What Jewish fundraisers can learn from the Giving USA report

Avrum Lapin, longtime consultant for nonprofits and board member of the Giving Institute, offers recommendations and analysis for organizations in light of the latest survey of philanthropic giving, including the need to focus on Gen X

The annual Giving USA report that was released last week offers insight into the broader trends in philanthropic giving over the past year, with donations up in real terms, but shrinking slightly when adjusted for inflation and with religious causes keeping their place as the most funded recipient of donations, but shrinking. 

But in many ways the Jewish philanthropic sector, which saw a surge in the final quarter of 2023 after the Oct. 7 terror attacks in Israel, was out of step with the broader philanthropic trends. So what if any lessons can Jewish organizations learn from the estimated $557.6 billion that was given to nonprofits in 2023? 

To understand this, eJewishPhilanthropy sat down last week with Avrum Lapin, the president of the Lapin Group, a fundraising and management consulting firm for nonprofits, who also serves as a board member of the Giving Institute, the organization behind Giving USA and its annual report.

The interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Judah Ari Gross: So what are some of the key takeaways from the Giving USA report, particularly for Jewish organizations?

Avrum Lapin: Giving to religion was always the largest chunk of philanthropy. It still is, but if you look at the Giving USA report, it gives you the 40-year retrospective that shows that giving to religion in 1984, for instance, was about 57% or 58% of the philanthropic dollar. In 2023, it was a little less than half, 24%. And it was 27% in 2022. 

The reason it contracted was it actually increased in current dollars, but because of the impact of inflation, it was counted as a slight decrease. It’s still the single largest [recipient], but… It’s only a matter of time until these other philanthropic destinations overtake religion. And that’s against the backdrop of all these communal issues that we know, in terms of levels of affiliation [with religion], which is not something that affects only the Jewish community. It’s across all faiths and all denominations in American societies. 

The Ruderman study gave information that was intuitive. They told us things we already knew, but put [a scientific backing] to it: That Jews are generous; … that two-thirds of Jewish households that do give philanthropically, give outside the Jewish community; that two out of five Jewish donors give to synagogues, to their local congregation; that Jewish households tend to give more than their non-Jewish counterparts on a per household basis. And the Ruderman study found that some stronger Jewish affiliation is associated with higher rates of giving, to both Jewish and non-Jewish causes. And then, of course, there’s the impact of antisemitism, which is still not yet measured because it really spiked [after the publication of the Ruderman report], which indicated that those who experience antisemitism tended to give more to Jewish causes… 

So it’s not yet clear if [increased engagement and giving to Jewish causes after Oct. 7] may be a blip or if it’s going to last. If things calm down and the antisemitism, in a sense, dies down… would patterns go back. 

JAG: Are there any places where we can see Jewish philanthropy in the Giving USA report?

AL: The JFNA Israel emergency campaign, the more than $800 million are reflected to a large degree in the 2023 Giving USA report, in the public-society benefit column. And they may have created a little bit of a spike, but the numbers are big enough [Ed. note: in total, $62.81 billion was donated to such causes in 2023] that $800 million is not going to change [the overall trend]…

In the fundraising environment, one of the things that we heard constantly was ‘I gave much more than I anticipated to the emergency campaign. I took money that I might’ve given to other places. So all my philanthropy has been restructured for the current year.’ So it’ll be important to see how that shakes out. There are no numbers on that yet. 

I’m of the mind that strong domestic institutions — strong synagogues, strong community centers — are important to giving to Israel because they’re foundational community institutions. Without the institutions that organize the community domestically, the ability to continue to raise money for Israel is not going to be a strong — that’s just one guy’s opinion. 

But the local institutions need to take this opportunity to see themselves as being foundational in the community and not [go back to] business as usual and make the effort to look at the differences that are out there. One of the things that Jewish community institutions — and institutions outside the Jewish community — did not do or have not done as robustly as they could have done is look over the last few years at generational changes, how people give, how monies are raised and what are the triggers in different generational cohorts. What is a post-Holocaust Jewish donor? How did they give? What are the motivational elements there, for a baby boomer or a millennial or a Gen Xer. The Gen X generation, that’s 45 to 60 years old, they’re the ones that are now emerging into top leadership roles… so they’re the cohort to watch right now. And they give a lot differently than their baby boomer parents.

Their baby boomer parents gave out of obligation. They largely gave to the Jewish community first and then gave to everybody else. For Gen Xers, giving to the Jewish community — as much as they care about the Jewish community — it’s an item on a menu. That goes back to the [Ruderman study that found that] two-thirds of Jewish households are giving to causes outside the Jewish community: giving to the orchestra, giving to the museum, giving to the zoo, giving to fill in the blank community, giving to your synagogue, giving to Israel, etc. So I would caution and I would encourage local Jewish institutions to really take a look at. 

And you see that [already] in the Conservative and Reform synagogue movement. You increasingly see synagogues shifting or at least taking a look at switching from a traditional dues model to an annual giving model… They’re beginning to realize that the Gen Xers — and for sure the millennials — are not ‘joiners.’ If you ask them to be a member of something versus supporting something, it’s a much different ask. I think it’s an important distinction. 

JAG: Like you said earlier, it’s difficult to suss it out because the amount of money that you’re talking about of Jewish giving as opposed to overall philanthropy is so so small. So even the historic roughly $850 million Israel emergency campaign that JFNA did gets buried in the overall numbers. But are there any indications, even anecdotally, of what the trends look like within the Jewish community for the past year? 

AL: What is remarkable, I think, is the changes in the Jewish community in terms of how institutions need to approach giving. And I touched upon it a little bit, but I think that, in a sense, every crisis creates new questions. And I think one of the things that in my estimation — and this is not scientific; it’s my own professional instinct — is that JFNA was successful. They set out to raise half a billion dollars, they ended up raising $800-and-some million, which was a great success. But I would imagine that most of that money was from donors that were 50 years old and older, and that fits the traditional pattern. 

I don’t know if five years from now, faced with the same thing, if JFNA would be able to do the same thing. Ten years from now, I think that would even have a greater challenge. They’d have to address it in a much different way. The moneys would have to be a lot more directed. I know that there’s a lot of conversation now about the fact that JFNA still has half of the money to allocate, and while there may be a very sound plan for it, from the outside in, the optics are, there are all of these emergencies out there, but it’s a legacy organization doing things in a legacy kind of way, and there’s a need to align the reality of the day with the legacy approach… 

So how do you bring some of that money back? It’s not out of any negative [criticism of Gen X] — it’s a generous generation… It’s really the need to kind of wrap your arms around the interests of the community and in a sense plan differently. And know the triggers and what people are looking for and the nature of success. And to focus less or to focus equally on emotion and the passionate act of giving as you are about data and about the empirical change in the community in terms of what people are supporting or they’re not supporting… There’s a need to get out there and speak to the different cohorts. And that’s something that a lot of institutions are just beginning to do. 

So there’s the opportunity and there’s the challenge. The opportunity is that I think in the Jewish community in particular, the centrality of local community institutions have been kind of repunctuated, if you will. Also, they have become a platform. There’s continued support for Israel, and they become foundational for that. And [these communal organizations] really need to use this as an opportunity to do a little bit more due diligence. Donors are doing much more due diligence on them. They need to go the other direction and really get a sense of what’s out there and what the challenges are and how what they’re doing really makes the community better… People are giving now because it makes their community better, period. And somehow you need to be able to communicate that in a positive and connective way. 

JAG: We’re coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and 2021, then the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022 and now Israel after Oct. 7 in 2023. What is the value in the data coming out in the past few years? How much can you glean from the past four or five years when there have been so many crises? Are there longer-term trends that can still be seen, ones that are decades in the making?

AL: COVID didn’t change things in the marketplace, it just kind of drove change: how things are done, the way institutions function, how they relate to their employees, how they relate to their constituents, who their constituents are, but it didn’t fundamentally change the marketplace. It really didn’t. But it did change how we work and how we relate and so on, and it did, obviously, create that spike in giving. 

From February 2022 to now, the fundamentals have been pretty steady… And now, all the needs that were there before, which took a deep breath during the emergency campaigns for Israel, are now beginning to emerge. The way I look at it is that there’s a kind of a jigsaw puzzle that all the pieces were thrown up in the air, and they’re all coming down. Some are falling into place, and some are falling into the wrong place, and you have to fix them.