We All Own It:
Reflections of a First Time Attendee at the JFN 2019 Conference

By Jeff Schoenfeld

I recently attended the 2019 JFN Conference in San Francisco with a goal of opening my eyes to what serious philanthropists are doing and talking about in their giving. My own philanthropic journey has been shaped by my deep involvement at UJA Federation of NY, where I now serve as its Lay President. I was drawn to Federation work more than two decades ago because of its focus and commitment to support vulnerable populations in my community, and elsewhere around the world. That is the work that spoke most to me then, and that enduring obligation continues to speak to me now.

I know, and often say out loud in my numerous speaking opportunities, that I am a privileged member of my community. Not only did I have the important building blocks of a nurturing young life and a loving adult life, but these have been complemented by professional success which brings both the obligation and the opportunity to give back in a serious way. I know that I am one of the haves in a world of far too many have nots, and at a certain point in my UJA journey I committed myself to do all I can to better the lives of others. That has become my life commitment. Seeing philanthropy change peoples’ lives brings me deep personal fulfillment. My story is the story of so many others who are involved in the world of Jewish Philanthropy, and it was a privilege to spend three days with them in San Francisco.

At the JFN conference, I saw the serious work of funders who are deeply committed to transforming the Jewish world. They are seeking to create, innovate, and generate avenues for engagement that touch the lives of thousands. Indeed, much of the program and the interactions among funders centered on important opportunities/challenges including Jewish identity, Jewish education, community inclusivity and change, lessons learned from the field, and so much more. I observed many family foundations in attendance looking to find their unique niche in what is a crowded philanthropic arena. Where can we spark new innovation? Where can we truly have impact? What is new and different that others are not funding? These are critical questions for funders, and there are many initiatives underway focused on keeping our communities vibrant and engaging.

At the same time, I was a bit surprised that major issues which involve basic communal support – combatting poverty, caring for Holocaust survivors, enhancing employment opportunities, addressing growing addiction and abuse, destigmatizing mental health challenges, to name a few – didn’t receive the same degree of interest. Yes, there were sessions and programs on these issues, but they were clearly not the focus of the funders in attendance. These basic human service needs occupy a great deal of my philanthropic interest and commitment, and a great deal of Federation philanthropic dollars. Admittedly, they are old issue areas, they are challenges without easy solutions, and there is surely a level of donor fatigue around these seemingly intractable problems. But they remain the basic human support responsibilities of our community, and these issue areas are increasingly benefiting from innovation that is enhancing interventions.

There was a moment when I wanted to get up on the stage and ask, “Why do these issues areas not occupy your passion and focus like they occupy mine?” I wanted to say, “Hey folks, we all own it, every one of us in this privileged room today.” Shouldn’t we focus on engagement and education programs only after a significant portion of philanthropic dollars have been committed to supporting the most vulnerable in our communities? I know that JFN is encouraging funders to look at some of these vital issues. New initiatives, like the convenings organized by the Weinberg Foundation and JFN on Jewish poverty, are big steps in the right direction. But I also might suggest that the totality of funding in the Jewish world may need to be re-prioritized.

Through my own lens, I have come to adopt the labels of non-discretionary and discretionary allocations when thinking about philanthropic giving, and I will tell you that it is a language that makes most professionals and lay leaders mighty uncomfortable. But prioritizing community problems and philanthropic commitments is essential, however difficult it may be. For me, non-discretionary work (e.g. supporting Holocaust survivors) includes issue areas most will agree must be a community priority before all else. Discretionary work includes the things that would be nice to do after we do the things we must do. Indeed, I’m aware that this is a simplistic model that is highly subjective. If 100% of all philanthropic dollars were allocated to alleviate Jewish poverty, we would still have Jewish poverty, leaving no room for game-changing programs like PJ Library, or One Table, or Birthright.

I admit to not having all the answers, but what I do know is that the philanthropic world I inhabit today is a world where there are not enough resources to take care of our non-discretionary commitments. In writing this piece, I hope to stimulate a discussion with others about how all of us as donors should think about our non-discretionary and discretionary commitments. What should be the balance? Is this the right language, and if not, what are better terms? How should that balance be executed? Should we ask the foundation community to provide a minimum level of support to community campaigns (e.g. Federations) for non-discretionary work, complemented with direct giving for discretionary projects/programs? Recognizing the importance of doing both, should we, as a community, create our own version of The Giving Pledge, where we as leaders commit that a certain percentage of our philanthropic dollars will be allocated to support an agreed upon list of the community’s greatest challenges, leaving plenty of room for new initiatives that will bring other needed investment for future change?

How are you thinking about these tough and important issues? I welcome your perspectives and comments.

Jeff Schoenfeld is President of UJA-Federation of New York

Cross-posted on JFN blog.