In response to the issue of the research on Birthright Israel being paid for by its sponsors (“Who’s To Say How Funders Spend Their Money?” Editor’s Column, March 29), for the record: the evaluation/research on the impact of Birthright Israel trips was commissioned by Michael Steinhardt (and Charles Bronfman) not to get selling points for donors, but out of Steinhardt’s conviction that all nonprofit activities should be evaluated in disciplined fashion.
He was convinced that too much philanthropy was given due to sentimental feelings or in return for honors for donors. Therefore, tzedakah money was not being spent wisely or efficiently or on the programs (if any) that truly worked. He was determined to set a standard of accountability and performance in all his new philanthropy. He made clear his readiness to stop or transfer support from projects that did not work to those that did.
When Birthright got underway, Steinhardt and Bronfman were criticized by some for putting so much money into research/evaluation instead of putting all the funds into providing trips (as was the norm in most projects in those days). Furthermore, only after Birthright was in full swing did Steinhardt become engaged with Brandeis and eventually decide to become the patron donor for the Steinhardt Institute of Social Research.
It is true that there is always a risk of a conflict of interest when the subject of the research pays for the evaluation. But then the critics should be campaigning for a community research-funding program independent of any projects. In its absence, criticizing Birthright’s sponsors for commissioning research was a cheap shot. (Should Birthright have not commissioned evaluation in order to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest?)
To impugn the integrity of Len Saxe and Charles Kadushin was an unworthy act and the critic has rightfully apologized for this unwarranted attack on researchers who did an honest job and who set a positive precedent for all future major community projects.
Past President, Jewish Life Network/Steinhardt Foundation