Jewish Journal


April 27, 2010

Wandering the Biltmore


The Jewish Funders Network (JFN) brings together many of the world’s richest individuals and foundations dedicated to Jewish causes. I am not a member.

But I was invited to attend this year’s JFN conference at the Biltmore Hotel in Phoenix to take part in a Monday morning roundtable on the future of Jewish media.

I was planning to return to Los Angeles right after the session, but I changed my flight and stayed for the entire conference. For three days, I realized, the luxurious, serene resort had turned into the pot of gold at the end of the fundraising rainbow. Only a fool would leave.

JFN itself is not a funding organization. For an annual membership fee, sometimes several thousand dollars, JFN provides information, guidance and connections to help its hundreds of members from around the world make the most of their decisions and their dollars.

Some of the names are marquee: Bronfman, Adelson, Schusterman. But many are lesser-known family philanthropies. In an informal poll, JFN determined that 25 percent of the attendees give away $10 million or more each year.

Supplicants aren’t allowed: That way, donors get to focus on their education and peer-to-peer schmoozing and not get hit up for a new museum wing during coffee breaks.

(Of course, leaders of federations, social action funders and many foundations were there working on getting, even as they talked about giving. “There’s a name for that move,” the head of one such organization told me. “We call it ‘swinging.’ ”)

This year’s conference started with a collective sigh of relief. Last year, given the economic meltdown and the Madoff scandal, funders were just trying to hang onto the rails.

But this year the “turnaround” that the wealthier seem to be feeling — even if the rest of us aren’t quite there yet — had stabilized the ship.

“Now that the panic of ’09 is over,” JFN board chair Murray Galinson said at the opening plenary, “we can get a fresh start.”

But the question that seemed to be hanging over the conference was this: Start how?

With all that money once again building up in the foundations’ endowments, in donor accounts, in reburgeoning stock portfolios — billions and billions of dollars — there doesn’t seem to be a clear communal sense of where to spend it.

The sessions tried to poke around the question.

Various speakers addressed the need for universal Jewish literacy, for a renewed call to service, for engaging the young, for funding every last Jewish school, for developing Israel and defending it to the world, confronting Iran, defeating anti-Semitism.

There were several sessions on Peoplehood, what it means, how to create it, how to sustain it.

Peoplehood was good for discussion, but not action. The problem may be that for all the causes, not one stands out. Israel, education, Iran, Peoplehood — all are urgent, but none are emergencies. And even those that appear more urgent — Israel, Iran, Islamic extremism — it’s not clear that philanthropy can make the huge difference it did during, say, the founding of Israel or the rescue of Soviet Jewry.

We Jews do well in emergencies. But how do we marshal our resources when faced with mere urgencies? I asked a funder how he decides among so many worthy causes.

“My gut,” he said. “Something just speaks to you.”

What percentage of giving is emotional, I asked a young donor who sits on his family foundation.

“Most of it,” he said.

In his keynote address, professor Dan Ariely, author of “Predictably Irrational,” said that the two industries that do the worst job of making decisions based on evidence are government and philanthropy.

Charities, Ariely said, “have good intentions but weak data.”

That explains why, to an outsider, the priorities of the Jewish philanthropic world seem, indeed, unmoored.

Why do some Holocaust survivors live like paupers, while 20-somethings can get megabucks to produce some hip new whatever? Why do sons and daughters of American millionaires get funded to go to Israel for free, while thousands of Israelis go hungry? Why are people quicker to fund the next new thing over the tried-and-true old thing?

“Let’s not forget that people at the core of innovative movements received deep, traditional educations” at schools, camps, seminaries and universities, Rabbi David Ellenson, dean of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, reminded the funders.

It was Rabbi Mark Charendoff, JFN’s president, who, in his plenary address, offered the clearest sense of direction.

He pointed out that $550 billion — billion — is sitting in private foundations in America, and only 5 percent is being used.

Charendoff challenged the audience to free up additional monies for investment loans in camps and day schools, for growth capital to help good nonprofits get great. Just 10 percent of Jewish children attend day school, Charendoff said, and fewer than 20 percent attend Jewish camp. Why not free up more money to create a “tipping point” that would send the majority of Jewish children — 51 percent — to either Jewish camp or day school?

“Why is it Jews swing for the fences in every game but our own?” he asked. “Why is our philanthropic community so plagued by mediocrity?”

Mind you, he was speaking to the good guys — people who give and who care enough to give thoughtfully. But if they were looking for a direction, a goal, the Next Big Thing, there it was: The 51 Percent Solution.

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