Re-Imagining the Jewish Philanthropic Landscape

Contact, the quarterly journal of The Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life is out with their Spring 2009 issue. Titled Money in Crisis, the issue provides some initial observations on the recent economic fallout and looks at  “what, if any, bubbles the Jewish philanthropic world helped to inflate…what effect, if any, did Jewish communal participation in a presumed “Gilded Age” have on Jewish culture, thought, modes of self-perception and trends of affiliation?”

Contributors include Prof. Jonathan Sarna, Lynn Schusterman, Felicia Herman and Shawn Landres and more.

Jacob Berkman, the JTA’s philanthropy reporter, has agreed to share his essay, Re-Imagining the Jewish Philanthropic Landscape with our eJewish Philanthropy community.

Re-Imagining the Jewish Philanthropic Landscape

by Jacob Berkman

0-587-20909-7Imagine for a second that there was a central hub for Jewish philanthropy.

Imagine that it was a clearinghouse to vet and fund bold, new, innovative ideas.

Imagine that this entity also effectively funded the basic Jewish infrastructure that keeps our community up and running – our nursing homes, our social-service outlets, our day schools and our synagogues.

Now imagine that this perfect thing could convene the mega-philanthropists of the world and give them a space to sit down and to talk together with knowledgeable professionals in order to identify the real needs of the Jewish community, and to figure out how to strategically harness enormous resources to start to cover those needs – without overlap and without ego.

Imagine if the professionals who kept this entity going could then go out and find the six-figure and five-figure gifts to help fill in the larger gaps that the mega-gifts couldn’t cover. Because even though this system has seen its donor base drop from 900,000 to 540,000 in the last fifteen years, it has not seen its dollar intake drop because it cultivates five and six-figure gifts better than any other fundraising entity out there.

But then what if we took the myth that this system also cultivated and valued the $18 and $100 gifts, and made that myth true?

One million $100 gifts added together equals one $100 million gift, and three million $100 gifts is the same as a $300 million gift. No living philanthropist has ever given $300 million to the Jewish community.

But what if that was the collective gift the community made each year?

One $100 gift that supports both the old and the needy and the future is still a gift that most of us can make, even during a recession. Even me, a writer, who has never been asked.

What if the mega-philanthropists of the world held that system’s feet to the flame and made it find potential donors like me?

Imagine that the Jewish federation system could be transformed into a system that could pull our community through this recession – and that all such a transformation really required was a total buy-in from the mega-wealthy. What if that buy-in could force the system to really look in the mirror?

And then what if the system was to realize that it is not the central address for Judaism and that it has no need to own or control anything? It would simply be a fund-raising organization and an infrastructure. Because it raises money, it would be the backbone of the Jewish community – not the heart of the community. The heart, the flesh, the blood and the soul of  the community would consist of the myriad institutions and startups and people it could potentially feed. The system’s job would be purely their support and not their brain.

And imagine if you had an idea, a crazy idea, that you thought might help engage disenfranchised Jews. You could go to this entity and sit down with people who really know what they’re talking about, who can evaluate your idea, help you develop it, give you space to work on it and expertise to refine that idea. What if it could help you bring your idea before potential funders? Because you went through the system, you would automatically have some credibility, and you would automatically have your foot in the funding door.

What if that foot in the door meant you wouldn’t have to impress everyone all of the time?

What if that open door meant social entrepreneurs could go back to selling products and programs with proven results, instead of selling themselves?

Now, imagine that we don’t have to create a new system from scratch, that it has been sitting there for a hundred years and that it already has buildings, outposts, infrastructure and professionals working in 157 Jewish communities, who have databases of potential donors and the actual manpower to become
something better than they are right now.

Imagine if those who ran that system were open to the idea of change and that the lure of big donors, really big donors, could help them make bold decisions to let go of  old allegiances that the politics of their system now forces them to keep.

And what if as these outposts went through layoffs, they weren’t merely cutting jobs where they could, simply to make budget? Instead, they’d be looking at the talent standing in the unemployment line and hiring from that line talented marketers, money makers and fund raisers. Maybe a single talented person fired from a Goldman Sachs could more effectively do the job that two mediocre employees now occupy.

Imagine that those who ran small organizations could put aside their biases and feelings of alienation and even their anger at this system that has never really let them in – and could stand together at the doors.

Or better yet:

What if they calmly presented this system with the cold, hard fact that they, these new innovators, had access to and connections with Jews in their 20s and 30s, the folks their organizations reach – and the exact folks that this system has been unable to find and engage? And what if these small organizations
sat down with the professionals and the lay leaders of this system and talked about how they, the young organizations, could share their wisdom on how to reach these young people? What if this old system could incorporate these new programs into their old slate, and what if that could lead to more funding

Because just like the mega-donor needs the little donor, the big old system needs the grassroots.

Imagine that this recession could force all of us to sit down together to figure out that we need each other to pull through – not necessarily because we want to, but because we absolutely have to, no matter much it hurts.

Maybe this imagining isn’t so far off. Maybe people high up on the federation and the foundation side are already talking about working together.

What if the chairman of that system recently told me that the system needs to change and wants in its heart to change? Something along the lines of: “The private philanthropists have found they are very good at starting new projects, but have a hard time sustaining them. It takes a village to sustain them. And we are the village…What we have is 157 communities that can leverage their work. What they have is the early dollars and urge to innovate.”

The CEO of the country’s biggest Federation and the president of one of the Jewish community’s most influential foundations recently sat down for a conversation with the Journal of Jewish Communal Service. Both talked about the desire to work better together. The Federation CEO said, “We both
need to disarm.” The foundation head said, “I agree that disarming is the first part of it. But we don’t yet have the bridge builders who should be building the bridges.”

Imagine that we took it upon ourselves to become the bridge builders, because we are all in this  together, and if we don’t build the bridges ourselves, we might all just fall into the river.

I can imagine. Right?

Jacob Berkman covers philanthropy for the JTA and writes JTA’s Fundermentalist blog.