by Andrés Spokoiny

Until the JFNA General Assembly, earlier this month in Baltimore, I didn’t know that the famous Exodus ship, the one that brought the world’s attention to the plight of Jewish Holocaust Survivors trying to break the British blockade into the Land of Israel, was built in and fitted in the Baltimore shipyards. The crew was even partially composed of Baltimore Jews.

But beyond that neat bit of trivia, I learned lots more in Baltimore – in particular some things that successful funders should be aware of:

Youth Engagement. Some communities are showing progress on youth engagement. Detroit is a particularly striking example: in a community once considered in decline, the Federation has managed to attract a new cadre of young people and increase, for the first time in many years, the number of total donors. This is a model to watch closely, as it could be deployed in many similar-sized communities. How did they do it? Through a complete re-alignment of community strategies and priorities.

Emergency Response: The response of the organized Jewish Community to Hurricane Sandy showed that many of the lessons of Katrina have been internalized. UJA-Federation of New York, for example, immediately made available $10 million from its endowment for emergency relief. JFNA itself stepped up and quite effectively coordinated the flow of support to other outlying areas, especially on the New Jersey shore. The collective response to this event illustrates again the importance of keeping a strong community system as a safety net. Of special interest to funders are models of support that include Israeli expertise; the joint work of UJA and the Israel Trauma Coalition providing counseling to victims and emergency workers is a model that we should explore further.

Jewish School Affordability: In Montreal (yes, I’m biased) a $65 million tuition support fund was created to make Jewish school affordable for the middle class. Although Quebec’s situation is unique due to government education subsides, the model of a fund that provides third-party tuition assistance from the community, rather than simply passing on that cost to full-paying parents, is one of the keys to long-term sustainability of Jewish Schools. Funders wrestling with the affordability issue have an interesting model to study.

Sharing instead of owning: I was very impressed – and even a bit surprised – by a daring project of the San Francisco Federation, called “givejewishly.org”. The new project provides a marketplace of projects for donors to choose among. The revolutionary nature is evident: we have a Federation saying, “We are going to help you to give Jewishly, even if you don’t give to or through us”. This philosophy has the capacity to jumpstart people in their Jewish philanthropy and, precisely because it’s not prescriptive, will even, ultimately, result in increased support to the Federation. This model is in line with Ashoka, Search2Give, JChoice and others, and it’s exciting to see it represented in the institutional world.

Service and Tikkun Olam: Of the many Jewish organizations that have sprung up in the last few decades, only two have raised more than $50 million. One is Birthright. The other? AJWS, which provides – with a Jewish lens – disaster relief and non-sectarian aid in the developing world. This, among other indicators, shows the enormous popularity of the service agenda. While many funders, led by the Schusterman Foundation, have been investing in this field for years, the power of these programs to build Jewish identity and engage young adults is amazing. And it’s spreading: during the GA, there was a full day seminar dedicated to these issues, a clear indication that the Federation system is embracing this agenda fully. From a funder’s perspective this opens many new gates to fruitful cooperation with those interested in this field.

Money management woes: Did you know that, collectively, we give more money to Wall Street than to Israel? The aggregated fees that Jewish Community Foundations – and private ones – pay to investment firms are more than $500 million. Imagine if we could, collectively, lower those costs and, on top, perform better in our investments! As a community, we could certainly use those extra shekels. That is the core of an idea that the endowment and investment committee of JFNA is putting forward – and one in which the Jewish Funders Network is a partner. If we sharing investment resources and maybe even pool funds together, we could save on fees and achieve better performance. It’s ambitious for sure, but utterly intriguing.

Community is a timeless concept, but creative ideas and new developments like these ones, help keep it vibrant and keep our Jewish community moving forward.

Andrés Spokoiny is president and CEO of the Jewish Funders Network.