We Can Become the Philanthropists We Admire

By Liz Fisher

This piece was written before the Covid-19 pandemic. Times have changed, and while this is a moment of serious financial uncertainty, it is also a moment of deep need. In this time of uncertainty, let us all have the courage to view ourselves as philanthropists with the opportunity to have an impact, at whatever level we might be comfortable with.

“Who’s a philanthropist you admire?” is a question I often use to open meetings. The reactions are wide ranging. There are people who are frustrated with philanthropy who answer “no one,” and people who share the names of celebrities like Oprah, or mega-philanthropists like Lynn Schusterman or Bill Gates. Rarely does anyone mention someone who’s not a billionaire. As a follow-up, I often ask directly, “do you consider yourself a philanthropist?” and people usually say no. Even people who regularly and thoughtfully give to charitable causes define a philanthropist as someone else.

I recently asked this question at a meeting of a Federation’s women’s philanthropy group and was pleased and surprised when one woman gestured to the others around the table, and said, “You all are philanthropists I admire. We are philanthropists.” Her comment spurred me to share stories from early in my career, when seniors I met on site visits would entrust me with plastic bags full of coins which were tzedakah to support our work. Those seniors were living at or near the poverty line in subsidized housing, but they very much conceived of themselves as givers.

It’s not surprising that the images people have of philanthropists are of billionaires. Major donors and foundations play a large and growing role in the landscape of Jewish communities – and the broader community – across America. The stories of these donors dominate the press, and their influence shapes organizations. In part because of this narrative, the wide range of “everyday” donors – from people donating pocket change to those giving thousands of dollars – feel that their giving can’t or won’t make a difference.

This large and growing influence of major donors and foundations has caused a backlash. Anti-philanthropy sentiment is growing, and there are many reasons for serious criticism. For too long, some philanthropists have operated unilaterally, without partnership in the communities they want to impact. Certain individuals have taken advantage of their power – acting unethically and abusively. Some have used their giving as a way to attempt to mend reputations harmed by immoral and/or illegal behavior. In the United States, the “third sector” of charity has long filled holes not provided by either government or business, and there are important policy conversations about whether our country has leaned too far away from governmental responsibility. Foundations and philanthropists benefit from tax policies that many find inequitable, and at the same time, the charitable deduction levels in the United States have risen to a level that cuts off many mid-size donors.

The response to these critiques, however, shouldn’t be to destroy the philanthropic infrastructure, to “burn it all down.” There’s tremendous value in the existing system, even as certain parts of it struggle with real challenges. These critiques should instead be the catalyst for building new philanthropic models that reflect the needs and interests of donors. I don’t believe we can afford to take dollars out of the system – the needs in the world and in our Jewish communities are too great. Instead, we need to focus on how to generate new dollars, from new givers, given in new ways that reflect givers’ values and interests.

Aware of these challenges, foundations have begun to focus on solutions. Some of the solutions involve shifting decision making power. Funders are beginning to launch participatory grant making processes, putting the decision making in the hands of communities served. Others, like the Jim Joseph and Schusterman Foundations, embrace unrestricted funding as a way to shift power and control to organizations. And organizations, in turn, are embracing design thinking and other tools to ensure that solutions meet the needs of real people.

There’s another way we can begin to shift this power balance – increasing the supply of donors. We know that in many organizations, the number of donors continues to decline, even when revenues increase. One significant Jewish community example of this is the Federation system which has seen declining numbers of donors since the 1970s. In 1997, Jack Wertheimer reported that the system had lost 200,000 donors in the 20 years prior (American Jewish Yearbook, 1997). These trends aren’t only about Federations, though, or even only about what is happening in Jewish organizations. In 2018, in the broader American community, the numbers of individual donors at the $1,000 below level declined (Giving USA, 2019). While the data hasn’t yet been released for 2019, the anecdotal evidence appears to be that for many organizations the number of donors, particularly at lower levels, continues to decline.

American foundations are beginning to understand the importance of investing in ways to increase the supply of donors. One key initiative is the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s “Giving By All” platform – the foundation, recognizing that for philanthropy to work it must itself be democratic, has invested internationally in projects to ensure our philanthropic future. A signature investment they have made has been in the growing movement of giving circles, and for the past 2 years, Amplifier has been the beneficiary of a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation grant. With partners the Community Investment Network, the Latino Community Foundation, Philanos (formerly the Women’s Collective Giving Network), and the Asian Women’s Giving Circle we are launching a national 5-year initiative to scale, strengthen, and sustain giving circles across the United States, working together to democratize and diversify philanthropy.

Today, Jewish communities need to take their cue from the Gates Foundation and others to focus more intentionally on strengthening and growing the ecosystem of philanthropic organizations inspired by Jewish values. This is a moment to invest across the ecosystem in building philanthropic infrastructure – from legacy organizations like Federations to programs for next generation inheritors and earners of wealth like Slingshot and the Natan Fund. We need investments in opportunities for donors of all levels to collaborate and learn from each other – from the Jewish Funders Network to our network of giving circles at Amplifier and beyond. For us at Amplifier, this moment propels us to grow our work to focus on how we can ignite giving by all, and we are poised to launch new tools, resources, programs, and in the year to come.

Moving forward, when I ask groups, “who’s a philanthropist you admire?” I hope that their responses will become more expansive. I want them to keep including the names of billionaires and celebrities, and I also want them to include the names of their friends, family, colleagues, and neighbors, and ultimately, themselves. We all have the potential to become philanthropists, and to understand that whether we are giving away $1 or $1 million, we can do so in a way that enables us to live out our values, build community, and makes a difference in the issues we care about. Our communities are truly stronger when everyone gives.

Liz Fisher is CEO of Amplifier, which ignites, strengthens, and informs giving inspired by Jewish values. She believes deeply in Amplifier’s vision of a world in which everyone has the power to create positive, powerful, change through giving.