The real philanthropy success story

After the brutal events of Oct. 7 and onset of the war between Israel and Hamas, funders, organizations and individual volunteers instantaneously leaped to action from a standing start, their on-the-fly efforts saving lives and raising the morale of a nation with many reasons to mourn. 

It sounds like the triumphant story of a spontaneous, ad hoc response from the Jewish philanthropic community — but I believe this framing is a fundamental misreading of the past few months, one which distorts the most important role of philanthropy. 

In Israel, the response on the ground was driven in large part by nonprofits like the humanitarian aid group IsraAid and mental health organization NATAL, whose capacity was also built over time by prescient funders. These organizations rose to the occasion in a dramatically impactful way because of groundwork laid over many years. 

Similarly, the strength of the North American response is primarily attributable to structures and institutions set up long before the crisis materialized. The Jewish federations, among North American Jewry’s oldest institutions, have again proven their fundraising mettle; UJA-Federation of New York alone has already allocated over $50 million from its Israel Emergency Fund. 

And the 3,300 Birthright Israel alumni who have volunteered so far to spend two weeks in Israel harvesting crops or packaging goods for civilians and the military — all paying their own travel costs — were only available only because, over 20 years ago, a group of committed philanthropists drew the Israeli government into a partnership that has brought 850,000 young people on trips to Israel. 

The response to antisemitism on campus is likewise attributable to investments made by the philanthropic community well before the post-Oct. 7 surge. 

Hillel, for instance, is the oldest of the Jewish campus organizations. In addition to serving and supporting the needs of students, local Hillel directors build relationships with university administrators. Both have become crucial in recent months. The Louis D. Brandeis Center, a nonprofit founded in 2012, is taking the lead in helping students bring discrimination cases against their universities; and Hillel, the Brandeis Center, and the Anti-Defamation League are coordinating with  the law firm Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher to guide legal strategy and provide pro bono legal services to students who have experienced antisemitism on campus. 

Far-sighted philanthropic vision, development and investment made an effective response to the present crisis possible.

There are other players in the campus arena that are playing significant roles; I’ll mention just three, though many more deserve recognition. The Israel on Campus Coalition was created in 2002 to share resources and coordinate strategies among the many pro-Israel campus organizations. Right now, the ICC is conducting ongoing polls; the findings they release both inform pro-Israel organizations about student perspectives and help them craft the language that will be most effective in engaging hearts and changing minds on campus. Passages, a Christian organization founded in 2016, has brought thousands of non-Jews to Israel for a Birthright-like trip that helps cultivate non-Jewish, pro-Israel voices against antisemitism on campus. And as recently as 2021, eight foundations came together to establish Shine a Light, a convening platform for organizations, companies and individuals to unite in shining a light on antisemitism.

This is my key point: The most important role of philanthropy is not in the moment of crisis. It is in the generation of ideas and the creation of structures that serve the community under “normal” circumstances and can be ramped-up to meet the needs of a crisis as well. 

The best philanthropy is strategically driven and forward-looking rather than reactive. Dr. Joel Fleishman of Duke University actually argues that the ability to generate strategic initiatives and pilot new ideas is the chief public policy justification for the relatively free hand given to foundations in America. While businesses have shareholders to whom they report and government officials must seek re-election and nonprofit organizations have donors to satisfy, foundations are free to pursue ambitious and innovative ideas that may take much longer to develop than the limited patience of shareholders and electorates would otherwise allow. This is the “competitive advantage” of philanthropy at the highest level.

This understanding of philanthropy has led the Jewish Funders Network to hire me to establish JFN Consulting, which provides personalized philanthropic services to individuals, families and foundations. In addition to offering introductory programs for new funders and foundation professionals and guidance on foundation governance and compliance, JFN Consulting draws on a network of 3,000 donors who can help inform the thinking and giving of their peers. The staff of JFN’s Israel office — who meet daily with Israel’s Home Command and are available to assist Israeli funders as well as Americans funding projects in Israel — are a particularly important asset right now.

After 30 years leading strategic Jewish foundations, including AVI CHAI, I think JFN Consulting’s most important role will be helping funders operate strategically to realize the full potential of their competitive advantage. A crisis generally creates the space for revisiting and reevaluating old ways of operating, an opportunity the Jewish philanthropic community needs to seize. The opportunity to optimize philanthropic giving is especially important now as we experience the largest intergenerational transition of wealth in history. I am excited to lead JFN Consulting and look forward to working with interested funders who want to not only meet emergency needs but continue laying the groundwork for thriving Jewish communities for years and decades to come. 

Yossi Prager is the senior managing director of JFN Consulting.