Philanthropy, Tzedakah and Makhloket.

A response to a response to a response to a response … well, you know!

By Dr. Misha Galperin

Wow, Andrew, this is getting to be fun! Wish we had such open debates in front of our colleagues and lay people at the General Assemblies and Federation and JFNA Board meetings… We might be in a different place as a system right now if we had.

So, let’s get to it. And let’s not quibble over the small details or semantics any longer. Customer vs. stakeholder, stabilization vs. decline, federation vs. confederation – who cares in the end? What does matter is this: It was not only St. Louis, of course. It was the whole system of Jewish federations that has lost more than half its donor base over the past twenty years. And, while Chicago, and Cleveland, and Detroit, and Baltimore, and New York, and Miami, and Washington,D.C. and a few others (the “traditional” yet always innovating federations) kept up the dollars in most years and raised more in planned gifts and special campaigns, even those institutions could not keep the donor numbers stable, let alone growing.

I don’t have access to the latest figures but would venture to guess that the total number of gifts to the entire North American Jewish Federation system today is around 400,000 – less than 10% of the lowest estimate of the Jewish population. Some trace the origin of this disastrous trend to a report produced by the old Council of Jewish Federation (CJF) which recommended the focus on major donors and away from community campaigns because of the much better ROI of the former approach. There is little doubt that major gifts and planned giving strategies are more efficient ways of raising money (the Mishkanbuilding strategy I described in the previous piece). However, neglecting community campaigns – mass efforts done through direct mail, telemarketing, events, social media and other “direct response” approaches – is, ultimately, going to lead to overall campaign declines.

And, perhaps even more importantly, it is against the very spirit of what the federation movement is supposed to have been all about. New York Federation’s very first campaign of 1917 was one for “membership.” Unlike with any other Jewish institution, federation is supposed to be the representation of community and the expression of community, with campaign itself being a community-building tool just as it was with the half-shekel census.

As Jack Wertheimer recently showed in the Avi Chai Foundation’s eponymous Report – Big Funders Have Transformed American Jewish Philanthropy. But federations were not supposed to be about philanthropy (“love of human” in Greek), they were supposed to be about community and about tzedakah (“righteousness” or “justice” in Hebrew).

So, herein lies the dilemma: focus on philanthropy: love your (major) donor and make her feel great and raise the money to do the work that must be done, or stay with the half-shekel approach and build your donor base and community buy-in?

I believe that it is a false choice. And that the choices that were made should have not been.

There is still time to make a change. We must find a way to do both. The community campaign should not be about dollars and should not be evaluated by the same ROI standards as major gifts efforts. Not in the short term anyway. The federation movement must reverse the years of declines in its donor base by doing the exact opposite of what you suggest, Andrew. The community campaign for membership must be national, not local.

Jews – as others in America – move all the time. We are no longer tied to the communities or even countries we were born or brought up in. Sad, perhaps, but true. Yet we must continue to be able to feel and act collectively as a community and – yes – as a Jewish People. Disagreements are in our DNA. Just look at a page of Talmud: Mishna (which we were not supposed to write down in the first place) is in the middle and the arguments are all around. But they are arguments “L’Shem Shamaiym” (for the sake of heaven). Our very name – Israel – is about struggling with God. Yet we ARE one People. We MUST be. When you come into another city or town for work, or school or for whatever reason – the Jewish Federation should be a place you know and recognize and stay with. The same Jewish Federation.

Local major gifts campaigns and events and allocations – sure.

But a national community campaign. A national identity for a system that should connect American Jews to the Jewish People worldwide through the half-shekel membership. And that kind of membership, that kind of tzedakah is also philanthropy that is mission-driven.

Dr. Misha Galperin is President of Zandafi Philanthropy Advisors and author of “The Case for Jewish Peoplehood: Can We Be One?” with Erica Brown and “Reimagining Leadership in Jewish Organizations.”