask and boldly answer. If JFN leaderships sets demanding goals, inspires increased activity and drives results that have a transformative impact on the size and scale of global Jewish philanthropy, it can help reset the Jewish philanthropic horizon for decades to come.
  2. Establish and communicate clear organizational priorities. JFN has numerous great initiatives, but perhaps the number of these initiatives and the apparent lack of prioritization is limiting JFN’s ability communicate its organizational impact. For JFN to remain relevant and make an even greater impact on the future of Jewish philanthropy it needs to develop precise priorities for the constituencies it seeks to serve. It must communicate those priorities and be willing to be evaluated as to its success in achieving its goals. Certainly JFN does several things well, but that isn’t enough. It needs to do things exceptionally well, and sometimes that means focusing on fewer issues, with great intensity and probability of measurable success.
  3. Reinforce the important role of Jewish women as Jewish funders. Despite women being some of the most capable and impactful Jewish professionals in funding and grantee organizations, we still have a paucity of women leading Jewish funding organizations. While JFN is not an advocacy organization, it should take a more vocal role (as an organization and as a collection of members) in advocating positive changes in a Jewish philanthropic environment where far too few women lead major Jewish funding organizations. JFN should boldly and unequivocally set a horizon for increased numbers of Jewish women in professional funding leadership roles, and actively challenge our broader community to meet measurable benchmarks in achieving that goal (perhaps even setting the best example by hiring a woman as the next president of JFN).
  4. Help develop a Jewish Grantees Network. Creating a network of Jewish funders has paid substantial dividends for our community, both in the amount of resources that are deployed and the quality manner in which it is done. JFN has created opportunities for collaboration (such as matching grants) that helps set a standard for philanthropic excellence. But the truth is, if our funder network is not met with an equally skilled grantee community, frustration and miscommunication will continue to ensue. The Jewish community is long overdue for an organization that helps convene Jewish organizations of all types for the purpose of skill development, idea exchange and the opportunity of collaboration. With more and more social entrepreneurs entering the field and more Jewish organizations facing the same challenges of similar funding challenges, the need for a more structured support network is evident. While running such a network/association is outside the mission of JFN, being a catalyst of the creation of such network is not.

So there you have it – four suggestions for the leadership of JFN to consider as it writes its next chapter of its organization’s history. Each suggestion points to what most funders (especially those that are members of JFN) inherently understand – an organization’s mission must be bold enough, the impact must be measurable enough and the horizon must be bright enough to merit the investment of time and resources of its leadership and members. The same is true for JFN, and if the leadership makes the right decisions, the future of JFN will be anything but a short story.

Seth A. Cohen, Esq. is an Atlanta-based attorney, activist and author on topics of Jewish communal life and innovation. Seth is Vice Chair and past Allocations Chair of the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta, member of the board of Joshua Venture Group and First Vice President of Jewish Family & Career Services in Atlanta. Seth regularly shares his thoughts on where we are going as a Jewish community on his blog, Boundless Drama of Creation, and is a regular contributor to eJewishPhilanthropy. Seth can be contacted directly at seth.cohen [at]