Putting Your Mouth Where Your Money Is

We had a great workshop at the JFN conference last week addressing issues related to activism and philanthropy, with an emphasis on the evolving practices of today's younger philanthropists.

The ¬†panelists all agreed that the more traditional "checkbook philanthropy" is being quickly replaced by "hands-on philanthropy,‚ÄĚ in which donors are more fully engaged and likely to be advocates for the cause to which their funds are being directed. ¬†However, at least two panelists questioned whether the trends in next-gen philanthropy constitute a radical break from past philanthropic practices.

Josh Arnow, a director of a multi-generational family foundation started by his father many decades ago, noted that his father's legacy of identifying a problem (in this case, the status of Bedouins in the Negev) and creating a solution continues to drive much of the family's philanthropic energy, even among the third generation.

Similarly, Jaimie Mayer Phinney, a fourth-generation trustee of the Nathan Cummings Foundation, agreed that her great-grandfather's philanthropic philosophy of risk-taking in many ways remains at the core of the foundation's approach to this day.  So, while there was a consensus that next-gen philanthropy is more prone to be activist, cause-driven, and less institutional in nature, these practices are not to the exclusion of embracing the essential legacy of the forebears who created the core wealth.

Panelist Stefanie Zelkind, director of the Jewish Teen Funders Network, noted that young philanthropists are collaborative and enjoy the group giving process.  She also felt that the collaborative and group models being employed are very successful in shaping thoughtful, mature and intelligent philanthropic decisions.  

The Israeli philanthropy perspective came from Yael Shalgi of Yad Hanadiv, who described the growing philanthropic base in Israel as being highly cause-oriented, comprised mainly of philanthropists who have identified serious social, educational or environmental problems. This use of philanthropy to bring about societal reform is consistent with the trends of next-gen philanthropists in the U.S.  

As the moderator of the panel, I was left questioning whether today's younger generation is really as different from past generations in their philanthropy as the literature and experts suggest.  When American Jewish philanthropy got its start, the donors were creating institutions from scratch; envisioning and actually building synagogues, rabbinical schools, community centers, and the wide array of Jewish non-profit institutions took a huge amount of hands-on, creative and activist philanthropy.

It is true that in the last century, philanthropists were institutionally driven; indeed, they were building institutions that came to define American Jewish life.  But they would have surely described themselves as cause-driven as well; their cause was Jewish survival and then evolved into Jewish enrichment (i.e. figuring out how to be and stay Jewish in American society).

Nevertheless, it is definitely time to question whether those institutions continue to serve the community, and for the next generation to think and act critically, using all of the advances of the last 100 years to reshape Jewish philanthropy and bring it firmly into the 21st century.

Janice Kamenir-Reznik is co-founder of Jewish World Watch, the largest grassroots anti-genocide movement in the world. Janice has led many Jewish, feminist and legal organizations, and for the past two decades has served as a Los Angeles County Commissioner.