The Yesterday of Jewish Philanthropy

by Florence Broder

In a year when the Israeli Presidential Conference not only piggybacks on the Jewish Agency Board of Governors and Assembly, but also on the World Council of Jewish Communal Service Quadrennial, I expected the lone philanthropy panel titled, “The Tomorrow of Jewish Philanthropy,” to blow me away. Instead, the panel was nothing more than a fizzle.

The session, on the Presidential Conference program, achieved geographic diversity by featuring panelists from the United States, Israel, Mexico, Holland and Australia. It also succeeded in emphasizing a trend in philanthropy that has become common practice: the diminishing philanthropic dollars for the collective and the Core while the desire to designate increases. This point should not be taken lightly as many organizations are struggling because they cannot obtain funding for basic overhead. There is value in continuing to support overarching infrastructures to prevent duplicative services. That said, there were no revelations here. Transparency is the go-to solution that is always thrown around.

Despite these few successes, the panel of five failed to achieve diversity of any other kind. The panel was comprised of three representatives from Keren Hayesod, the fundraising arm of the Jewish Agency abroad (except for the United States), Alan Hoffmann, the Director General of the Jewish Agency, and Frederick Lawrence, the President of Brandeis University. While the panel description did disclose that Keren Hayesod helped in its development, that shouldn’t mean it’s should be a free advertisement for them – which it was. (The President’s Conference staff organizers were contacted for comment, but we did not receive a response prior to publication.)

The opening speaker, Mark Leibler, Australia, correctly noted that most Jewish gifts go to non-Jewish causes because of the desire to mainstream and to support the local community. He ended his remarks by stating that he believes that the Government of Israel should cover all overhead costs for the Jewish Agency. In a time when government funding is drying up, as indicated by Professor Lawrence of Brandeis, it’s absolutely outrageous for such a statement to be made publicly.

Marta Flisser, Mexico, was the only woman on the panel. Mexico City is very much a closed Jewish community where giving to Keren Hayesod is obligatory. Before someone in the community is married or buried, they check if the person made a gift. Again, every community and culture runs differently, but most Jewish communities in the Diaspora no longer operate on this manner. Card calling, once an accepted practice in Federations, is also very much a thing of the past.

The saviors of the panel were Professor Lawrence, who provided the perspective of academic fundraising, and Ruben Troostwijk, Holland, the only panelist under 40, representing the next generation. Both emphasized the importance for the young generation taking ownership of the community. Lawrence said that this year’s senior class at Brandeis took responsibility by providing support to future classes even in this challenging economy. “A $100 gift is worth $100,000 because you don’t know how much someone is going to give down the line,” he astutely observed. Troostwijk acknowledged that his philanthropic decisions are not only influenced by other decision makers in the room, but also by social media. Troostwijk read his panel notes off his iPad and was watching the tweets the entire session, something that many participants in the audience were doing, as well.

Jonny Cline, founder of UK Toremet and and the facilitator of the Amuta21C annual summit, which works to advance the third sector in Israel, said, “The Tomorrow of Jewish Philanthropy panel seemed to be not only a complete misnomer, but I would go so far as to say that it was antithetical to the whole point of the President’s Conference. My overall impression was that the panel, despite the efforts of the Professor Lawrence and Ruben Troostwijk, was a pathetic demonstration of why the Jewish ‘Institution’ will unfortunately not succeed in enlisting the support of the future Jewish world.”

So what I garnered from this panel is that the only form of Jewish philanthropy to Israel is via the Jewish Agency and Keren Hayesod. Clearly, giving to one of the 30,000 Israeli nonprofits is not of importance. The impact of online giving was only mentioned because of an audience question. And as much as they talked about engaging the next generation, not one of the panelists spoke about making them part of the decision making process and slowly passing on the reins. Given that, is it a wonder that young people don’t want to support communal institutions?

As someone who worked for UJA-Federation of New York and the Jewish Agency, I still believe that there is value in collective giving. However, the lack of effort that communal institutions are making is alienating the next generation. So the question becomes: Who should have been on this panel and was one panel enough to discuss these critical questions? New media and Israel-Diaspora relations received more time than philanthropy. There certainly should have been more women and young people on the panel. There should have been representatives from other Israeli organizations like Leket, Pitchon Lev, or Koach LaOvdim, organizations that are on the ground impacting Israeli society daily. There should have been representatives from “friends of” organizations or private foundations, comprising a significant part of the sector giving to Israel. This would have created a more balanced conversation.

I know I am not the only one who feels this way. Perhaps this article should be a springboard for planning next year’s panel so it won’t be done in a vacuum. Let’s take this opportunity to demonstrate to the organizers the value of “crowdsourcing”. In your comments please list the content and types of panelists you would like to speak at next year’s panel to conduct a stimulating discussion that would be a catalyst for philanthropic innovation.

Florence Broder is a freelance social media consultant who has over ten years of experience in the Jewish nonprofit world.

A different perspective on the panel can be found in Mordecai Holtz’s article, Israeli Presidential Conference: The Tomorrow of Jewish Philanthropy.