Where Personhood, Peoplehood, and Philanthropy Meet

[This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 27 – “Philanthropy and Jewish Peoplehood” – published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.]

By Gideon Herscher

It seems quite intuitive to draw a direct line between Jewish philanthropy and peoplehood. After all, isn’t it the case that the funds we raise through our philanthropic relationships strengthen Jewish institutions and programs, foster Jewish leaders, and innovate Jewish community life – endeavors all at the heart of peoplehood?

But what if the opposite were also true? That the journey of the philanthropist in discovering his or her individual personhood is actually a precursor to meaningful engagement with peoplehood, and that the exploration into that personhood leverages and expands our philanthropic relationships to an even greater extent?

In Building Community and Peoplehood in a Time of Personalism, Dr. Jonathan Woocher, z”l, posits that, “without social capital, institutions eventually go bankrupt and collapse. People won’t participate, and when they do, they do so without enthusiasm and deep loyalty.” Woocher then highlights the importance of forging meaningful connections between individuals, remarking: “These relationships build the trust, concern, commitment, and sense of mutual responsibility – and also the joys of comradeship and familiarity – that give substance and spirit to, and thereby sustain, institutional life.”

This stark truth is met by another one: if we are serious about securing and perpetuating peoplehood, then we must first relate to and embrace a person-centric approach to our philanthropic interactions. Otherwise, we will have overlooked a critical stage in the engagement of the individual necessary for a substantive conversation on peoplehood.

For our purposes, I am defining “personhood” as a profound and stable connection to one’s self, to one’s essence, purpose, and goals. My preferred definition of “peoplehood” is offered by Dr. Erica Brown in her article What Peoplehood Means to Me, where she refers to peoplehood as “the psychic understanding that we are part of an extended family with a purpose.” Only after one’s personhood is crystalized can the potential for a meaningful connection to peoplehood surface.

I have discovered this in my own practice as a fundraiser at JDC. I partner with individuals who have made the decision to take a portion of their wealth and allocate it to endeavors that lift the vulnerable and build a Jewish future. One could argue that anyone who is willing to give to those outside his or her immediate circles (family, community, or socio-economic cohort) has already recognized the significance of peoplehood and made a decision to engage in it. After all, aren’t they giving to something beyond themselves? 

For many donors with whom I work, however, the notion of peoplehood as a compelling concept to engage with is only distantly relevant. The questions that preoccupy many of the philanthropists with whom I work are anchored first and foremost in personhood and their desire to live a generous, fulfilling and purposeful life.

Among the many questions I have encountered, four stand out. These have been posed by donors for whom peoplehood is not necessarily at the forefront of their motivations for giving. And yet these very questions pose unprecedented opportunities for Jewish organizations and fundraisers to understand why a critical part of their role, if not duty, is to join forces with the askers of these questions and together explore the possibilities. 

  1. What do I care most about and why?
  2. What will I do to improve the status of that which I care most about?
  3. Who can I trust enough to form a philanthropic partnership in order to achieve my goals?
  4. How will my giving bring happiness and fulfillment to my life?

If a donor or prospect is sharing these questions with you, it usually means that the answer to question #3 is …you.  If the fundraiser is prepared to join the donor for the journey, the results can be manifold. There can be profound discoveries and insights into the donor’s personhood, their dreams and fears. There can be the development of a lifelong relationship anchored in trust, whereby the donor’s giving is an authentic manifestation of the insights that arose in your process together. And perhaps most powerful, there can be simultaneous transformations in the lives of philanthropist, those assisted, and even the life of the fundraiser.

I recognize that embarking on such a journey may feel as if you are going beyond the bounds of fundraising protocol, acting in many ways as a life coach or counselor. However, the role of guiding people on such endeavors requires careful attention and counsel in a personal way, serving as an integral part of any successful fundraiser’s portfolio.

Many times, this journey culminates in a new level of engagement that allows for conversations about peoplehood and the building of bridges between personhood and peoplehood. So, what are the ingredients needed to arrive at this level of engagement and onward toward an exploration of peoplehood? These steps should be considered: 

1. Donor research: Do it with them, not on them. In the past decade, sophisticated software and search engines have entered the fundraising market. Today, at the click of a button you can access estimates of one’s net worth, giving history, hobbies, and more. While such tools can yield important information, I have found that interviewing your donor and engaging in a dialogue about their history, families, aspirations, and yes, wealth, builds strong foundations for a meaningful connection. Be genuinely curious about your donor’s cares and concerns. Be prepared to share of yourself. Sharing yields sharing.

2. Be sure its a match: Perform an initial check for synergy and shared affinities between what your organization does and what the donor may care about. Additionally, ask yourself if you are the best person to partner with the donor or whether there is someone else in your organization who may be a better match. And if so, develop a handover mechanism whereby knowledge is transferred and the next fundraiser is fully briefed and equipped for the journey.

3. Broaden your fundraising horizons: Consider a twofold donor engagement strategy that blends your organization’s work with a personal engagement process based on a set of core questions that are developed and explored together. One way to achieve this is to work with the donor to create a personal philanthropic mission statement. This process can be time-consuming, but yields a critical reference that highlights the donor’s commitment to interest areas, populations, passions, and more. This exercise also lends itself to exploring where peoplehood may or may not figure into the donor’s vision.

4. Manage expectations: Be open and patient with the type of outcomes that surface from an exploration of personhood. Yes, you need to fundraise, and your organization will not prosper if it has self-realized individuals of wealth who are not supporting you financially. However, success should not be defined solely by your bottom line number this year, but by the number of individuals you have meaningfully engaged in a journey, with the understanding that within a finite period of time, they will give. Giving is key to this formula because it is how they will manifest their passion and how you will change lives together. The giving may be because they believe in your mission or programs, or because they believe in you and are endlessly appreciative of the purpose and clarity you helped develop in their lives.

About a year ago, I conducted a philanthropy workshop with young American Jewish business owners. Toward the end of the workshop, I was approached by a participant who’d recently sold his business and struggled with taking the first step toward greater giving. He’d made several contributions to local institutions but couldn’t explain the logic or motivation behind them. He wanted to dig deeper.

So, we embarked on a process defining impact, what concerned him most, the type of change that would give him the most fulfillment, and which populations he wanted to impact. We also explored his desire to leave his comfort zone, explore uncharted territories, and discover groups in need he was either not of or disenchanted with based on a long-held bias. Among those he was most curious about, and suspicious, were Haredim, or ultra-Orthodox Jews.

At the time, my organization was piloting a vocational skills training program for a subsection of Haredi students in some of Israel’s top yeshivas who while gifted, could not sustain the rigorous daily study regimen. Through workshops, skill building, and testing for individual strengths, the appropriate industry can be found and a job secured.

And off we went. Not only did he engage and dialogue with members of the program, key Rabbis and Haredi leaders, and employment experts in this field, he also was able to draw from his business skills to help advise a steering committee of the program. At the conclusion, he made a six-figure gift and became one of the key investors in changing the lives of a population he previously misunderstood.

This moment of transcendence had the magic mix whereby personhood was not just expanded, but redefined towards peoplehood. It was driven by the desire to give, but to do so in way that addressed the simple, innate desire to be an agent of hope in the world. And its success rested on human connection and a journey touched by challenges, learning, perseverance, and a commitment to strengthening our people for the future.

Gideon Herscher is JDC’s Director of International Partnerships. For nearly twenty years, he has worked closely with philanthropists around the world to develop enduring, impactful, and fulfilling relationships that lift the lives of the most vulnerable.

eJewish Philanthropy is the exclusive digital publisher of the individual Peoplehood Papers essays.