Getting Schooled in Tzedakah

At NYU, Penn and Brandeis, Philanthropy is a Hot Topic

By Howard Shapiro

Published October 27, 2010, issue of November 05, 2010.
  • Print
  • Share Share

For Andrea Engel, giving to charity and volunteering for charity work — two basic facets of tzedakah — came as second nature. As a high school student in Birmingham, Ala., she headed her B’nai B’rith Youth Organization fundraising effort. As a Northwestern University undergraduate in suburban Chicago, she served on the executive board for the university’s huge marathon fundraiser and raised money for the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago.

So it made perfect sense when she decided, as a law student at the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia, that she wanted some academic grounding in charity work. “All my experiences had been very ground based — I asked people for $5 donations. I was looking for some fundraising instruction on an institutional level,” she said.

The law students, Engel found, were focused on corporate law studies and not generally interested in training outside that scope. But then she came upon an elective in Penn’s School of Social Policy and Practice — a course taught by Eileen R. Heisman, president and CEO of the National Philanthropic Trust. The trust manages more than $665 million in charitable assets and has overseen more than 37,000 grants to charities in 27 countries.

Engel, now 25 and a banking lawyer in Chicago, had found her course: philanthropy and fundraising for managers of not-for-profit organizations. Other graduate students, too, are finding such courses because giving has become a subject that merits academic training — whether it’s for students interested in raising money, running not-for-profit corporations that depend on fundraising or that make grants, or sitting on boards of not-for-profit institutions.

Studying the art, laws and everyday details of fundraising and philanthropy makes sense, because “if you don’t have money for your social mission, you can’t accomplish your goals,” Heisman said. The Giving USA Foundation, an organization that tracks funding patterns, reports that 83% of the $306 billion in charitable gifts in the United States comes from individuals — about 2% of the gross domestic product.

Heisman’s is a survey course with case studies and, sometimes, guests instrumental to them. Among her assignments is a study of a 19th-century and a modern-day philanthropist. “I want [students] to see that the old guys were pretty inventive,” Heisman said. (Engel’s study was of two Jewish immigrants to America: Jacob Schiff and George Soros.)

“I feel like students can have a jump-start,” Heisman said, “giving people a chance to learn what I had to learn on my own. It wasn’t even a topic in college.”

Many of Heisman’s Penn students eye careers in charity, ultimately desiring to run a charitable organization. The courses that Richard Marker teaches at New York University’s George Heyman, Jr., Center for Philanthropy — where he chairs the Academy for Grantmaking and Funder Education — are for people who already are philanthropists or who work in the philanthropic world.

Marker, co-principal of Marker Goldsmith Philanthropy Advisors, has helped to develop a certification program “built on the core competencies anyone who’s going to be spending time as a grant maker should have.” Marker, who is a rabbi and a former CEO of the Samuel Bronfman Foundation, says he never had formal training in philanthropy “and I discovered quite quickly that almost nobody had.”

The certificate program consists of seven courses, which is about 100 classroom hours, and generally trains three types of students, who come from all over the world. The first group is funders, working in foundations or independently. A second group works already as grant makers — officials in public charities, for instance. A third group is composed of wealth managers, “people who work professionally with people who are philanthropic,” Marker said.

But the majority of Marker’s students do not pursue a certificate. They want formal training in specific subjects, such as family philanthropy issues — a topic that also draws people to full-day seminars that Marker runs three times annually.

The graduate students at Brandeis who come to David A. Mersky’s classes in the school’s Hornstein Jewish Professional Leadership Program are directed toward fundraising, specifically for Jewish groups. “They are going to be heads of Jewish federations of Jewish community centers, or directing a wide range of programs in the Jewish community,” said Mersky, also a rabbi and former development chief of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston. He is currently managing director of Mersky, Jaffe & Associates, a consulting firm for non-for-profit and private businesses.

Fundraising in Jewish com- munities has traditionally been centralized — Mersky cites UJA-Federation campaigns as an example — with volunteers approaching donors each year. It’s not been substantially dependent on long-term bequests. “We’ve never been quite that patient,” Mersky said. “We’ve often been dealing with very urgent matters of rescue and refuge. We need cash now.”

One of Mersky’s aims is to help students understand that they’re entering a world of more professional fundraising, “a field in significant transition. They’re going to have to come to grips with volunteers and donors who remember it the way it used to be,” Mersky said.

He says that many of his grad students come to the classes after an experience With Taglit-Birthright Israel: “They’re recommitting their lives to the Jewish community.” Students realize, Mersky said, that a fundraising career in the Jewish community “is a huge opportunity to make a real difference — and have a real impact.”

Howard Shapiro is a theater critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer and also writes about travel.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Did Hamas just take credit for kidnapping the three Israeli teens?
  • "We know what it means to be in the headlines. We know what it feels like when the world sits idly by and watches the news from the luxury of their living room couches. We know the pain of silence. We know the agony of inaction."
  • When YA romance becomes "Hasidsploitation":
  • "I am wrapping up the summer with a beach vacation with my non-Jewish in-laws. They’re good people and real leftists who try to live the values they preach. This was a quality I admired, until the latest war in Gaza. Now they are adamant that American Jews need to take more responsibility for the deaths in Gaza. They are educated people who understand the political complexity, but I don’t think they get the emotional complexity of being an American Jew who is capable of criticizing Israel but still feels a deep connection to it. How can I get this across to them?"
  • “'I made a new friend,' my son told his grandfather later that day. 'I don’t know her name, but she was very nice. We met on the bus.' Welcome to Israel."
  • A Jewish female sword swallower. It's as cool as it sounds (and looks)!
  • Why did David Menachem Gordon join the IDF? In his own words: "The Israel Defense Forces is an army that fights for her nation’s survival and the absence of its warriors equals destruction from numerous regional foes. America is not quite under the threat of total annihilation… Simply put, I felt I was needed more in Israel than in the United States."
  • Leonard Fein's most enduring legacy may be his rejection of dualism: the idea that Jews must choose between assertiveness and compassion, between tribalism and universalism. Steven M. Cohen remembers a great Jewish progressive:
  • BREAKING: Missing lone soldier David Menachem Gordon has been found dead in central Israel. The Ohio native was 21 years old.
  • “They think they can slap on an Amish hat and a long black robe, and they’ve created a Hasid." What do you think of Hollywood's portrayal of Hasidic Jews?
  • “I’ve been doing this since I was a teenager. I didn’t think I would have to do it when I was 90.” Hedy Epstein fled Nazi Germany in 1933 on a Kinderstransport.
  • "A few decades ago, it would have been easy to add Jews to that list of disempowered victims. I could throw in Leo Frank, the victim of mob justice; or otherwise privileged Jewish men denied entrance to elite universities. These days, however, we have to search a lot harder." Are you worried about what's going in on #Ferguson?
  • Will you accept the challenge?
  • In the six years since Dothan launched its relocation program, 8 families have made the jump — but will they stay? We went there to find out:
  • "Jewish Israelis and West Bank Palestinians are witnessing — and living — two very different wars." Naomi Zeveloff's first on-the-ground dispatch from Israel:
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.