Trends in Philanthropy:
A Response to the Giving Jewish Report

via Shutterstock

By Sandy Cardin

I read with great interest the recent publication by my colleague and friend, Professor Jack Wertheimer, both because of its subject matter and the fact my own career in Jewish philanthropy mirrors the timeline he covers in Giving Jewish: How Big Funders Have Transformed American Jewish Philanthropy. Jack is a knowledgeable and astute observer of philanthropic trends, and I have long admired his scholarship since my early days at the Schusterman Family Foundation in the mid-1990s.

There is much to be learned from Giving Jewish, especially from the financial data it compiles about Jewish philanthropy. Woefully little detailed information is readily available about the size and scope of the American Jewish philanthropic effort, even to those of us most engaged in it, and the figures cited in the report are a welcome addition to the field.

Indeed, the “conservative” estimate Jack makes about “the annual sum of giving to Jewish not-for-profits is in the vicinity of $5.5 billion to $6 billion” brings to mind that famous aphorism usually attributed (perhaps inaccurately) to Senator Everett Dirksen: “A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking about real money.”

Real money, to be sure, and it is well worth understanding how funders, especially the largest ones, are approaching their giving. To that end, much like he did in his 1997 report, Jack has done a terrific job outlining the current trends in big giving, making it a must read for all Jewish professionals, especially those engaged in fundraising.

I agree with many of his observations, including the important role women funders are playing in shaping the philanthropic landscape and the growing emphasis funders are placing on collaboration and partnerships. On the less positive side, the increasing overreliance on “quantifiable metrics” can give funders the impression of objective analysis and measurable outcomes but often fail to capture the full impact of their giving. Finally, I agree with his assertions about areas funders should consider prioritizing, in particular Jewish literacy and supplementary Jewish education.

That said, there are a handful of conclusions Jack draws that I believe merit further exploration, especially related to the 250-plus mega funders who, as the report points out, control less than 20 percent of total giving to American Jewish life but wield significant influence over the communal agenda. As president of one of those foundations, I share my thoughts here in the spirit of inspiring deeper discussion on this important issue.

1. Jack asserts that “Today, it’s unusual to find donors who value existing institutions as levers of change” (page 11). He goes on to say, “the high ambitions of today’s donors have been detrimental to most established Jewish institutions.” While there can be no argument that many established organizations are struggling to raise the funds they need to continue operating, I am not sure blame rests solely on the whims of donors. Many established institutions have yet to figure out how to respond meaningfully and effectively to the seismic changes taking place in the American Jewish community – demographic and otherwise – and/or face the increasing complexities of the Diaspora-Israel relationship.

Organizations willing to address these challenges openly, honestly and in partnership with funders are seeing an increase in both their number of donors and amounts raised. Hillel and BBYO, both longstanding and important players in American Jewish life that our foundation has proudly supported together with partners like the Marcus, Jim Joseph and Maimonides foundations, are two examples of organizations that have embraced the new reality and attracted significant support from large givers over the past decade.

2. Later in that same paragraph, Jack suggests “the biggest givers are unpersuaded that Jewish institutions possess the capacity to absorb large gifts (his emphasis).” My experience in Jewish philanthropy suggests the issue is not one of persuasiveness but reality, regardless of how one defines “large gifts.” My guess is that Jack is referring grants of tens or hundreds of million dollars contributed all at once, very few of which we have seen in Jewish life and for good reason: most Jewish communal institutions have relatively small budgets (certainly when compared to the largest nonprofits and NGOS operating in the secular world) and lack both the experience and infrastructure necessary to effectively manage and steward multimillion dollar gifts.

That said, a different but equally accurate definition of a “large gift” is a multi-million-dollar contribution that represents a significant percentage of the overall budget of the recipient. A $1 million grant to a group with a $10 million budget is also a “large gift,” especially to the recipient.

Here, it is also worth noting the different ways in which large gifts are announced. Some donors publicize very large grants even though the payout on an annual basis is relatively small. A $10 million gift to be paid over 10 years sounds huge at first blush but is actually no larger than many grants made in the Jewish world today when considered on the annual basis of $1 million per year. Moreover, if one took the time to calculate the grand total of the annual gifts made over a period of years by major Jewish donors to the Jewish organizations they have supported for a long time, I expect that number would equal or exceed the amount Jack suggests is a “large gift.”

Using the second and, I believe, more relevant definition of “large gifts,” Jewish organizations with scale that can demonstrate an ability to manage large grants are receiving them. Examples with which I am familiar include the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, Birthright, Foundation for Jewish Camp, Moishe House, One Table and Repair the World. Colleges, universities and museums are also places to which Jewish funders are making large gifts and, as a result, centers of Jewish history, Jewish Studies and Israel Studies continue to grow.

And while I agree with Jack that the Jewish philanthropic community needs to find ways to help its organizations learn how to attract, absorb and use large grants successfully, the attainment of that goal should be a communal endeavor rather than one placed only at the feet of large funders.

3. Toward the end of the report, Jack makes a series of excellent recommendations and raises important questions, especially about the disproportionate power and influence big givers have over the American Jewish philanthropic agenda. This is an important issue that demands greater and more immediate attention, as does its secular counterpart, how the mega-wealthy on both the right and the left use their resources to try to affect public policy in the United States.

His suggestions of greater transparency and increased accountability are a good start, and there are signs the Jewish philanthropic community – particularly professionally staffed foundations – is moving in that direction. But we need to go further. Expecting big givers to consistently limit their own influence may be unrealistic, no matter how well-intentioned the donor. Regulating donor influence will require the involvement and attention of the entire Jewish philanthropic ecosystem.

Of course, that is far easier said than done. Accomplishing that goal will require us to explore and experiment with new ways to set communal priorities, ideally with the involvement of the federation system and other communal voices, to encourage large donors willing to participate in open conversations about restraining themselves; and, together, to remind less reflective large donors that 80 percent of Jewish philanthropy comes from other sources – including the constituents we serve – and that they deserve a say as well. One area to consider, for example, and a direction in which our foundation is trying hard to adapt, is to focus our influence toward providing guidance at the national and strategic planning level, thereby creating much more space for broader and more diverse participation and input at the local level.

While the results of such discussions and, ultimately, decisions may result in discomfort and have budget implications in the short term, I believe our community will be much better served in the long term.

4. Also in his closing section, Jack seems to dismiss “impact investing” in philanthropy as a passing fad. To the contrary, I believe the notion of using the principal of foundation assets, not just a limited percentage of annual income generated by them, is a concept that has already begun to make a difference in the Jewish world (as evidenced by the groundbreaking work of the Nathan Cummings Foundation) and will ultimately revolutionize philanthropy of all shapes and sizes. The recent decision by Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg to eschew a traditional philanthropic vehicle when they created the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative is one example of the significant changes I expect to take place sooner rather than later. The American Jewish community will be well served by paying close attention to this shift and seeking to take advantage of it.

5. Finally, one trend I had hoped Jack would focus on is how big givers are addressing the demographic changes taking place in American Jewish life, especially outside the Orthodox communities. Relatively little appears in his closing recommendations about the extent to which young Jewish adults are marrying and partnering with members of other faith communities (or of no faith community at all). I would be very interested to read his views on both sides of the equation: how does Jack think these demographic shifts will affect large givers in the Jewish community and how does he think major gifts by Jewish philanthropists will affect this fundamental change in American Jewish life?

Of course, Jack may be saving that for his next report, one from which I am sure we will benefit much as we have from all he has published before. We owe Jack and his team a debt of gratitude for providing deeper data and insights where too little has existed for too long. I encourage us to use this report as a starting point for a broader dialogue about the community we want to build – and the human and financial resources it will take to do it.

Sandy Cardin is President of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, a global organization that seeks to ignite the passion and unleash the power in young people to create positive change.