Understanding, Context and Perspective: Prerequisites to Skill Building in Jewish Philanthropy

By Todd J. Sukol

The most common failing in attempting good works is to be too busy to reflect on things like ideas and values, too busy to talk or read. The surface is often misleading; we have to scrape away the layers of our own experience that prevent us from understanding why we did what we did. The most common fault among most of those who are professionally engaged in philanthropy is that they are preoccupied with the ‘How’ and neglectful, even ignorant of the ‘Why.’
-Robert L. Payton and Michael Moody in Understanding Philanthropy, Indiana University Press, 2008.

I was pleased to read Rabbi Andy Kastner’s important call for increased professionalization in Jewish grantmaking (Jewish Grantmakers: The Futurists of Our Time, eJewishPhilanthropy, February 13, 2019). I would only add that for such an endeavor to have genuine, long-term utility, it needs to start off as something much more than utilitarian. If the will to develop professional standards and ethical guidelines for Jewish philanthropy has finally arrived (I certainly hope so), we would do well to start the process with learning, reflection and sharing. Too often in Jewish communal life we create professional development programs from our own limited experiences, neglecting three essential activities that will contribute to the success of our work.

Questioning what we are trying to accomplish –  I wish I had a dollar for every time I have heard my esteemed trustee, mentor and friend Louis M. Mayberg, an entrepreneur extraordinaire, ask the question “what are we trying to accomplish?” That simple, persistent questioning of objectives is an incredibly powerful focussing agent that is so easily forgotten in the rush of day to day affairs. For individual philanthropists and foundations, we can never ask ourselves this question too frequently. And it is equally important to ask in the approach we take to crafting standards of practice for our field. What do we hope Jewish philanthropy will become? What would excellence look like?

Rethinking what we know – I offer below just a few thought questions that call into question things many of us take for granted about philanthropy. I share this list not as something definitive, complete or even new, but rather as an invitation to reflect and share in this and other forums (I am hopeful that the foundation professionals retreat planned for the upcoming Jewish Funders Network conference will provide an opportunity for this kind of robust conversation.):

  • What is philanthropy?
  • What makes Jewish philanthropy inherently Jewish?
  • What work can philanthropy take on effectively and what work should be left to commercial or governmental actors?
  • Is philanthropy distinct from charity or is one a subset of the other?
  • Have our efforts to do philanthropy scientifically yielded a net gain or loss in overall impact?
  • Are today’s philanthropic metrics an ethical imperative or merely a fresh game of smoke and mirrors?
  • Who is doing philanthropy well and how do we know this to be true?
  • In what ways might philanthropy perpetuate long-term injustice even as it alleviates short-term suffering?
  • How do personal and communal values integrate with empirical data?

My intention is not to shift focus to the theoretical at the expense of the practical. Rather, my hope is that by thinking and sharing more deeply about the mission and nature of our work we will improve our ability to develop successfully the definitions, standards, methodologies and skills Rabbi Kastner and others have so correctly been calling for.

Learning from outside experts – We are neither the first generation nor the only ethnic group to recognize how incredibly hard it is to give money away impactfully. I have been blessed with the opportunity to study with experts at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy (formerly the Center on Philanthropy) at Indiana University. For anyone working in our field, engaging with the Lilly School affords a unique opportunity to sample a wide array of economic, political, historical, sociological, ethical, religious and legal perspectives on the work we do every day. Even an aimless wander among the stacks of their extraordinary philanthropic library in Indianapolis reveals the existence of a robust body of theory, experimentation and research that illuminates virtually every impulse I have ever had, or heard expressed, about how Jewish philanthropy could be made more effective.

Although I have a special affinity for the Lilly School, there are so many other resources—the Center for Social Innovation at Stanford, the Johnson Center at Grand Valley State University, Association for Research on Nonprofit Organizations and Voluntary Action, Center for Effective Philanthropy, Independent Sector, National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, Grantmakers for Effective Organizations – to name just a few. Each offers perspectives and methodologies that we would do well to learn from as we craft our own set of learning objectives and practice guidelines for Jewish philanthropy.

Philanthropy done well requires good judgment, and judgment requires extraordinary sensitivity and a wealth of understanding, context and perspective. Any Jewish philanthropy playbook that is to be of lasting value must be rooted in deep thinking about the significance and purpose of Jewish wisdom and values, and of philanthropy itself. In other words, as Payton and Moody, quoted above, put it, understanding philanthropy’s “what and why” is an essential prerequisite for developing a useful “how to.”

Todd J. Sukol is executive director of the Mayberg Foundation. He previously served as president of Do More Mission and executive director of the Koby Mandell Foundation. He holds a master’s degree from the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University. You can contact Todd at todd@mayberg.org or via www.mayberg.org or www.givingway.net.