The Forgotten Donor Demographic in the Jewish Community

by Debra H. Levenstein

Everyone agrees that the economic woes of the past 5 years have affected Jewish nonprofits. Donations are down and the donor base is barely growing. Meanwhile, the absence of young Jewish adults active in the Jewish world is causing dismay among professionals in Jewish agencies across the country. The often overlooked answer to both of these problems is engaging young Jewish adults in Jewish life through meaningful acts of tzedakah.

What has been done to capture the minds and hearts of the young Jewish adult? For years many are wooed with free activities focused on Jewish life: Friday night dinners on college campuses, trips to Israel, and even Purim bar-hopping celebrations. But the lasting value of “free” to the Jewish community is debatable. On the one hand, it is a positive step toward creating connections that might otherwise not have been made. On the other, it is ineffective in fostering an understanding of responsibility to the community. What is needed is a means to outreach that builds an attitude of paying it forward; a commitment to the future of the Jewish community.

A Program Director for a local Jewish Graduate Students program told me that her program was experiencing a second year of serious budget cuts so steep that her role has changed from programming to fundraising to keep the program doors open. In this role she is attempting to raise basic funds from 1,100 alumni and current students of the program. The response that she is getting from graduate and graduated students is less than enthusiastic. While the program spends some $100 per student each year, its graduates can hardly find their way to contributing $18 to her program. It isn’t that they don’t have access to the modest funds the program needs; it is that supporting this Jewish organization is not their priority. So the question becomes: how do we help them to see the important role they have to play in the continuation of such valuable programs?

The answer is that it is a matter of education. Isn’t that why we capitalize on teen philanthropy programs? Across the country extraordinary programs teach teens about philanthropy through a Jewish lens, giving their participants basic information about needs in the Jewish community and how to make informed donor decisions. Essentially encouraging them to become responsible members of the Jewish community as they become adults. In many places one can find similar programs for young adults at the college and university level. But we consistently come up short in reaching the post college demographic.

There is a wide range of programming developed to reach the post college Jewish young adult, including but not limited to programs promoting social action, social activity, and philanthropy. Many of these programs are sporadic and do not build community. The philanthropic programs focus on the relatively wealthy – those who have access to funds to donate in excess of $1,000 – or don’t require that the participant contribute any funds at all. There is nothing reaching out to the Jewish young adult post college of modest or moderate means.

This missing demographic is filled with global citizens who are good to the core, caring individuals. While they want to enjoy life they are still looking for some meaningful engagement. They are looking for a sense of community. To reach them I have designed the LEV GIVING Program.

The LEV GIVING Program is designed to 1) create community 2) expand participants’ personal sense of responsibility to the Jewish community through community education and 3) develop participants’ knowledge of basic principles of Jewish philanthropy. The LEV GIVING program supports Jewish young adults of modest to moderate means in recognizing the difference they can make in contributing to the Jewish community and the significant difference they can make when pooling their funds and contributing through a group experience.

Reaching this demographic to participate in the LEV GIVING Program demands personal attention. Participants must be wooed. And wooing takes time, personal contact and encouragement. It isn’t innovative, cool or hip; it is a task that takes devoted staff, money and focus. The rewards to the Jewish community on the whole can be extraordinary. It only takes one group of participants spreading the word of their positive experience through social media to encourage others to be engaged.

The LEV GIVING Program is not meant to benefit any one agency. What it does is offer the participants the freedom to serve the Jewish community at large, as they decide how to distribute their collective funds. Ultimately, these donations going to Jewish community organizations serve the Jewish community on the whole. Over time as participants continue to donate, and as their value systems evolve, so will their recipient list of organizations expand.

I’m reaching out for your help to pilot the program. All we would need is 10 participants to get things going. Let’s see what they can do with $360/person this year. It is a meaningful amount that when pooled can make a more significant difference. If the program only succeeds in getting 30% of the participants to contribute in the following year that is still over $1,000 more coming into the Jewish community than the year before. The benefit to the community increases exponentially if over a short period of time we continue to cultivate small groups of Jewish young adults, across the country, who wish to make a difference, build community and become the next donor base of the Jewish community.

Not every child becomes a Rabbi, yet we devote many resources to educating them so that they can become active knowledgeable members of the Jewish community. We should also devote resources to educate Jewish young adults towards a life of philanthropy even if they only become active donors in the Jewish community. After all, the Jewish young adults of modest or moderate means are the next donor demographic.

Debra H. Levenstein, The LEV GIVING Program, can be reached at debra.levenstein@gmail.com