Mega-Funders Increasingly Setting The Communal Agenda

Mega-Funders Increasingly Setting The Communal Agenda

Innovation and engagement are the new priorities, new study reveals. But at the expense of communal cohesion, some worry.

Editor & Publisher of The NY Jewish Week.

Jack Wertheimer
Jack Wertheimer

A small number of very wealthy Jews are increasingly setting the philanthropic agenda for the American Jewish community.

For example, according to a new study commissioned by the Avi Chai Foundation, about 250 Jewish foundations backed by Jewish mega-funders are donating vast sums — at least half million dollars a year each — to drive new initiatives primarily aimed at engaging millennials rather than providing ongoing support for mainstay social services.

Is that a good or bad thing for American Jewry?

It depends who you ask and what their goals are. Some would point to the remarkable growth and generosity of these major foundations that are now giving about a billion dollars a year to Jewish causes. It’s highly unlikely that innovative projects like PJ Library, Moishe House and, the biggest of them all, Birthright Israel, would have been possible without the largesse and creativity of mega-donors.

Others might bemoan the diminished agenda-setting role of the Jewish federation system and its noble concept of collective giving, when large numbers of Jews were more inclined to display their communal affiliation through donations, however modest, to traditional social services.

Jack Wertheimer, a professor of American Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary, has just produced the thorough and thoughtful 50-page report for Avi Chai on trends in U.S. Jewish philanthropy. Entitled “Giving Jewish: How Big Funders Have Transformed American Jewish Philanthropy,” it offers insights on how charitable dollars are being spent and the mega-donors’ goals, based in part on 125 interviews with funders and others in, and observing, the field.

Though the report doesn’t name foundations, among the biggest and most influential, in addition to Avi Chai, bear the names of Charles and Lynn Schusterman, Jim Joseph, Michael Steinhardt, Harry and Jeanette Weinberg, Ronald Lauder and Leslie Wexner.

Joel Fleishman, a Duke University professor and widely acknowledged expert in the field of philanthropy studies, called the new report “the best thing I’ve seen on Jewish philanthropy, maybe ever, in trying to measure” how, where and why funds are being directed today.

Wertheimer, who spent a year on the project, described his findings to me as “upbeat, for the most part,” noting that fundraising numbers are up — he estimates that between $5 billion and $6 billion a year is donated in the U.S. to Jewish causes here and in Israel — and that “enough young people are being brought into” Jewish communal life.

But in his report, he hints at a criticism of how major funders are spending their money. “New causes have captured the imagination of big givers,” Wertheimer writes, “while some that previously were widely touted now receive considerably less funding.” He points out that Jewish education and social services such as care for the elderly, immigrants and poor Jews are being supported primarily by “local, smaller givers,” whom he calls “the heroes of Jewish philanthropy” because they attend to the less glamorous but vital elements of Jewish communal life.

“With few exceptions, the big foundations now prefer to support what they call ENGAGEMENT — activities that bring the least involved Jews to episodic gatherings of a Jewish flavor,” the report says.

Clearly, the reason behind this new push is based on data showing that most non-Orthodox American Jews, especially millennials, are intermarrying at a high rate and showing little interest in synagogues or becoming active in traditional Jewish organizations. So funders are trying to reach them through Jewish identity-building programs like summer camps, Friday-night Shabbat meals and Birthright trips to Israel.

But in an interview, Wertheimer raised the question of whether “these episodic engagements” make a significant difference in the long run. And whether success should be measured by the number of participants or the degree of impact on their lives, which is more difficult to assess. He called for longer-term studies to follow up on “what happens to these people and where are they now in their Jewish lives.”

He also would like to see more research that focuses on the impact on the democratic character of American Jewish communal life when a small number of major philanthropists “exercise great influence because of the nature of the purse.”

Collective Giving Disappearing


Commenting on the new study, which he praised for its “serious work,” Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University, lamented that “today, when there is so much emphasis on the bottom line [in fundraising], the total number of donors is about half of what it used to be.” As the mega-donors have emerged as trend-setters, “the idea of a community making centralized decisions has vanished,” he observed, as has the notion for many Jews that giving to the local Jewish federation was a form of “pledging allegiance to the Jewish community.

“If you don’t have mass giving, you don’t have a community,” Sarna said.

Others suggest that there is nothing new about wealthy Jews having an outsized voice on communal matters. Federation boards are generally made up of a community’s biggest donors. But Sarna says that while there has always been a sense of “you have to pay to play” in communal decision-making, the gap between the mega-donors and the rest of the community has grown along with the divide between their level of donations.

Joel Fleishman appears less concerned, pointing out that what he calls the “polyarchy” in Jewish philanthropy makes for a healthy mix of power centers including federations, mega-donors and individuals using donor-advised funds.

Yossi Prager, executive director of Avi Chai in North America, observed that in response to the emphasis on episodic engagement, there has been a “counter thrust” among some foundations, with a focus on programs offering “more robust” Jewish content. He noted that there is an ongoing “tension between scale and depth,” between trying to reach large numbers of people with less content and smaller numbers with more substance. “Ideally there is some balance in finding socially engaging programs that offer genuine content — not just a ‘bait and switch,’” he said.

Prager added that the role of many major Jewish foundations is to help innovate and support good ideas that can transform Jewish life. He explained that while some criticize foundations for often limiting funding to three years on new projects, cutting back just when some are reaching a critical stage of growth, “foundations are looking for success and achievement” — they want to see the start-up attract additional sources of support on its own — because the foundations don’t intend to sustain a project forever.

“New causes have captured the imagination of big givers,” the report states, “while some that previously were widely touted now receive considerably less funding.”

Wertheimer makes clear at the outset that his report deals only with “big giving to Jewish causes,” as opposed to non-profits in general, while noting that the definition of a Jewish cause “has taken on a highly elastic meaning in recent decades to the point where any philanthropy that helps others is treated as an expression of Jewish imperatives or ‘values.’” (He points out that “even those foundations with a strong Jewish interest direct the majority of their grants” — about 58 percent — “to non-sectarian causes.”)

Lila Corwin Berman, a professor of history at Temple University with an expertise in American philanthropy, welcomed the Avi Chai report but pointed out the difficulty in distinguishing between sectarian and non-sectarian giving. “Is a Jewish organization funding education about poverty sectarian or non-sectarian?” she asked. “In reality there is a lot of blurring.”

She also noted that if a Jewish foundation funds a hospital in the U.S., it is considered non-sectarian giving. But if the foundation funds a hospital in Tel Aviv, it’s Jewish giving. “The issue deserves to be pulled apart a little more; it’s complicated,” Corwin Berman told me. “Is any donation to a project in Israel ‘Jewish giving’? I’m not convinced.”

Questions Remain

Among the key findings in the report, Wertheimer noted the increase in big giving among women, Orthodox Jews and millennials, as well as more collaboration among funders, and the growing field of professionals in foundations — nearly 100 have large staffs focusing on social change and addressing systemic problems in Jewish life.

Despite the attention that mega-donors and their projects receive, the report says that funds allocated by and through federations make up about one-third of giving to Jewish causes, compared to less than one-fifth that comes from the 250 Jewish-oriented foundations. (It should be noted that UJA-Federation of New York, the largest of the North American federations, plays a unique and major role in three funding areas. It supports a large number of innovative start-ups while partnering with large foundations on projects, and also funds traditional, core communal agencies. “We often provide the initial funding to cutting-edge projects, which in turn helps them raise additional dollars from foundations,” said UJA-Federation CEO Eric Goldstein. “And we continue to support historical institutions like JCCs, camps and Hillels that provide gateways to Jewish engagement.”) And while there is great concern that disaffiliation among younger Jews with Israel will result in less funding for the Jewish state, that is not happening now, with giving to Israel still strong.

But the new report raises almost as many questions as it answers, as Wertheimer notes: “The big wildcard now is the role of younger Jews” who will inherit large sums of money and/or make their own. What Jewish causes will they maintain, abandon and create, especially at a time when younger Americans, including Jews, are more universal in outlook, less observant religiously?

Wertheimer is concerned that younger Jews are receiving less Jewish education. “All the more reason to wonder, then, why is improving Jewish education for children not a high priority for funders?” And the negative perception that many funders have of federations as hierarchical and slow to change — true in some cases but certainly not all — hinders efforts for more collaboration between mega donors and consensus-driven organizations, which Wertheimer says is needed. He asserts that “a healthy Jewish community requires core institutions that consider the entire Jewish ecosystem,” not just sparkly creative projects.

The tension between the establishment and the innovators will always be there, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. If both groups recognize each other’s value, share a common goal of sustaining and growing Jewish community, and make an effort to work together where possible, the future is promising. And as Wertheimer concludes, the growing trends of transparency and cutting-edge practices among major foundations may narrow the affinity gap between the mega donors and the rest of the Jewish community.

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