Path To Boosting Jewish Charity Giving Lies in Community Involvement

Study Offers Glimmers of Hope for Luring Younger Donors

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By Josh Nathan-Kazis

Published September 03, 2013.

What’s the best way to squeeze charitable dollars out of Jews? A new study suggests it could be to make sure that they’re involved in a Jewish community.

Jewish charities complain that shrinking donor pools and tighter-fisted younger Jews are threatening the viability of the Jewish not-for-profit ecosystem. Yet a September 3 study from Jumpstart, a Jewish charity research group, suggests that some of those concerns are misplaced.

The study, based on a survey of 3,000 American Jews, does include some bad news for Jewish federations, the communal umbrella groups that raise and distribute money on behalf of smaller local Jewish charities.

But overall, the study’s authors say that findings draw a strong correlation between engagement in Jewish life and giving to Jewish and non-Jewish causes. That’s pretty good news for most Jewish not-for-profits, which had suffered from a severe case of hand-wringing in recent years as they faced what they considered generational shifts in giving patterns.

“The accepted wisdom is that organizations within the Jewish community are fighting over a shrinking pie,” said J. Shawn Landres, CEO of Jumpstart and one of the authors of the new study. “I think that this shows that we can actually grow the pie.”

Jewish not-for-profits across the United States have suffered a major fiscal crisis since 2008, slammed first by the recession and then by the Bernard Madoff Ponzi scheme scandal. On top of those disasters, charity executives have grown increasingly concerned over whether younger Jews will continue to support the thousands of Jewish social service, educational and religious organizations that rely on donor dollars.

The new report is the first publication to come out of an effort called the National Study of American Jewish Giving, a survey aimed at understanding how Jews are spending their donated dollars.

The worst news in the September 3 report is for the Jewish federations, which appear to have very little appeal among younger donors. While 45% of Jews older than 65 told researchers that they gave to Jewish federations, only 28% of Jews younger than 40 said the same.

That’s a far greater gap between older and younger Jews than for other sorts of Jewish charities. For example, 29% of Jews younger than 40 reported giving to Israel-related charities, as compared with 32% of Jews older than 65.

“If I were a federation director, I’d rather not have this problem,” said Steven M. Cohen, a leading sociologist of American Jewry and another of the study’s authors.

That lack of appeal for younger Jews could be due to a generational shift in attitudes, according to Jeffrey Solomon, president of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies and a co-author of a preface to the Jumpstart report. “What we learned [from] the Internet is, you don’t need the mediator to get things done,” Solomon said. “Federations were the intermediaries that collected from the communities to redistribute the monies… and young people don’t understand that.”

The bad numbers for federations are a dark spot in an otherwise surprisingly positive report. The report found that Jews make charitable donations: Seventy-six percent told researchers that they had given in 2012. That’s well above the number for non-Jewish Americans, 63% of whom reported giving that year.

Furthermore, most Jews who made donations gave to a Jewish organization. While 92% of Jewish givers said they had given to a non-Jewish charity, 79% of Jewish givers said they had given to a Jewish charity.

Other highlighted results were no-brainers: The report stated that richer Jews were more likely to make donations.

For the study’s authors, the most striking result was that engagement in a Jewish community is closely correlated to giving, both to Jewish and non-Jewish charities.

“The study basically says, at least says to me, there’s not much that affects the likelihood of Jews giving to Jewish causes except for the number of intimate or not-so-intimate contacts they have with other Jews,” Cohen said.

Being engaged in Jewish community, for the purposes of the survey, means attending religious services, having Jewish friends, volunteering for charitable or religious organizations, being married to another Jewish person or any of a number of other markers.

While 93% of Jews whom the survey classified as being at a high level of Jewish social engagement gave to Jewish causes, only 15% of Jews at a very low level of Jewish social engagement gave to Jewish causes.

More surprising, while just 58% of Jews at the low end of the Jewish social engagement spectrum gave to any charity, Jewish or non-Jewish, 96% of Jews at the high end of the spectrum gave to charity.

In a related finding, the study found that Jews were more likely to cite helping their local community as a reason for giving than helping Jews or the Jewish community broadly.

“It should direct attention to building social networks instead of coming up with new philanthropic opportunities,” Cohen said. “It really says, go back and build those networks, it’s the only thing that’s going to work.”

Contact Josh Nathan-Kazis at nathankazis@forward.com or on Twitter, @joshnathankazis



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