The popular American humorist Garrison Keillor once said, “I believe in looking reality straight in the eye and denying it.” It’s a clever line but, if practiced, a prescription for failure. If we don’t like the existing reality, then we need to do something about it.
For those of us committed to the viability of the American Jewish community, the results of a recent study tracking the donations of America’s biggest donors delivered a harsh reality.
According to the study “Mega-Gifts in American Philanthropy,” conducted by the well-respected sociologist Gary Tobin, America’s wealthiest Jews — those donating $10 million or more annually — are giving a large percentage of their gifts to non-Jewish causes. Between 1995 and 2000, Jewish mega-donors gave a total of $5.3 billion to various charities, with a mere 6% of that total, or $318 million, going to specifically Jewish causes.
Trying to understand why the majority of Jewish mega-donors are giving to other causes should help Jewish communal institutions improve their future relationships with these individuals. But as we engage in the process of determining why, we also need to focus on what can be done right now.
According to the Tobin study, almost half of Jewish mega-donor funds, or $2.57 billion, went to higher education, a sector that certainly deserves support. Indeed, this situation should not be viewed as a case of “either-or” or “us against them.” The bottom line is that there are huge financial resources available and Jewish institutions have the same right to go after these funds as other causes. Nor should there be any hesitation in doing so.
As the CEO of the largest foundation for Jewish philanthropists in Southern California, I am acutely aware of the tremendous needs within the Jewish community. In our area, for example, there are 36 Jewish day schools educating 9,602 students in kindergarten through 12th grade, according to the Bureau of Jewish Education of Los Angeles. The cost of educating these students is some $116 million, yet paid tuition amounts to only $87 million. The $29 million shortfall is serious, particularly if one believes that Jewish education is essential for the vitality of Jewish community life, and that no child should be deprived of a Jewish education for lack of funds. Obtaining a greater percentage of Jewish mega-gifts would certainly make an impact on addressing this. The same could be said of other, similar challenges facing the community.
Yet something about the Jewish community agenda doesn’t seem to resonate with many of the mega-donors. I and other Jewish professionals and lay leaders have a responsibility to look at the Tobin study, support additional research and determine how we can better compete in the marketplace of good causes.
It’s frequently been noted that wealthy people share certain traits, and there are lessons to be learned from them. Identifying and understanding these traits can help us determine the strategies that will hopefully engage the wealthy and encourage them to make even larger gifts.
In my extensive work with generous philanthropists and local mega-donors who already have a connection to the Jewish community, I have observed several giving patterns.
First, the wealthy are interested in big ideas, in the big picture. They want to make a difference on a macro level. As such, Jewish communal institutions need to develop major, creative program opportunities.
The highly successful Wexner Heritage Foundation is an excellent example of this. Since its creation in 1985 by entrepreneur Leslie Wexner and former United Jewish Appeal head Rabbi Herbert Friedman, the foundation has fulfilled its mandate to “educate younger Jewish communal leaders in the history, thought, traditions and contemporary challenges of the Jewish people” by training more than 1,300 North American Jewish community leaders.
Second, the wealthy have no patience with institutional bureaucracy. They abhor inefficiency, lack of cooperation and lack of coordination among organizations. It is therefore imperative that Jewish institutions think and work more collaboratively.
Birthright Israel offers a great example of collaboration. The program was created as a unique partnership involving the Israeli government, Jewish communities around the world and numerous private philanthropists to strengthen connections between young adults and the Jewish state. To date, more than 48,000 Jews between 18 and 26 have traveled to Israel gratis for the first time through the generosity of this effort.
Finally, the wealthy donate to particular causes with which they identify. This is particularly relevant in reaching younger adults who may not necessarily relate to traditional appeals. We need to engage and make a connection with younger Jews in order to deepen their commitment.
The Hillel Steinhardt Campus Fellows Initiative aims to do just that. Begun by philanthropists Judy and Michael Steinhardt and run by Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, the program provides paid fellowships for recent college graduates who work on campuses across North America. The fellows strive to make Jewish life on campus more relevant for Jewish college students. Helping the next generation of Jews to connect with their heritage early on can only work to our advantage.
In order to be effective in our outreach to Jewish mega-donors, those of us working within the Jewish community need to refine the strategies that will resonate with these exceptional individuals. Is there a guarantee that these approaches will ensure Jewish mega-donors change and give more to our causes? No. But inaction is sure to guarantee failure. A plan is needed, and this may be a good place to start.
Does the current reality present a challenge? It certainly does. Should it be considered an opportunity to improve? Absolutely. Can we afford to deny it? Absolutely not.
Marvin Schotland is president and CEO of the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles.