Philanthropy is Social Service

by Rabbi Jay M. Stein

There is a social service explosion. Bar and Bat Mitzvah ceremonies originally connected this rite of passage to synagogue skills has been transformed from ritual to acts of kindness. The Mitzvah (the sense that we are obligated to do something) of “bar and bat mitzvah” is now, in many communities, tikkun olam, repairing the world. For many, the most attractive compelling case for Jewish identity comes from the teachings that stress our unique role in the evolution of the human project. The instructions that resonate most deeply with so many are the lessons of making the world a better place, while much of the ritual and ceremonial practices have less of an appeal. Schools both Jewish and otherwise, private and public have adopted the goal of moral education. In trying to promote the emotional growth of youth, platforms have emerged that seek to address what Piaget identified “as the thinking of young children is characterized by egocentrism. That is to say, young children are unable to simultaneously take into account their own view of things with the perspective of someone else.”

We must work hard to make the case that philanthropy is service. It is about making the world a better place, making lives better, seeing a world beyond their own and developing a strategy and implementing that approach as agents for change. We must articulate an understanding that philanthropy is communal activism. I hope to begin this conversation in order to lay a foundation for discussion about “philanthropy as community service” by offering criteria for what social service ought to achieve.

There are 8 educational goals that are met by Philanthropy:

1. Family Values: Articulating Your Principles

In the next 10-20 years the greatest transfer of wealth will occur in the history of civilization. That is why it is important to begin to have a conversation about family values and how to institutionalize those morals and ethics in a concrete way. In an amazing article posted on the Merrill Lynch website there are definite steps that families can undertake to clarify those values.

2. Moral Education and Partnership

To address income inequality, educational inequality, social inequality our core institutions of learning must address these issues. We live in a world that values the self often to the exclusion of others. To impart the importance of collective responsibility it will take a partnership of family and school. School and family must reinforce what is taught in the other in order to ensure greater success in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) disciplines and social justice.

3. Going Outside Your Comfort Zone

One of the most exciting aspects of education and parenting is encouraging our children to try new things. By creating a safe environment and offering many possibilities, kids learn their passions, their likes and dislikes. Schools have made graduation contingent on a certain number of “service hours.” This requirement is designed to increase the student’s awareness of the world and the varied challenges therein. This can only be done by leaving the comfort and safety of their surroundings.

4. Finding your Niche

Much of education is helping students find a path for their lives. Once a student has tried a number of different experiences they are more likely to find that which they enjoy and feel is meaningful. Some will be inclined to work with the elderly, underprivileged children, people with special needs, people suffering illness. Once their worldview has been expanded, they will discover a passion that adds to their own lives.

5. Making a Difference/Changing the World

One could easily make the case that even though there is so much work occurring right now to create a just, peaceful and equitable world, we have moved the needle very little over the course of history. Crime rates go up and down, hunger is rampant, the financial divide continues to grow resulting in dramatic social inequality. These issues and so many more threaten the fabric of our world. The sophisticated philanthropist is one who seeks to solve these problems from a systemic vantage. It means seeing the big picture and evaluating how money is spent and whether or not specific approaches are sustainable and have true metrics for success.

6. Sharing your Resources

Each and every person is born with innate value. “Created in the image of God” (Genesis 1:27) is a core principle of our tradition and is the critical to our understanding of self and “other.” This principle guides our social sensibility. The pretext of this is that we recognize there are others and that we have something to share with them. We impact others, they impact us. The classroom/group learning process rests on the idea that together there is much more to be gained than by ourselves. We must, therefore, direct our students to give of themselves in order to strengthen that social fabric. Strangely enough this is not an instinct.

7. Doing Something-Mobilizing Skills Toward Action

All of the great ideas are wasted unless there is a plan of action. Philanthropy in America today is a refined machine with multiple metrics and systemic rubrics for effectiveness. Giving in a thoughtful way produces meaning and fulfillment. Exposure to the Philanthropic landscape is an opportunity to understand an industry that is in the business of helping others. Finding prospects for giving is as important as feeding lunch in a soup kitchen.

8. Building Relationships

Finally, philanthropy is about relationships. In the seminal work on fundraising Designs for Fund-Raising, Harold J. Seymor, writes what people want most is to be sought. Learning from others about their interests and sharing yours creates bonds and understanding. The skill of listening and truly hearing would go a long way to solving many of the world ills. Aristotle in Politics put it best, “Man is by nature a social animal… Society is something that precedes the individual.”


If the present trends of the growth of not-for-profit organizations continues, more and more money will dedicated to social challenges in the next ten years than ever before. Teaching philanthropy will become a critical fulcrum for doing good, for advancing humanity. When philanthropy is done properly, thoughtfully, it offers a curriculum similar to the survey classes of the liberal arts education. If that is not social service what is?

Rabbi Jay M. Stein is Director of the Center for Youth Philanthropy and Leadership, at UJA-Federation of New York.