Rapid Rise of Mega-donors Reshapes Communal World

By Nathaniel Popper

Published March 02, 2007, issue of March 02, 2007.
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If it had not been for Warren Buffett’s charitable gift of $43.5 billion last year, the world might have taken more notice of the year’s next three largest gifts — all of which were given by Jewish philanthropists.

The two largest donations after Buffet were made by Herbert Sandler and Bernard Osher, co-founders of a California bank who each gave nearly $1 billion to enlarge their own philanthropic foundations, both of which donate relatively small amounts to Jewish causes. After Sandler and Osher, the largest gift came from the estate of the late Jim Joseph, which gave $500 million to a foundation that will be dedicated almost exclusively to Jewish education. The three donations — all from San Francisco wealth — stood just below Buffet’s gift on the recently released list of the 60 largest donations in 2006, compiled by The Chronicle of Philanthropy. Each would have qualified as the year’s top gift, had they been given in 2005.

Overall, according to research conducted by the Forward, roughly 21 of the 60 largest givers were Jewish individuals. (One was the non-Jewish widow of a Jewish scientist and communal leader.)

The number of Jews on the list of mega-donors suggests that Jews are disproportionately high givers among the super rich. While Jews constituted about 24% of last year’s Forbes 400 list of the wealthiest Americans, 35% of The Chronicle’s list of top donors were Jewish.

The field of mega-donors, and the scope of their gifts, has been growing swiftly: The number of donations greater than $100 million rose to 18 from 11 last year. Many of these gifts are bigger than the entire fundraising campaigns of large Jewish federations. Insiders say that mega-givers are increasingly becoming the shapers of the Jewish world.

“This is a group of people with remarkable power,” said Marc Charendoff, who works with the super rich as president of the Jewish Funders Network. “There is virtually no accountability for how they exercise it. They can either be thoughtful or not. They can be strategic or ego driven. No matter what they decide, they have an impact.”

Among the 60 donors on The Chronicle’s list, four gave sizable gifts to explicitly Jewish causes. The largest was the Joseph Foundation’s $500 million gift (see related story). Also groundbreaking was the $100 million commitment to Yeshiva University by Ronald Stanton, a New York fertilizer executive. The Jacobses, a San Diego couple, made a $30 million gift to Technion University in Israel, and casino magnate Sheldon Adelson sent $25 million to the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Israel.

Most Jewish donors, like most donors at large, made their gifts to non-Jewish universities and hospitals, which have come to be seen as safe repositories for massive amounts of capital. But a number of Jewish donors stood out for their donations to progressive causes, such as the gift to the American Civil Liberties Union by insurance executive Peter Lewis, and the infusion of cash by George Soros into his Open Society Institute, which promotes the development of democracy and civil society.

Gary Tobin, who has conducted extensive studies of the giving habits of the Jewish mega-givers, said that The Chronicle’s list reflects the diversity of general Jewish giving in America.

“This group is as varied as the Jewish community — in their conception of what it means to be Jewish, and the level of their identity as Jews,” said Tobin, who is coming out with a new study this summer on recent mega-gifts from Jewish philanthropists.

“Some see everything through a Jewish lens, and some see nothing; most are in between,” Tobin added.

The Chronicle’s list does have some notable shortcomings as an indicator of philanthropic giving. To begin with, it relies on publicly made gifts, though many philanthropists donate anonymously or quietly from private funds. Moreover, The Chronicle does not count gifts made by the foundations of the super rich, instead including only the gifts from the estates of the super rich into these foundations. One example of how this might be misleading is the lead gift on the list, from Buffet. His $43.6 billion gift was made this year to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and other foundations, but it is likely that none of this money was actually given to a charitable cause last year.

A closer look at the foundations of the super rich indicates that almost all Jewish mega-givers direct at least some of their wealth to Jewish causes. One example is the foundation of San Francisco tycoon Sandler, which gave small gifts to Kehilla Community Synagogue and to the New Israel Fund, an organization that supports several causes in Israel, including minority rights. Much larger gifts went to the ACLU, Human Rights Watch and asthma research.

Tobin, who interviewed mega-givers for his research, found that a number of these donors view their giving to secular causes as an outgrowth of a Jewish philosophy.

“Saving the environment — for example, you can find roots for that in Genesis,” Tobin said. “Jewish cause? Well, not really. But it has Jewish sensibilities.”

A spokesman for one brand of Jewish giving is Soros, who gives little to explicitly Jewish causes but has spoken about the influence his Hungarian Jewish background had on his philanthropic approach.

“My Jewishness did not express itself in a sense of tribal loyalty that would have led me to support Israel,” Soros has said in the past. “On the contrary, I took pride in being in the minority, an outsider who was capable of seeing the other point of view.”

In the world of Jewish organizational leaders, lists of mega-gifts inevitably elicit expressions of disappointment about the relatively small number of Jewish donors who are giving major gifts to Jewish organizations. The only major gift on The Chronicle’s list to a Jewish federation was Arthur Zankel’s $10 million bequest to the one in New York. This was a small fraction of the amount he gave to New York cultural organizations.

“We’re not doing a good job as a community of putting visions before these people that capture their imaginations,” Charendoff said.

But some experts in the world of philanthropy say that Jews still give to Jewish causes at higher rates than other Americans give to their own religious and ethnic communities. No Catholic causes were on The Chronicle’s list, and Paul Schervish, who is the director of Boston College’s Center on Wealth and Philanthropy, said his research has shown that Jews give to religious causes at higher rates than Catholics or Protestants. Schervish said that the Jewish community has an unusual sensitivity to the rates of giving.

“I’ve discovered a greater sense of urgency behind the proportion of Jewish giving,” Schervish said. “They see this great threat of a decline.”

Anxiety over the possibility of a Jewish demographic decline is undoubtedly behind the multiple gifts to Jewish education. Both casino magnate Adelson and the Joseph Foundation made significant gifts to Birthright Israel, the wildly successful program that takes young Jews on a free 10-day trip to Israel.

The four mega-gifts to Jewish causes this year also represent an increase from past years. Some insiders say that such gifts as the $100 million from Stanton to Y.U. may well portend a spate of increasingly large donations to come.

“A lot of philanthropy is about where the bar has been set,” said Sandy Cardin, executive director of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation. “You’ll find foundations that have the ability to make larger grants but haven’t been doing it. Now they are starting to think about it. All of a sudden, the bar has been significantly raised.”

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