The Communal Implications of the Jewish Giving Study: First Thoughts

Connected to Give_textWe should view the Jumpstart study as a New Year’s present, and we should capitalize on the challenges it is offering us.

by Stephen G. Donshik

Last week the findings from a major study of Jewish giving were released. The study, “Connected to Give: the National Study of American Jewish Giving”, was prepared by a consortium of independent foundations, family foundations, community foundations and Jewish federations working in partnership with Jumpstart

Let me share some thoughts about the implications of these findings for those involved in the organized Jewish community – such as local Jewish federations, Jewish day schools, Jewish Community Centers, Jewish homes for the aged, Jewish family service agencies and any other nonprofit that identifies in this vein.

The most encouraging finding is that Jews are committed to giving philanthropic funds to both Jewish and non-Jewish organizations. This means we begin with a group of people who already have an interest and willingness to make philanthropic contributions. The challenges facing our communities are finding out about who they are, their interests, and their giving patterns. We want to know how to keep those who are supporting our communities and agencies connected to us and how to attract those who are not already involved with us to our networks of communities and nonprofit organizations. This is crucial because one of the study’s findings was that the more connected people are to our networks, the more likely they are to contribute to the campaign or to one of the communities’ agencies.

The key concern identified in the study had to do with future giving in the Jewish community. Currently the uncertain economic climate is making it difficult to raise money. As the world continues to get smaller with the proliferation of global connections, there are more options for donors who want to support a variety of causes. They no longer need to rely on the central organization in the Jewish community. In general, non-Orthodox Jewish donors have a weaker relationship with the Jewish collective than Orthodox Jewish donors.

According to the study 76% of the Jews surveyed donated a median gift of $1,200 to both Jewish and non-Jewish organizations. The focus of these donations is on basic needs, health, arts and the environment.

The level of engagement with the Jewish community is directly related to Jewish giving to both Jewish and non-Jewish organizations. This engagement can be expressed in a variety of forms: attendance at religious services, in-marriage, number of Jewish friends and volunteering in the Jewish community. It was surprising to learn than among these engaged donors 60% earn less than $50,000 a year. However, it was not surprising (but alarming) to confirm that younger Jews are less likely to give to Jewish organizations than older Jews.

What does all this mean for our local communities? It means there has to be a concerted effort to reach out and engage people and bring them close to one of our many Jewish networks and organizations. It means our communities have to be an inviting place for people in all age groups. The study found that 28% of Jewish under 40 years of age give to the local federation, compared to 35% of those 40–60 years of age, and 45% of those older than 64 years of age. This means that in all three age levels there is a large disconnect between Jews and their local organized Jewish community.

The study also looked at the causes that appeal to donors in various age groups. Younger donors want to give to innovative nonprofits and philanthropic causes, to support organizations that address issues that are important to them, and to seek out organizations that provide services to both Jews and non-Jews. All of this is summed up in one of the study’s conclusions: “Today, Jewish community leaders face a strategic crossroads as a new generation of young adults emerges in an America – a world – that is fundamentally different from what previous generations face.”

So what do we have to do to ensure the continuity of the Jewish community and to strengthen Jewish Peoplehood? We learned a very important lesson from the Birthright program. That initiative brings young people closer to Israel and the Jewish people by providing them with an Israel experience that is engaging and exciting. What can we learn from its success in terms of attracting and involving young people in Jewish philanthropy?

Not too long ago, a cousin of mine was invited to a young leadership event at a large-city federation; she was excited about the invitation until she heard that she had to give a minimum $500 gift to the campaign to attend. This was her first contact with the federation and probably her last. To provide young people with the kind of involvement in our communities that speaks to them, I suggest that we use the same kind of creativity that enabled us to initiate an exciting Israel experience and let our program planning be guided by the findings of this study.

For example, are we doing enough to follow up with the young people who are Birthright graduates and who come back enthusiastic and excited about Israel and the Jewish people? Do we design exciting and engaging programs that build on their new-found interest in their Jewishness? Do we capitalize on their interests and use our federations as instruments to engage them in community work?

One of the study findings was that younger people have a perception that the Jewish community does not really have serious needs and that other populations need more assistance. We should see this perception as a challenge and find a way to educate young people about the needs in the Jewish community and also that the Jewish community responds to the needs of the broader society; for example, using our infrastructure. Young people need to know that the Jewish community does respond to the needs of the non-Jewish community and we have utilized our structure to support victims of Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy as well as international disasters such as the tsunami in Southeast Asia.

In reaching out to all population groups as well as younger people, we have to be cognizant of the 65% of the people aged 40–60 and the 55% of the people 60 and older who are not currently giving to the Jewish network. We have to examine not only how our system raises funds but also how it allocates them. Do we really involve donors in making decisions? Do donors see themselves as having a voice in how funds are used?

I would speculate that over the last twenty to thirty years there has been a diminished focus on leadership development and on strengthening the volunteer role in real decision making in our communal organizations. During this time professional leaders have assumed more and more responsibility, and volunteer leaders have played less of a role in these processes. Involving volunteers is increasingly seen as not being cost effective, and it is often said that volunteers do not want to be involved in the “nuts and bolts.” Yet volunteer involvement builds commitment, and there needs to be a planned effort in all three age groups to engage people so they feel connected to the community and understand there is more of an interest in them than receiving their annual contribution.

Our leaders should be prepared to experiment and to listen to younger donors to try and understand their desire to be innovative and to be involved in the funding organizations and not only in the allocation of resources. It means responding to their challenges and engaging them in real ways. A parallel process has to take place: We have to learn about what it takes to engage our members of the community and those we would like to include in our community leaders, and they have to learn what it means to take an active part in the life of the Jewish community.

We need to strengthen our leadership development programs for volunteers and then create positions that allow them to use the skills they have learned. Through the process of learning about the community and knowing that they can make a difference, there is a greater chance they will become involved in our Jewish networks. The more our potential donors experience a meaningful role that they can play in our system, the more they are likely to get involved. The more options potential donors see for their involvement, the more likely they are to want to learn more about the community and the possible roles they can have in building and strengthening the community.

For some people this may seem like taking a step back in time because of the present focus on the use of limited resources. Often leadership programs are cutback due to budgetary pressures. However, the more someone is involved, the more he or she will feel a part of the endeavor. We want people to be passionate not only about their Judaism and the Jewish people but also about the Jewish community. It is only through their exposure and experience with an exciting dynamic community that they will be inspired to invest their energy and their resources in our Jewish network.

We should view the Jumpstart study as a New Year’s present, and we should capitalize on the challenges it is offering us. If we do not, then we will not only lose present donors but we will also be abandoning future generations.

Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Nonprofit Management and Leadership Program and has a consulting firm focused on strengthening nonprofit organizations and their leadership for tomorrow. Stephen is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy.