Young Jewish Funders: Good News, Bad News, Great News About the #NowGen

hg hikeBy Mickey Penzer

When it comes to young Jewish funders I have some good news, some bad news, and some great news.

The good news is that more young Jewish philanthropists than ever before are choosing to be strategic, collaborative, and Jewishly engaged in our giving. That much was clear to me in San Diego early this month at the Jewish Funders Network (JFN) Annual Conference, where I was among the attendees who fell into the “younger funder” category. There were 60 of us at the conference, a record for JFN. We participated in dedicated sessions for younger funders that were very enriching, including a pre-conference event about reimagining Jewish philanthropy, a fascinating discussion between the young funders group and JFN President Andrés Spokoiny, and a lovely hike in which we young funders were led on a vigorous walk by the not quite young Harold Grinspoon. Of course, we participated in regular conference sessions alongside funders of all ages. (I found one session on Program Related Investments especially useful and informative.)

I had an amazing experience connecting with fellow philanthropists of all ages in the JFN world. However, it was especially relevant for me to meet peers in similar situations and stages of life to my own. Philanthropy isn’t only about giving, and it isn’t even only about giving intelligently and effectively (though that’s obviously a huge and important part of it). Philanthropy is really about enacting our deepest values in all the life choices we make. It is connected with our giving, our careers, our interests, our family dynamics, and everything else we do. I don’t want to complain about being in a funder’s position of economic privilege, but for those of us who believe that privilege comes with a real responsibility to work for change, that responsibility can be daunting. It is hard to find a lot of other people who relate to those challenges. So I find it enormously valuable to get a chance to connect with my peers who also take that commitment to philanthropy seriously, and view that responsibility through a Jewish lens.

That’s why I was thrilled to meet so many great young funders at the conference in San Diego. Which brings me to the bad news: there are countless young Jewish funders out there who are deeply invested in making a social impact, and who connect that philanthropic drive to their Jewish identity, but whom I didn’t get a chance to meet at the JFN conference. That is simply because they weren’t there. The fact is, 60 out of 450 participants of the conference may be a record for JFN, but it isn’t good enough. I don’t know the exact number of high-capacity funders active in the Jewish community around the world, but I do know that number is many times higher than 60.

The JFN crowd clearly knows this is a problem, and it showed from the enthusiastic reception I received. Throughout the conference I was often surrounded by older funders who were sincerely thrilled to see me there. For three days I was enveloped in greetings, welcomes, and eager conversations. To be honest, I sometimes felt a little like a new puppy. The eager embrace and genuine respect I felt from my more seasoned colleagues was very positive on one level, but also indicative of a real problem that the whole Jewish philanthropic community has with engaging the generation that some people and organizations call “next gen.” Maybe they’d be doing better at it if they changed the way they think about us. Everyone should realize that we are not giving next, we are giving now. So we are not #NextGen funders, we are #NowGen funders.

This is a challenge for JFN, and a sign that they have a lot of work to do. But it’s also a problem for us, the #NowGen Jewish funders. We also have a lot of work to do. If we want to influence the most pressing conversations in Jewish philanthropy, we have to step forward and be involved. And I get it! Taking time for a conference is tough, especially now. At this stage of our lives, young Jews who are actively engaged in high-capacity philanthropy are also likely to be working hard at something we’re passionate about. We’re building a business, building a portfolio, building a social venture, raising small children, or doing something else tied to our highest callings. It can be hard to remember how much value there is in taking time to reflect with colleagues about our values and priorities. It can be enormously helpful for our ability to be our best in everything we do, but only if we make it happen by showing up.

But here’s the great news. From another angle, the fact that we only saw the tip of the young funder iceberg in San Diego shows how much potential there is for transformative social change as more young Jewish funders get involved, whether with JFN, with giving circles, with our local Federations, with startup organizations, with informal groups of other funders, or with whatever other hubs of Jewish philanthropic involvement we find most appealing. We can all do more in philanthropy when we play as a team, and it’s amazing for the team’s future to reflect that we have a deep pool of talented potential players.

If you’re a Jewish philanthropist – especially one at an early stage of your life and career – are you playing on the field, or going it alone on the sidelines? What would need to change to make that different? This isn’t a rhetorical question, and I hope people will write to me and answer it. Because I don’t know what the “right” answers are. But I know that if we want our Jewish giving to make the biggest difference for the causes we believe in, we all have a responsibility to join the team and get in the game.

So I hope to see you at #jfn2017!

Mickey Penzer is Vice President of the Jacob & Anita Penzer Foundation. An attorney, she serves as Legal and Compliance Counsel at LIFE, Inc., a nonprofit organization that provides an array of social service programs to underserved communities across New York. She can be reached at