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How the pandemic will change Jewish philanthropy

New York, December 1st, 2021

My dear colleague,

I understand you’ve been locked up in an Ashram for the last two years and you’ve missed the pandemic. No great loss, believe me. Lucky you to come down from the Himalayas and be vaccinated right away at the Gates Center in Katmandu! We had to wait for six months!

Others will tell you how the world changed, but you asked me how Jewish philanthropy, the field in which we work, evolved in response to the pandemic. Good that you asked, because the field changed a lot in the pandemic and the recession that followed.

The decisions we make today will reverberate in the years to come and have the potential to create a feedback loop of transformation and growth.

Andrés Spokoiny

At the beginning, I was concerned. Philanthropy’s response to the previous recession wasn’t stellar. In 2008, many funders reacted to the crisis by cutting contributions as their investment portfolios shrank. But 2020, thank God, was different. In fact, the pandemic accelerated many positive changes in the field, and, in fact, the practice of philanthropy looks very different – and better – today.

What changed?

First, there was a change of mindset. Jewish philanthropists understood that they had to step up big. And they did so. The result is that now, funders have acquired the taste of tackling big problems instead of funding niche programs. If we could shore up the community during COVID, we can solve so many other problems: affordability of Jewish life, access to Jewish education, Jewish poverty, you name it.

Funders finally understood that real change requires collaboration. At every level, funders learned that it was critical to share information and work with each other. Egos were put in a corner, and, surprisingly, they remained there.

Remember all those debates between champions for independent philanthropy and the advocates of communal giving (like federations)? All that is gone. We finally understood that communal and private giving are complementary and need each other. During COVID, we saw a lot of partnerships between federations and foundations, and that continues to this day. Both sides needed to adapt, but we finally understood the need to work together.

Funders also understood the power of unrestricted giving. Pre-COVID, things had gotten out of hand. Donors would give for specific projects only, and nonprofits had no money to pay for their basic programs and services. They also had no funds available to respond rapidly to crises or changes in their circumstances. During the crisis, foundations gave unrestricted funds to allow nonprofits to respond to the crisis as they saw fit. That, thankfully, stuck, and now much of the funding is unrestricted.

Grantmaking became much more democratic. It’s not as if we have popular assemblies to decide donations, but foundations realized that it’s critically important to consider the voices of those being served. In the past, much of our gifts were decided in the sterile atmosphere of the boardroom; now, we consult with the field. Many foundations now include non-family members on their boards and engage in consultative processes with diverse populations.

“Giving boldly” became fashionable. In the past, most foundations stuck to the five percent payout as if it were Torah from Sinai. In the COVID crisis, people remembered that five percent was a floor and not a ceiling. Many dug deeper into their endowments (without threatening their long-term sustainability), and a taboo was broken for good.

Funders also realized that so-called “legacy organizations,” i.e. national agencies, umbrella organizations, etc., are critical in a crisis. They fulfill a critical role in centralizing responses, circulating information and serving as a platform for cooperation. Many “umbrellas,” from the Jewish Federations of North America to Jewish Funders Network to the Jewish Community Centers Association to Prizmah (Jewish day schools), to religious movements became vital in the crisis, and their full potential was unlocked.

Finally, as you can imagine, the collapse of some Jewish organizations was unavoidable. But let’s face it: Many organizations were teetering in a good year, and “saving them” amid a world depression was chimeric. Like COVID, co-morbidity was a big factor in the survival rate of nonprofits. Those that were healthy when the crisis hit had a much better chance of recovery.

At the beginning, some funders wanted to try to save every Jewish organization, every school, every JCC, every camp. Very quickly, however, funders realized that was impossible. Funders then said, “We can’t save every camp, but we can make sure that every child that wants to go a camp can; We can’t save every school, but we can promise that every kid who wants a Jewish education will get one.”

In sum, while you were meditating in Nepal, a stronger, more cohesive, more participatory community emerged. The crisis accelerated systemic changes in many sectors of the community and now we have better organizations, more streamlined services and a more mature philanthropic sector. You are welcome!

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Is this scenario too rosy? Maybe, but it’s not implausible. All the things that I’m telling my imaginary friend that is coming back from his Ashram are based on actions that funders are taking today. The decisions we make today will reverberate in the years to come and have the potential of creating a positive feedback loop of transformation and growth. It’s hard to see a better future while refrigerated trucks are storing COVID victims a couple of blocks from my home, but nothing is more stubborn than hope.

Andrés Spokoiny is the President and CEO of the Jewish Funders Network

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