Houston — If our communal organizations were to follow the Torah, in letter and spirit, they would overhaul their fund-raising strategies completely.
Instead of concentrating on the “big givers,” the 10 percent of donors who contribute about 90 percent of the total dollars in Jewish federation campaigns, our pros would focus on maximum participation rather than “major gifts.”
According to the Book of Exodus (30: 11-15), when the Israelites were building the tabernacle in the desert, God commanded Moses to collect a half-shekel from everyone 20 and older “as an offering to the Lord.” This first collection of taxes in Jewish history was intended as both a census and a means of raising conscience and communal funds, with a clear emphasis on equality. “The rich shall not pay more and the poor shall not pay less than half a shekel when giving the Lord’s offering,” the Bible says.
Individuals who wished to could always offer additional funds, but the primary point of the half-shekel “campaign” was for the contributions to be a shared experience for the entire community. We are incomplete, only a half, without each other, the Torah seems to be teaching us.
These days the bottom line — total dollars collected — takes precedence over the number of contributors participating. And while the Jewish community is in a period of remarkable financial growth — with twice as many Jewish foundations as five years ago, about 7,000, and assets estimated to be about $25 billion — less than half of the money goes to Jewish causes.
Perhaps if there were more emphasis on shared values and mutual need, the numbers would improve. Jeff Swartz, for one, would like to see the Jewish community follow the biblical example and return to the goal of inclusivity. Speaking to some 300 grant makers in Houston two weeks ago at the annual conference of the Jewish Funders Network, Swartz, president and CEO of Timberland, the $1.2 billion outdoor clothing and accessories company, quoted from the Talmud and weekly Torah portion in calling for Jews today to find a common and comprehensive vision to “build a tent everyone would want to be in.”
He said the keys are wisdom, leadership and “Torah im derech eretz,” or combining Jewish and business values.
“Business and justice are not separate, the goal is to do well [financially] and do good,” said Swartz, whose company’s 6,000 employees receive five days of paid leave a year to perform community service.
Swartz seems too good to be true. He’s young (Brown University, Class of ‘82), handsome, articulate, personable and deeply committed to socially responsible business practices and daily Torah study.
(One could almost hear an audible sigh when he mentioned to his audience that he was married and a father.)
The funders had come from around the country for several days of intense dialogue to learn from each other, with the JFN’s help, about needs, trends and opportunities in philanthropy, and about how to do a better job of giving their money effectively and compassionately.
At the session Swartz addressed, challenging funders to determine if they are doing enough, the other featured speaker, Kathy Levinson, reflected a different lifestyle — she is a gay activist — but a similar commitment to serious, meaningful philanthropy. The former president and CEO of the E*Trade Group recently founded the Lesbian Equity Foundation of Silicon Valley to support initiatives exploring the intersection of sexual orientation, gender and Judaism, she explained.
A 1977 graduate of Stanford, she said her goal was to help create a society where her two young daughters “can feel whole” rather than being made aware of the “otherness all of us feel, in one way or another.” Offering an example of how she challenges people to “look at their discomfort and change their way of thinking,” she said she spent six months trying to convince her daughters’ private school to accept her $250 donation it had initially rejected because it did not want to put up a plaque mentioning her lesbian affiliation
Levinson also described how she leverages her gifts, donating $1 million to a collegiate field hockey program, for example, with the proviso that if the program were canceled, the funds would go to a gay and lesbian group on campus.
Swartz and Levinson are far from typical, but they do exemplify the kind of determined idealism younger Jewish philanthropists active in JFN are bringing to the table in deciding how best to give away their money. Many contribute to federation but find hands-on charities more appealing. More universalist than their parents, they tend to give greater attention to the environment or world poverty than Israeli or religious causes. But Mark Charendoff, the new president of JFN, notes that younger Jews may have a different definition of what “Jewish” means.
“They may not be attracted to older Jewish charities but would say it is their Jewishness that compels them to be concerned about nature,” he said, adding that many younger funders are looking for “an inspiring cause and someone they trust, and our job is to be the broker and help them make conscious, educated decisions.”
JFN, founded by a small group of socially and politically progressive funders 11 years ago, has taken steps in recent months to become a larger, more mainstream and higher profile organization. With a membership now of 900 people from more than 300 foundations, the group hired Charendoff, a respected pro, from the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Foundation; created a 15-member young funders collaborative to give voice to philanthropists in their 20s; moved to larger quarters in Manhattan and expanded its services, programs and staff; and is about to open an office in Israel.
Cheri Fox, co-chair of JFN who runs her St. Louis-based family foundation from Jerusalem, where she has lived for more than 20 years, says the JFN office in Israel will be aimed at serving donors there as well as philanthropists in Europe and Australia. She said JFN recognizes that “an American-style organization should not be imposed on Israelis.
“We want to meet the unique needs of Israeli society,” she said, where volunteerism and philanthropy are becoming increasingly popular. The office will help Israeli funders decide where to donate their money and help North American philanthropists decide which Israeli causes to support.
Here in America, JFN intends to lead as well as serve its constituents, Charendoff said. In his address to the conference, he noted critically that most Jewish foundations give away 5 percent of their earnings annually — the minimal legal requirement — and pointed out the figure was intended to be “the floor, not the ceiling” for giving. He also encouraged funders to take risks and push beyond their “comfort zone” rather than “cruise on auto pilot.”
Conference sessions dealt with a range of issues, from intergenerational conflict among family foundation members to the ethical dilemmas posed by competing moral imperatives. One came away impressed with the seriousness and commitment of the participants — the elite among Jewish funders — who feel a responsibility to make their charitable dollars effective tools in enhancing philanthropy.
Whether or not they can convince the entire Jewish community to contribute to Jewish causes, starting with a half shekel each, remains to be seen. (The Hillel at the University of Michigan, under Rabbi Michael Brooks, has conducted a successful campaign urging each student to contribute the same small donation, and Barry Shrage, who heads the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Boston, plans to launch a modified version, seeking contributions of at least $36 to the federation campaign.)
What’s encouraging is that JFN is growing and that its members signal a willingness among leading funders to think creatively and prod themselves and others to give wisely and passionately in helping to improve the world