The Top Jewish Donors and Jewish Giving: Why the Disconnect?

by Robert Evans and Avrum Lapin

The list of the 60 top charitable contributions in 2008 includes some remarkable gifts. They totaled $15.78 billion, up from a cumulative total of $7.79 billion in 2007, which was the best year ever for recorded charitable giving in the United States. That said, we wonder aloud how the Jewish donors on the list are making their Jewish charitable decisions and why their giving has not been directed for Jewish priorities.

In fact, of the donors identified on the just-released Slate 60/Chronicle of Philanthropy listing, 16 of the individuals highlighted are either Jewish by birth or affiliation. Prominent on the updated annual list are Leona Helmsley, whose $5 billion estate was settled in 2008 and represented the single largest charitable gift in 2008. Other Jewish donors included New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, Stephen Schwartzman, David Koch, and Eli Broad, all of whom who made a place of prominence on the list of the most charitable Americans along with Henry Kravis, Ronald Perelman, Stewart and Linda Resnick, Sheldon Adelson, Andrew Tisch, and Peter Lewis.

While the individuals whose generous giving set a high bar in the philanthropic marketplace, there was notable and significant paucity of identified Jewish causes. We were shocked once again to find so many ostensibly great Jewish organizations or causes missing from the lists of organizations receiving support from some of the wealthiest Jews in America.

Clearly, the needs and priorities in the Jewish community, especially in this recessionary environment, continue to escalate. Now more than ever, successful Jewish non-profits worldwide continue to seek increased support from current and prospective donors to fulfill their wide-ranging missions and to meet the critical needs of their constituents and consumers.

We know that even in difficult economic times, the largest gifts drive campaigns and help non-profits achieve important goals. Historically, successful fundraising campaigns depend on major (or lead) gifts for as much as one-third of their campaign goals. And those gifts are driven by a demonstration by the organization of the impact that it makes on its community and the lives of people.

Further, Jewish institutions have – like others – offered ways to highlight donor support by naming buildings, creating named endowed programs or positions, or looking for other appropriate ways to enable donors to leave a legacy and provide their gifts with a measure of perpetuity. While some lead and major donors are staying “under the radar” with significant gifts today, many Jewish donors continue to respond to this type of visibility and recognition. We anticipate this trend will continue in the years ahead, especially when the economy ultimately improves.

So where have our Jewish institutions gone astray?  Is it too late for them to re-position themselves to attract support from those who have passion for charity and who can truly make large, impactful gifts? Are they nimble enough to make their Case more relevant, attractive and compelling and thus capable of attracting the attention and the financial support of a larger number of the Slate 60 (and especially Jewish donors on this important list)?

The message to Jewish non-profits, especially in these challenging times: continue to seek major gifts and continue to engage donors by expressing transformative impact, a compelling vision for the future, and meeting specific needs. Views expressed by many of the donors highlighted on the Slate 60 listing reflect on-going commitment to good work, generosity, and concern for making this a better world. However they must see Jewish-focused causes in a different light . . . as ways in which they can advance the missions of American Jewish and/or Israeli concerns.

In 2009, Jewish non-profits must strive like never before to improve their appeal to major donors and illuminate the profound and lasting effect their support can have.  Truly, now is the opportunity for a new paradigm and new thinking on the part of the Jewish world’s agencies that are truly transformational. And we, who work so significantly with Jewish causes, wonder out loud: where have Jewish institutions gone astray?  Why have Jewish donors not come on board?  What will bring major Jewish dollars to strengthen the Jewish community?

Robert Evans, Managing Director, and Avrum Lapin, Director, are principals of The EHL Consulting Group, of suburban Philadelphia, and are frequent contributors to EHL Consulting works with dozens of non-profits on fundraising, strategic planning, and non-profit business practices.