The Case for National Jewish Philanthropy

by Yossi Prager

Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill once said, “All politics is local.” Should philanthropy be the same?

AVI CHAI’s spend-down goals include building funding partnerships with others whose values and interests align with ours. I have therefore had the privilege of meeting with and learning from impressive and dedicated Jewish philanthropists across the country. Time and again, I have learned that most funders focus their Jewish philanthropy overwhelmingly on local community-based institutions. As this theme repeated itself, I thought of the verse in Deuteronomy 15:7, “If there be among you a needy man, one of your brethren, within any of your gates, in the land which the LORD your God gives you. …” The Talmud proves from this verse that local needs draw first priority on charity dollars, making the focus of the philanthropists I met not only sensible but steeped in Jewish values.

However, as I reflected further, I came to believe that an exclusive focus on funding local institutions is ultimately counterproductive toward the goal of meeting local needs. This is particularly the case when local funders fail to recognize strong national organizations or programs that produce the staffing, training, curricula and thought leadership to support local efforts.

As I project forward, I worry that an overly local focus will make centralized projects unsustainable, to the detriment of local communities nationwide. To flesh out my concern, here are a few examples of functions that I believe are best addressed nationally for the benefit of local institutions. I draw from our grantees in the fields of day schools and summer camps because I know them best.

1. Training Principals and Camp Directors – Lay people at day schools and camps recognize the need for their CEOs to be trained in education, business, administration, lay board interaction and, even more, for the CEOs to figure out how to integrate Judaism, education and leadership into a seamless package. It would be incredibly inefficient for each local community to independently develop training programs, and they don’t have to because national institutions such as JTS, Torah Umesorah and the Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC) offer terrific programs for these purposes.

At times, a day school or a camp may hire a CEO who, notwithstanding other stellar qualities, has a limited Jewish educational background. These CEOs need something different: a Jewish education of their own. Again, national institutions such as RAVSAK and the Jewish Community Center Association offer programs to fill this local need.

2. Curricular programs – The Tal Am integrated Jewish studies/Hebrew language program began as a project of the BJE in Montreal over 30 years ago. It is now an independent organization whose materials are used annually in grades 1-5 by over 30,000 students in 325 Jewish schools across the world. The NETA Hebrew language program for middle and high school is now used globally by 15,000 students each year. Local schools simply would not have access to these high quality materials without the (inter)national effort to create them. These curricula now need to be refreshed and redesigned for the 21st Century digital world so that local schools can continue to benefit.

3. Capacity Building toward financial sustainability or endowment building – As the reverberations of the 2008 financial crisis continue, and our community adjusts to the “new normal,” virtually all have recognized the need to financially re-engineer our institutions and develop new sources of revenue (including through alumni programming and endowments). The social media culture has generated challenges and opportunities – and, for sure, new ways to think about fundraising. Jewish institutions need easy access to information, training, networks and models that they can apply to their situations. Institutions such as PEJE, FJC, the Grinspoon Institute of Jewish Philanthropy and Yeshiva University have been providing national programs to address local problems. To be sure, there are no silver bullets, but many local schools and camps would be financially weaker without the support of these national organizations.

These are just a few of many examples. Another occurs to me as I write this post for eJewish Philanthropy: Dan Brown, publisher of eJewish Philanthropy, generates real value for the Jewish philanthropy and non-profit fields, both national and local, yet the blog has no built-in local funding base.

If you accept the premise that there are local needs that can best be provided nationally, how should they be financially sustained? The prevailing myth seems to be that there is a sufficiently large number of “national” foundations such as Schusterman, Jim Joseph, Marcus, Weinberg, Bronfman, Steinhardt, Wexner, AVI CHAI and others with almost infinite capacity to generate and sustain necessary national programming. As an insider to this group, I know that it just ain’t so. There are relatively few foundations funding in any single Jewish field, and their cumulative annual spending is far inadequate to the needs. Also, national funders are only able to continue initiating new programs by exiting other programs over time, meaning that national funding provides a temporary lift, not a permanent answer. If you don’t believe me, ask any non-profit leader of a national institution.

So where does that leave needed national programs and institutions?

This is a pressing question for all Jewish philanthropists, local and national. I believe that those of us involved at the national level need to do a better job explaining the realities to the wealthiest local donors, who have the capacity to bring their human and financial resources to national efforts. I know that some local institutions fear that fundraising for national efforts will attract away money that would otherwise have gone to them. My own experience suggests otherwise: that the wealthy become more committed to their local organizations through their experience with national programs that benefit their communities.

This question I have raised is tied to one that has been broadly written about since the closure of JDub: how can innovative new organizations be sustained beyond their start- up phase? The JDub question is really a broader one, relating to all organizations or programs that don’t have a natural geographic constituency. How will they grow, thrive and serve our communities?

I look forward to the conversation.

Yossi Prager is the Executive Director-North America of The AVI CHAI Foundation.