The Rise of the Mega-Donor and the Privatization of Organized Jewish Life

By Robert Hyfler, PhD

Wonderful things have happened with Jews in America over the past three decades and the mixed blessings of mega-donor philanthropy has played a significant and central role on so many fronts. Good people. Talented people. People of vision and resolve.

However much has been lost. Mega-donors and their corporate creation, the Jewish foundation, have privatized communal priorities and decision making and have overwhelmed and defined the Jewish conversation. Neither elected nor appointed by anyone, they have rendered powerless vast numbers of the millions of Jews in America. In the process the very discussion of “community” has been marginalized and gone the way of DVD’s and Sears.

Many, this author included, welcomed the rise of the Jewish mega-donor. It brought much needed resources to a system that could barely keep pace with inflation, not to mention promote innovation and creative thinking. It was, we believed, a transition away from a Federation centric command Jewish economy to a mixed Jewish economy with countervailing sources of ideas and action.

Yet overtime unbridled privatization has come to define our world and our age. The legal device of the private foundation is to Jewish philanthropy, and philanthropy in general, what the rise of the corporation was to 19th Century capitalism.

To be sure, Federations (that which I proudly served without regret for decades) were never democratic organizations in the classical sense of the term. But nor were they, as some of their detractors and even erstwhile supporters have simplistically asserted, a system based on “one dollar, one vote.” Federations were, for the most part, mechanisms of the affluent middle class. Major donors, even the most active, deferred to committee processes and those imperfect processes aspired to mediate between the sources of Jewish wealth and amcha – many times successfully, at times not. No more.

Today, agency and Federation executives must focus their relationship building skills on a smaller and smaller handful of benefactors. “Process,” once the proud star in the communal firmament, is denigrated as too slow, too outdated and too obstructionist. A once active middle class is now pushed aside and powerless. It is left to program officers of foundations, caring and talented to be sure, yet accountable fully to private wealth, to mediate the relationship with the Jewish street. Federations and traditional agencies increasingly play at the margin, even then often deferring to the priorities of mega-donors.

There is no proof that virtue and smarts are a function of great wealth (as our current American President asserts) nor is there overwhelming proof that the very rich are inherently out of touch with the needs of the many. What we can say is that mechanisms of dialogue, feedback and accountability are inexcusably weak and that large segments of the community are increasingly absent from the Jewish conversation.

And what has become of “community?” Community denotes a public space, a voluntary whole larger than its parts – a phenomenon we feel and breathe and aspire towards. Yet given the economic culture of origin of the mega-donor they seldom value that which they cannot count that lacks in their terminology an alpha and a delta, a bottom line on a balance sheet.

Tzedaka? In a rush to big ideas and big solutions they have broadened its definition and run roughshod over much of what we have traditionally know it to be. No more is this seen than in the “continuity industry,” a subset of the phenomenon being discussed here, that many of their number have singularly embraced and nurtured.

The “continuity industry” is predicated not on serving the interests of the materially needy or situationally at risk (see Vayikra, 25:35). Its client base, middle class at its core, is the spiritually at risk; its basic belief is the false consciousness of the Jewish American populace who are too far removed from Jewish life and traditions to even understand that which they are missing. Its intervention of choice is the universal entitlement, be it Israel trips, children’s books, affordable subsidized camping and day schools. Through the prism of the “continuity industry” the modern American Jew, who dances to a niggun with decidedly American chords, is the problem that the wealthy and enlightened must solve through rescue and transformation.

And again, there is the somewhat newer fad among the mega-donor class that may be the most ominous of all – political philanthropy.

Based on the halachic precepts of permissibility in the IRS code, mega donors from Soros, to Bloomberg to Adelson, and many in between, are shifting much of their passion, energy and charitable financial resources to effect changes in public policy and the political culture. The excitement, along with the partisanship, of the efforts cannot help but impact the psyche and behavior of the rest of us and erode even further that beautiful communal space where people of different mindsets come together for a common good.

Moving ForwardRestoring the Balance

Under the laws of our country the accountability of mega-donors in the use of philanthropically designated funds is limited. Yet as Jews they must be held fully accountable to their people, their community and their neighbors.

Mechanisms must be found to broaden and renew participation in communal decision making. Foundations should develop robust accountability mechanisms and public policies should be advocated to hasten the process. Those mega-donors who do not choose to spend down their philanthropic assets should be subject to a higher annual payout. Popular representation on Foundation boards should be encouraged. What I am advocating is not the agenda of a “Karl Marx” but of a “Louis Brandeis.”

In the wider public communal sphere the Jewish conversation, along with decision making processes, needs to be significantly and successfully broadened and re-energized. We need to boldly abolish the unhelpful question of “who is in the tent?” and who is not. As social trends breed their own antithesis the powerlessness felt by broad segments of our Jewish population needs to be addressed. Yesterday. We live in a time of movements and mobilization. “Bowling alone” is out. “Tea Party,” “Occupy,” “Trumpism,” “BLM” and “The Resistance” define our headlines. All rely on active and passionate supporters in large numbers and Jewish variants are present and growing. Those who control the resources must listen, learn and engage.

Cynicism, dismissal or complacency are not options.

Bob Hyfler has over four decades of experience and observation in Jewish communal life. He can be reached at bobhyfler@comcast.net