When Mark Charendoff publicly announced his decision to step down as president of the Jewish Funders Network at the end of the year, he was following his own advice. In an Opinion piece in The Jewish Week last month, Charendoff called for term limits for heads of Jewish communal agencies. “How long is too long at the top?” he asked. “I’m not dogmatic, but eight to 10 years feels like it’s enough. While it may seem a short time, it should. We should feel a pressure to achieve our agenda, to affect change.” In an exclusive interview with the Jewish Week (where he is a board member), Charendoff, who has been at the JFN for nine years, spoke of how the organization has evolved, the need for the Jewish funding world to stop throwing money at good causes and instead focus on solving problems, and why Jewish organizations need to do a better job making their case.
What did the JFN look when you first came on board nine years ago? How has the organization evolved under your leadership?
A majority of the energy of JFN in the past was on the annual conference. If you looked at budget in those days, the vast bulk of the budget was the annual conference. The organization has changed in a few different ways. We’ve really broadened the types of members who joined JFN, crossing ideological boundaries. Most of the biggest Jewish funders out there are part of JFN, but we also have people who are just getting started as philanthropists. Our members are from all over the world: Australia, England. We have offices in New York, Los Angeles, and Herzliyah, Israel. Israel is our fastest growing membership right now and several Israelis are on our board.
Membership in the Jewish Funders Network is open to Jews who donate a minimum of $25,000 a year to Jewish causes. What benefits do you offer your members?
Our network offers a different value to people now than it did then. We have programming going on every month. We have a matching grant programs that we do a couple of times a year, generating significant amounts of money for Jewish causes. Even more important, we work on moving our members into new areas and collaborative models of giving.
In recent years, you’ve been very vocal about the need for foundations to donate a larger percentage of their money to charity. And at the 2009 JFN conference, you encouraged members to focus their philanthropy in three areas: Jewish literacy, Jewish peoplehood and Jewish service.
We’ve moved from just being a service agency of funders to trying to provide leadership in the area of private Jewish philanthropy. We’ve become directive, saying ‘Here’s what you ought to do. Here’s where the needs are.’ I’ve gotten criticism, but by and large our membership is looking for that kind of leadership. Part of the problem in the Jewish community is that we have lots of leaders and no followers. If you look back and no one is following you, it’s not really worth the energy. A consequence of leadership is that you’re not going to make everyone happy.
Your op-ed in The Jewish Week sparked debate. What reactions have you personally received?
The donor community felt it was right on. There are some exceptions to the rule, but by and large we need more motion in the executive suite. I fully recognize some people that don’t agree with me won’t bother telling me. Among Jewish professionals, some people said kol hakavod, thank you. Other people have contacted me and said, ‘It’s a great article, but here’s why this doesn’t apply to me.’ And then there are people who said, ‘Terrible article, terrible idea; people have to make a living and there aren’t that many jobs [in the Jewish community].’
Your article placed the issue of term limits in Jewish life on the table. What are some other issues that the Jewish community isn’t addressing, but should?
I don’t think there are enough debates in Jewish life about issues of control. We’re very good about debating the foreign policy of the State of Israel. I’m sure the prime minister is at the edge of his seat, eager to hear our thoughts on the subject. We should have more debates about areas we can control and do something about. I’m not saying everyone has to adopt as policy whatever I put out there in the paper. If you disagree with me, make your case.
What are the top challenges facing the Jewish philanthropic world?
The world that I’ve been focused on is the world of Jewish philanthropy, mainly from the lens of private Jewish philanthropists. From my vantage point, I see so much waste. As a community, we do a fairly good job identifying causes and trying to contribute to those causes and do God’s work. We do a poor job when it comes to using our resources to solve problems. Sometimes we’re throwing money at perfectly good things. Take the poor kids in Beersheva. You can go and spend $1,000 and feed a couple of hundred kids with a lachmania [roll] so they don’t go to bed hungry. That’s a mitzvah. But they’re all coming back tomorrow. And their kids are probably coming back, too. If you have $1 million, and as a community we certainly have those types of resources, we should be solving problems. Sometimes it feels to me like we’re putting our energy into preserving a system as opposed to solving a range of problems.
Which problems should the Jewish community tackle first?
There are two types of problems: problems we try to solve and those we can’t. In the world of private philanthropy, one of things we learn very quickly is that philanthropists have very little interest in problems that money can’t solve, even if it is the most compelling. The engagement of the broader Jewish community in a meaningful relationship with Judaism is a crisis in this country. There was a point when we thought this was one of those problems that money can’t solve. I think over the past 10 years, we’ve proven that we can solve it. Birthright is certainly an example. Day schools work. Camping works. Travel experience works.
In the post-Madoff, economically challenged world in which we live in, all of these causes are fighting for the same finite amount of dollars.
The wake-up call of the economic reversal should not be, ‘Oh my God, there’s less money out there; that’s the wrong message. It should be, ‘Oh my God, we may never live in a generation with so much discretionary wealth.’ We better start spending now to solve some of the problems we’re in position to solve.
Where do we start?
Michael Steinhardt rightly observed to me that one of the contributions of Zionism is that it gave people a national project. We don’t have that today. There’s no question; you can’t possibly use money effectively if everyone is going about their efforts without coordination and collaboration. The Gates Foundation, the biggest foundation in the world, they’ve said they’ll put their energy into trying to move other people’s money. There is very limited possibility to have an impact without collaboration.
Do we need a Jewish community-specific Giving Pledge?
There are plenty of Jews signing onto the giving pledge. We need to inspire them to see that the problems we are addressing are worthy of their investment. How is it possible that Judaism – which taught the world to care for the widow and the orphan and focus our energies on creating societies that protect the weakest among us, as well as the value of educating children and the centrality of spirituality in life— doesn’t really have a message that compels our own people? Maybe we’re doing a bad job communicating our message.
The Jewish community, and the federation system in particular, faces the challenge posed by the aging of its donors. What advice do you have for attracting younger Jews to donate to Jewish causes?
They should stop aging. Seriously, I don’t think you attract younger donors by trying to attract younger donors. You attract them by doing good things and having causes that are very compelling. We need to show them that their money will go farther with us than with other possible outlets.
What advice would you offer your successor?
I don’t want to give guidance from the grave.