You’re the executive director of a JCC, and your phone rings. It’s your biggest donor, someone whose annual giving is what makes it possible for you to offer scholarships to low-income Jewish children to attend camp, among many other things. From his first “Hello” you can hear in his voice that he’s furious, and your stomach sinks. “It’s that event you just announced,” he sputters. “That event glorifying the anti-Israel playwright.”
You know what he means. Your JCC’s Jewish arts festival next spring will feature a talk by a Jewish playwright who has been critical of Israel in the past. You know, however, that the playwright is a Zionist and has received awards in Israel. Moreover, his critical statements were similar to others by mainstream Israeli politicians. You offer to meet in person to discuss the donor’s concerns, but he cuts to the chase. “You cancel that speech today or I won’t not renew my gift.”
Or consider the federation executive who receives a call from a major donor upset with the federation board’s decision to take a political stand and oppose the Iran nuclear arms deal. “Unless you retract this statement immediately,” she says, “you can forget my annual donation.”
We wish these stories were extreme cases created to make a purely theoretical point. Sadly, though, stories like these are fairly common in the Jewish community. They are examples of how funders use “the power of the purse” in problematic ways.
There are many ways that funders can inadvertently damage their communities. Perhaps none is more common than contributing to a toxic civic climate. Recent years have seen unprecedented levels of polarization and incivility in the Jewish community. Disturbing broader trends in both American and Israeli political and social discourse have reached a nadir this year. Rational arguments have been replaced by ad hominem attacks. The polarization of the Jewish community is becoming a threat to our vibrancy and, possibly, our very survival. (The ugliness in communal debate is often cited by young people as one of the biggest “turnoffs” about Jewish life.) The Jewish community seems to have forgotten the many lessons Jewish history has taught us about the real dangers of internal strife,
In response to this growing problem, Jewish Funders Network is releasing “Funders & Power: Principles for Honorable Conduct in Philanthropy. During the coming year JFN will convene a series of events to explore how these principles can make positive change in the Jewish community. Ultimately we want this conversation to become a movement for good philanthropic citizenship.
‘Where is the line between strong philanthropic leadership and abusing power? How can funders be good citizens?’
This document comes from a series of deliberations undertaken by a diverse group of Jewish funders who were concerned about incivility in Jewish philanthropy. We soon realized that the problem is really broader than incivility. The question isn’t only how do funders advocate their views while respecting those who disagree?—the question is also how can funders structure everything about their philanthropy so that it strengthens Jewish communal vibrancy and cohesion? Where is the line between strong philanthropic leadership and abusing power? How can funders be good citizens?
Seven principles comprise our answers to these questions:
1. Take covenantal responsibility. Funders should understand their philanthropy as being part of a covenantal relationship with their communities, and should consider establishing a formal “leadership covenant” for trustees.
2. Treat grantees as partners. Nonprofits are not mere vendors but full partners in making change. (Partners work together for shared goals; they don’t use threats to get their way or try to bully one another into submission.)
3. Consider the entire community. Decisions that funders make can have unintended consequences, and funders should take proactive steps to anticipate them.
4. Consider and honor diverse viewpoints. It’s easy for funders to operate in echo chambers, but they should seek diverse perspectives instead. (Doing so, they will follow the example of the rabbinic tradition, which always reported minority opinions.)
5. Be ethically consistent. Funders should only demand that grantees adhere to rules that the funders themselves also follow.
6. Build reflection into the process. Funders too seldom receive meaningful critical feedback on their funding practices, but feedback is vital for learning and effective performance.
7. Fund positive change, not hostility. There’s a difference between funding advocacy of your own position and funding the demonization of those who disagree.
Each of these principles deserves exploration in depth. The Jewish community will need to discover the full implications together.
As with all ethical standards, endorsing these principles will be easier than complying. If we want to realize these principles, we’re looking at a lot of hard work ahead. It calls for bringing these principles into board meetings, staff meetings, proposal review processes, grant evaluation processes, and revising mission statements, etc. The effort is striving to be bold enough to call out funders for behaving poorly, and wise enough to phrase challenges constructively so that people feel they have an opportunity to improve rather than a need to defend themselves. That work is striving to be humble enough to hear challenges from others without getting defensive—whether those others are fellow funders, grantees, or other community members.
Lastly, that work for all of us is to pursue philanthropic menschlekeit, or decency, with the right mix of moral seriousness and a sense of perspective, and even humor. We always need to exercise charity—in every sense of the word—in constantly holding ourselves and others to the highest standards.
Any set of guidelines asks people to limit their discretion in advance. It may seem counterintuitive for funders to volunteer to curtail their own choices, but Jewish tradition provides an important symbol for the need to do just that. The doctrine of tzimtzum teaches that God must limit the Divine power to make room for the world to exist. In this framework, limitation is a necessary ingredient of creation. Exercising power is vital to serving communal needs, but voluntarily limiting one’s power can make room for engaged, diverse, and vibrant communities to develop and mature. By striking the right balance between power and tzimtzum, Jewish funders can create lasting and meaningful change.
Andrés Spokoiny is president and CEO of Jewish Funders Network. Kathy E. Manning, the first woman to serve as chair of the board of trustees of the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), is founding board chair of Prizmah: Center for Jewish Day Schools.