Major changes ahead at major Jewish charity
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Major changes ahead at major Jewish charity

Federations not the only ones seeking to keep donors on board

Sociologist Peter Frumkin, just back from speaking before a Hebrew University conference on philanthropy and public policy in Israel, told The Jewish Standard that the challenges federations are facing are part of a broader social trend: “Disintermediation, removal of the middle man. You see it in financial services” as well as in the charitable world, he noted.

“It’s a huge generational problem,” he said in a telephone interview on Tuesday. “The old-time donors would give unconditionally to the federations and trust the professional managers to make the decision about the highest and best use of philanthropic funds,” said Frumkin, who is professor of public affairs and director of the RGK Center for Philanthropy and Community Service at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas.

Younger donors, he continued, “want a higher level of engagement,” perhaps serving on an organization’s board. “They also want a sense that they are doing more than just writing checks.”

Community foundations in the secular world are facing the same challenge, he said: “How do you maintain the donor base?”

In the community foundation world, he went on, “there’s been a concerted effort to reinvent the models, making them more centric to the needs of donors.”

He cited the successful Kansas City Community Foundation, which “invented a whole suite of services for donors designed to meet their needs,” as the “poster child for the community foundation world.”

Another universal challenge in the field of philanthropy is that donors want “evidence of impact.” There’s a “heightened sense of attention paid to evaluating results, measuring performance, and reporting on impact.”

This emphasis, he said, “stems from a kind of ethos of investing. You want to have some kind of sense of what the impact and the results [of your investing] are.” But while “the metrics we use to measure financial performance are very precise, the metrics we use to measure philanthropic performance are much less precise.”

It is difficult to measure, for example, whether a donation intended to foster Jewish identity does just that.

A particular challenge for Jewish charities is that younger donors “interpret philanthropy as healing the world,” not necessarily the Jewish world. “Their idea is tikkun olam, helping people and changing the world for the better. They are not so deeply aligned with Israel and Jewish causes” as their elders.

“Now that I’ve been to Israel,” he said in an aside, “I’ve seen the case for [donations to Israel] more clearly. Jewish identity is not exclusively wrapped up in the rituals of the faith. It’s also in this historic identity. You have to have a broad interpretation of what it means to be Jewish and a broader interpretation of what it means to heal the world.”

“The clever federations are reinventing themselves,” said Frumkin. The author of “Strategic Giving” (University of Chicago Press, 2006) – about effective philanthropy and how donors can develop a charitable agenda – he has some suggestions about how to do that.

First, he said, federations should create opportunities to engage and involve donors.

They should “build the tools for evaluation and performance measurement.”

And they should “serve as a vehicle for learning and donor development.”

Those are the three most important things, in Frumkin’s view, that federations can do “to ensure that the next generation of donors remain committed and interested in their work.”

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