When the Jewish Women’s Foundation of New York was planning a celebration for its 10 year anniversary in 2006, the group decided to commemorate the milestone by giving out its largest grant in history: a sum of $300,000, to be paid over three years. It was a significantly larger amount than the foundation had ever given in the past.
But in order to secure funding, the organization had to change its model of fundraising. Instead of having its members contribute money each year into a general fund, its members decided to form a giving circle — an innovative model for the foundation and a way for the women to pool their money and make decisions collectively.
Each woman was asked to make a $25,000 contribution to join the circle, payable over five years, on top of the money she had already given to the foundation. Organizers expected a turnout of 40 women, but more than 60 joined, many of them donating well over the $25,000 fee. In exchange, they were all intimately involved in every aspect of the decision-making process — from what issue they wanted to fund to which organization would receive the grant.
“The women felt very involved with one another, involved with the project,” said Joan Wachtler, co-chair of the foundation’s 10th anniversary grants committee. “There was a marvelous camaraderie.”
The Jewish Women’s Foundation of New York is part of a larger network of Jewish women’s foundations — many of them affiliated with their local federations — that formed in greater numbers over the last 10 years to give women the power to decide how funds are allocated. Although many women had been involved with their Jewish federations, they did not always play a central role in the decision-making process, and they had limited power to determine which issues were funded.
In the federations, women “were asked to raise the money, but they weren’t given any authority to decide where that money went,” said Nancy Schwartz-Sternoff, executive director of the Dobkin Family Foundation, which has acted as an umbrella organization for the Jewish women’s foundations. “For so many years, [Jewish federations] were very male dominated.”
In the Jewish women’s foundations, women were able to allocate funds as they saw fit, and direct money toward issues of their choosing. Many made it their mission to support programs aimed at women and girls. The Jewish Women’s Foundation of New York was no exception. Together, the giving circle decided to direct grants toward adolescent girls — a demographic that they believed was greatly underfunded.
For the next 18 months, they focused on learning about the issues facing Jewish girls. They met with experts in the field, including Ruth Messenger, president of the American Jewish World Service; NYU Child Study Center director Harold Koplewicz, and Catherine Steiner-Adair, director of Eating Disorders Education and Prevention at McLean Hospital in Massachusetts.
In the end, they raised $2.5 million, a significant sum for a small foundation that normally brings in $500,000 a year.
“Women wanted to be with their peers, they wanted to study,” said Sherri Greenbach, former director of the foundation, who was involved in the giving circle. “They didn’t want to give a blank check.”
In June, after they had met with many experts, the Jewish Women’s Foundation of New York awarded a three-year grant to the 14th Street Y of the Educational Alliance for a project called “The Girls Theater Project.” With the money, the alliance will work with playwright and Jewish educator Joyce Klein to write a play that presents the reality of being a 10- to15-year-old Jewish girl today. The play will explore issues such as peer pressure, dating abuse, self-image, parenting roles and mental health. It will be performed around New York and in other Jewish communities around the country. An additional educational component will also be part of the final project.
The giving circle model was a new concept for the Jewish Women’s Foundation of New York, but it shares the same tradition as many other Jewish women’s foundations around the country: creating an inclusive, empowering environment for women to carry out their philanthropic goals.
Marsha Atkind, who started a Jewish women’s foundation two years ago in New Jersey, believes they are a great space for women to work collaboratively and have their voices heard.
“It gives women the opportunity to learn about issues they care about, to roll up their sleeves and do something,” she said.