Why Venture-Philanthropy is a Game-Changer

By Rabbi Ari Sytner, M.Ed, LMSW

When I consult for synagogues around the country, I find that financial pressures are often the single factor driving the agenda. The desire to attract new members is motivated by the need to raise more money, rather than to promote a vision, purpose and passion. Unfortunately, nonprofit organizations driven mostly by money tend to lose their way.

Thus, instead of only exploring the two-pronged approach of reducing expenses and increasing donations, I encourage the third option. This is where we first refocus the leaders on supporting and promoting the synagogue’s mission (which will likely yield an increase in membership). Then, we explore entrepreneurial alternatives to generate revenue. Too often, nonprofit organizations and for-profit businesses exists in completely separate worlds, even though the two have a great deal to offer one another.

In the corporate world, there are new massive trends which encourage charity and volunteerism. Why would a company care whether their employees donate to charity? Why would corporations like Apple and Google offer programs, where they match the charitable contributions of their employees?

It could simply be because they want to be a part of the culture of “do-gooders.” It might be because industrial psychologists have suggested that employees are more productive when they feel that they are helping the world (not just selling technology). Or, perhaps they give so generously to avoid the extra tax burdens, which will inevitably hit their multi-billion dollar bottom lines.

Regardless of their ulterior motives, you have to admit that great things are happening as a result of these corporate trends which encourage kindness and philanthropy. But, let’s be clear, most companies do not exist, nor were they created just to bring social welfare reform to the world. Only as a result of their incredible success, are they able to give back to the community and help the world.

Imagine, however, if we flipped the model. What might it look like if a company were formed exclusively to help the world, while also yielding a profit?

I recall once partnering with a very generous oral surgeon, who invested in an ice-cream franchise. I curiously asked him why he was expanding into this market, if he was already maintaining a highly successful and lucrative medical practice. He responded, that he works as hard as he does just to be able to give more charity. However, he was frustrated by his own financial limitations.

Therefore, instead of donating $200,000 to charity, he invested it in a business, which was going to yield more than double his initial investment. Then he would donate every penny of the annual profit to charity. Additionally, his kindness was bringing a family-friendly business to the community, as well as offering employment to a number of people. Many other small businesses will equally allocate a tithe of at least 10% of their profit to go directly to charitable causes. Thus, the more successful they are, the more they can give back to their community.

Years ago, an older man visited our synagogue once each month to make a modest donation. Although I thanked him each time, he always gave the same reply, “rabbi, please don’t thank me, I do it because I am selfish. I just enjoy the way I feel when I give charity.” Under the right circumstances, philanthropy becomes the perfect link between people and organizations.

It is this win-win-win model of venture-philanthropy, which puts the desire to help others as the foundation and motivation to running a successful company. If nonprofit organizations can build better bridges to the for-profit world, there is a great deal that can be learned and incorporated to strengthen our organizations, both structurally and financially.

Rabbi Ari Sytner is a therapist, Huffington Post Blogger, licensed social worker, author of The Kidney Donor’s Journey and the Director of Leadership and Community Development at Yeshiva University’s Center for the Jewish Future. Training community lay leaders, rabbis, and rabbinic students in the art of Jewish leadership, Rabbi Sytner uses his talents and passions to inspire the full spectrum of the Jewish people and to help build healthier models for successful synagogues, with a particular focus on millennial engagement. He holds a Bachelors in psychology, a Masters in education, a Masters in social work and is currently completing a Ph.D. in Social Work on the topic of divorce in the Orthodox community.