The Best of Both Worlds: Back to the Future of Philanthropy

by Sandy Cardin

Ask anyone to name the greatest philanthropists of all time – Jewish or otherwise – and they will invariably identify people known for giving away huge sums of money. From Rockefeller to Rothschild, from Buffet to Blaustein, from Morgan to Montefiore, most of us have come to equate philanthropy with the charitable contributions of people of immense wealth.

And justifiably so; quite recently, much attention has been directed to the nearly 70 high net worth individuals and families in America who have signed the Giving Pledge, publicly declaring their intent to spend hundreds of millions, even billions, of dollars during their lifetime in an effort to help redress the most vexing and complex societal challenges of our day.

The impact of this kind of giving cannot be overstated. When given strategically, effectively and with an eye toward accountability, huge grants have the potential to accelerate the pace of positive change in many situations and even completely ameliorate others.

And yet, philanthropy is not about money alone.

If we turn back the hands of time all the way to the origin of the word “philanthropy,” we discover that it is actually a derivation of the Greek word philanthropos, one that translates into “the love of what it means to be human.”

Put another way, a philanthropist is actually anyone who undertakes to improve the quality of human life and, in turn, to increase the general well-being of humankind. It is the pursuit of tikkun olam – striving to make the world a better place – that renders someone worthy of being called a philanthropist, not the amount of money they spend in that effort.

Indeed, while financial contributions are central to addressing some of the most entrenched challenges the world is now confronting, philanthropy is actually at its best when it combines the giving of both time and money. As we learn in the Talmud, the imperative for Jews to give of themselves derives from the values of chesed (loving-kindness) and tzedakah (justice); gemilut chasadim (acts of loving kindness), however, are actually considered greater than acts of tzedakah because the latter centers solely around money whereas the former can include both money and service.

The giving of time and the giving of money are both essential and worthy endeavors in and of themselves. But they are even more powerful when combined. Together, they can enable us to really understand a particular issue, to build relationships with those affected by it and to create partnerships with those best positioned to achieve substantive change.

Those of us who have the privilege of working in the Jewish world are witnessing the convergence of these two trends: 1) a renewed focus and energy on Jewish giving, both within the foundation world and among new donors; and 2) a heightened spotlight on serving others, especially among young Jewish adults eager to explore their culture, their faith and their ties to Israel.

That is why I am more optimistic than ever about the future of Jewish philanthropy.

A recent study by the Institute of Jewish & Community Research (IJCR), Following the Money: A Look at Jewish Foundation Giving, found that Jewish foundations remain committed to Jewish causes and continue to have an enormous impact on the Jewish world and beyond, despite severe and ongoing economic challenges.

According to the IJCR report, approximately $335 million of the funds distributed by the 56 largest Jewish foundations went to Jewish causes in 2009 and 2010. The study also reports that as the number of foundations in the U.S. increased to 76,545 between 1999 and 2009, an estimated 10,000 of them made grants to Jewish causes.

In this landscape, with the rise of technology and online tools expediting the giving process, new foundations and younger donors are emerging to support both Jewish and universal causes, with contributions to the latter often being a direct expression of the Jewish values of those donors.

Indeed, in a world where anyone can be a donor, young people are increasingly using new channels to give small amounts of money to specific causes to which they feel connected. Though the $5 donors, as they are often called, may seem insignificant now, many nonprofits have had enormous success inspiring them to share causes virally with their vast social networks, as well as building long-term relationships that studies show will result in more giving as the donor ages.

This is key, as it is a harbinger of further involvement and giving. After all, young people are more loyal to relationships than to institutions, and they want to be actively involved in defining the experiences and organizations in which they participate. They have a more holistic definition of success for their lives – one that balances time spent earning with time spent serving.

They also bring a unique skill set to the table – well versed in technology, naturally inclined toward network theory, they can build websites, create videos and use new media tools to maximize awareness of some of our most entrenched challenges.

Jews are among those at the nerve center of this growing movement of young people who do not just want to pay to build the trenches – they actually want to work in them. Passionate about their ability to make a positive impact on the world, they are joining Teach For America in droves, traveling abroad with American Jewish World Service and serving domestically with Avodah.

As a community, we must figure out how to make the most of this convergence of the worlds of time and money. By taking full advantage of human as well as financial capital, we will ensure a stronger Jewish future and deepen our impact on the broader world.

Jewish philanthropy came of age in an era where people expressed their Jewishness in specific ways – by joining a youth group, attending synagogue and giving a donation to their local federation and to Israel. By extension, federations often counted money and gifts received without correlation to people volunteering in the Jewish community, and for a long time that worked well.

In the 21st century, however, Jewish philanthropy will need to reflect the much more multifaceted expressions of Jewish identity. Organizations like Repair the World and Moishe House are leading the way by creating more opportunities for young people to serve, both in a Jewish context and in nonsectarian programs with Jewish framing. They are creating connections and experiences, as well as enabling young givers to contribute in ways that unite their Jewish and universal values, thereby fostering a lifelong commitment to social responsibility.

The landscape is not and will not be without its challenges, of course – an economy that is still causing financial stress and raising issues of sustainability and leverage, less communal giving via federations and the increasingly complicated relationship between Diaspora Jewry and Israel that could impact giving to the Jewish State, to name but a few.

But in thinking about the opportunities and challenges ahead, our focus must remain on how we use the vast network of resources at our disposal to secure a vibrant future for the Jewish people. Indeed, we are blessed to have many passionate, committed individuals, organizations, institutions and funders, each of whom brings a unique set of strengths and relationships that are vital to ensuring this future.

The ideal formula will depend on a generosity of both time and money. As a result, the future Abraham Joshua Heschels, Ruth Messingers and Ralph Goldmans will not just be considered great leaders – they will be considered great philanthropists, and Jewish philanthropy will enjoy the best of both worlds.

Sandy Cardin is president of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation.