Philanthropy as a Vehicle for Peoplehood

[This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 27 – “Philanthropy and Jewish Peoplehood” – published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.]

By Elizabeth Fisher

Philanthropy has the opportunity and power to go beyond funding Jewish peoplehood to be a vehicle for peoplehood. To do so, we must recruit a broader group of donors – across income levels, identities, and communities – and engage those donors in values-based programs that are meaningful, fun, and build connections.

We enter a new decade with an urgent need to engage more donors in Jewish giving, particularly those of middle and low incomes. In Jack Wertheimer’s report, “Giving Jewish: How Big Donors Have Transformed American Jewish Philanthropy” he writes,

At the time of the Yom Kippur War in 1973, one million gifts were made to the combined North American Federations. […] Even a superficial examination of the current scene suggests that Jewish philanthropy operates very differently in our own time. Most dramatically, the base of support has shrunk for almost every institution. Federations today rely upon some- where between 30-40 percent of the number of gifts they received at the time of the Yom Kippur War in 1973. The same is true of many national organizations and friends of Israeli institutions: Fewer give, but those who make grants tend to bestow large sums.[1]

This trend is not just about the decline in giving to Jewish causes; we see similar numbers in giving throughout the United States. While it does appear that charitable giving dollars in the US in 2019 were up after a weak 2019[2] indicators point to decreased giving at lower levels and increasing percentages of revenue coming from fewer sources.

Over the past decades, organizations have rightfully understood that focusing on larger donors is more efficient and leads to crucial revenue. These donors also are often first-in capital, serving as important lead investors in new projects, programs, organizations, and buildings. Major donors are crucial to the success of Jewish communities. However, as organizations have focused on large gifts to the exclusion of continuing to focus on engaging other donors, we’ve created a communal challenge – a growing imbalance of ownership and leadership of Jewish organizations. As organizations are funded by fewer and fewer donors, it is harder for those organizations to fully represent and program for a variety of interests and communities. Rather, they often have to focus on the interests of their funders and on what those individuals and foundations perceive as community needs. This is especially true when large donors give restricted grants or fund specific projects and initiatives. Peoplehood requires a voice at the table, and today those voices are too often represented of only the largest donors. For Jewish philanthropy to truly embrace the cause of peoplehood – the people need to give, lead, and feel ownership over Jewish organizations.

The good news is that we enter a new decade with a new suite of tools to help us engage all different kinds of donors. There is much to be said about the opportunity of online giving to recruit new donors. In 2019, GivingTuesday raised $511 Million online in the United States[3] and crowdfunding sites continue to grow and raise millions of dollars around the world. Projects like Righteous Crowd[4] and Millie[5] are new approaches to building online community around giving. Major foundations are also beginning to recognize the challenges and shifting their behaviors towards new ways to ensure giving is reflective of communities and flexible – like participatory grantmaking and giving unrestricted general operating support.

To truly embrace peoplehood in philanthropy, we also need meaningful in-person experiences. Communities and organizations need to engage donors of all levels in values-based conversations. At Amplifier, we’ve seen firsthand the power of meaningful, fun programs to do just this. As an example, in 2019, we held 24 pop-up giving circles, raising $62,054 and engaging 750 participants and know of dozens more held by others using our materials. These pop-ups[6], a 1 ½ hour experience of talking about values, learning about organizations, and making collective grants – allow people to experience being together in philanthropic community and making decisions about shared peoplehood and also enable host institutions to better understand the concerns and priorities of their donors.

We have a tremendous opportunity today to engage more people in meaningful giving – and for peoplehood and philanthropy to grow together, side by side. Bringing in new donors at all levels might not be the most efficient way to fund organizations, but it is a way to will ensure that organizations are representative and sustainable in the years to come.

Liz Fisher is CEO of Amplifier, which ignites, strengthens, and informs giving inspired by Jewish values and wisdom. Amplifier envisions a world in which everyone has the opportunity to create powerful, positive change through giving.







eJewish Philanthropy is the exclusive digital publisher of the individual Peoplehood Papers essays.