Speaking Nonprofit Truth to Philanthropic Power:
1O+1 Commandments

[Reprinted with permission from Sh’ma Now, a curated monthly conversation on Jewish Sensibilities. These articles, examining the differences between philanthropy and tzedakah, originally appeared in October 2001.]

By Yosef I. Abramowitz

There are many people in the Jewish community who have been good to me and the causes and organizations in which I believe. I am grateful for being their partner in affecting Jewish life. Yet I am disappointed lately how affected I am by the financial hits and misses of our nonprofit, especially since programmatically we continue to fly with our mission and increase our impact. My thoughts are, perhaps, undiplomatic and raw. And instructive, if the philanthropic community can truly listen.

Jewish philanthropy in the 21st century must rapidly evolve to maximize its impact at this historic juncture. Here are 10+1 commandments from the Jewish civil servant side of the partnership to jumpstart a conversation.

  1. Be generous. If you earmark a grant for a program (especially a new program), invest as well in the organization – its leadership, infrastructure, and long-term success. Your investment should be in direct proportion to the organization’s lack of endowment. You’ve already bought into the mission.
  2. Remember the overhead. Younger and smaller nonprofits, in particular, have a hard time attracting funds for administration. Cash flow is a perennial problem. These nonprofits are where creativity blooms. Reject proposals that have overheads of less than 20 percent but not more than 33 percent.
  3. Respect your children. Some of my most meaningful moments in transforming Jewish life involve working with the adult children of major donors as professionals and emerging philanthropists in their own right.
  4. Covet partnerships. If you are tired of turf issues and redundancy in Jewish organizational life, make it worthwhile for nonprofits to collaborate.
  5. Do not be afraid to lead. And Korach said “I’ll put in X dollars if you can get nine others.” If you believe in the cause or idea, take the lead to initiate it. Seed a pilot program as a demonstration project or plan and staff the emergence of a partnership.
  6. Do not steal. Don’t schnor off of our learning curve. Don’t use us to bring you ideas and vision if you know in advance you are not going to fund us. Or at least be up front and pay organizations as consultants for our valuable time and expertise.
  7. Be seekers. There is more creativity in Jewish life than ever before, but there is often a mutually frustrating disconnect between donors and change-makers. The McArthur Foundation recruits high-level scouts to act as secret nominators for their awards. Is this a lesson for the Jewish community?
  8. Do not be misled. Many of the American Jewish community’s policies toward overseas needs (former Soviet Union, Ethiopia, Israel) reflect understandings that are outdated, so serious money is often being squandered or not applied well. The road shows and site visits are so powerful that we often fail to ask the tougher questions about policy, spending, and accountability.
  9. Learn. If you are serious about your field, you need an independent journal or chronicle of Jewish philanthropy.
  10. Provide risk takers with a safety net. Because most organizations only undertake safe initiatives, their efforts and your dollars are not as impactful as they could be. Find ways to share and spread the risk.

One more commandment for good luck. Give thanks. One of the most memorable gifts we received this year came from a foundation that simply appreciated what we do and made an unsolicited gift. No honors, proposals, or uneven power dynamics. Most professionals in Jewish organizational life rarely are thanked and validated for the work they do. We are working harder than ever.

We know you are, too, which is why we need to initiate an honest dialogue as partners about re-engineering philanthropy in Jewish life.

Yosef I. Abramowitz writes in an individual capacity, He has been involved in nonprofit Jewish life for 20 years, where he has raised more than $15 million. He serves as CEO of Jewish Family & Life!/JFLmedia.com (which publishes Sh’ma) and as the elected lay lender of UCSJ: The Union of Councils for Jews in the Former Soviet Union.