November 9, 2011
Can young Jews give as good as they get?
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Giving circles — collective funds where donors decided where to put the money — have become a popular way for Millennials to give.
Lana Volftsun, who is a member of Slingshot, is executive director of the San Francisco-based One Percent Foundation, which is the largest online giving circle and is not Jewish.
“We’re building a generation of young philanthropists, and the model is you don’t need to be a high net-worth adult to make an impact on the world,” she said.
Already, around 2,500 18- to 39-year-olds have pledged 1 percent of their income — the average gift is $30 to $70 a month — and approximately 500 of them are active in deciding who gets the money. Participants nominate, vet and then vote on organizations online. The top two vote-getters split grants totaling $20,000 each quarter.
“What is cool is we found that most of our partners, after they’ve participated for one or two quarters, have come across an organization or institution that they are passionate about, and they start giving time or money to that organization,” Volftsun said. “That is what we are looking to foster — people who give thoughtfully and strategically, and people who will give forever.”
But if establishment Jewish organizations — especially large ones, like Federations — want to tap into that population, they are going to have to reframe not only the umbrella structure that is so unattractive to young givers, but even the time-honored ways they reach out to young people.
“I’m actually very affiliated with Federation, which is not a typical Millennial move, and I am not interested in happy hours,” said Volftsun, who is 24 and recently moved to San Francisco. “I’m interested in programs about Israel; I’m interested in the opportunity to do hands-on work, I’m interested in the opportunity to engage other young people and network with young Jewish philanthropists. Yet Federation continuously invites me to happy hours and things I’m not interested in,” she said.
The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles recently revamped its Young Leadership Division, re-creating it as YALA, Young Adults of Los Angeles. YALA removes the programming structure for young adults — defined as 25 to 40 – from the fundraising department, where it used to reside, and places it in programming departments that offer opportunities to connect Jewishly and to volunteer in and impact the wider community.
“This generation needs to feel engaged before they are willing to provide financial support. They don’t do financial support on autopilot or because they’re supposed to. They do it because they care, and they care when they’re involved and engaged. So, for us it’s a continuum. We’re interested in engagement for its own sake, and as a path toward long-term support,” said Andrew Cushnir, chief program officer at The Federation.
The effort to turn active young volunteers into donors needs to be intentional, said Rhoda Weisman, a Jewish communal consultant and an early architect of Birthright.
“I think many of the Gen Y group — especially those in their late 20s to early 30s — do not have the background to understand either how philanthropy works in general or in the Jewish community, and certainly not what their responsibility is,” she said. “But I don’t believe it’s because they don’t care, or they are selfish or self-centered, or that they’re not giving because they’re used to getting things for free. I think they’re just uneducated about how the Jewish world works.”
It’s up to Jewish organizations, she said, to educate them about where the money goes, and what their responsibility is. And once they buy in, she said, they want to know their voice is being heard.
“If you don’t involve them in more of the flat hierarchy they respond to, they are not going to give. What used to be called a passive donor is not passive in the world of social networking. They’re connected to everything,” Weisman said.
Large Jewish organizations need to rethink how they allocate board seats, she said.
“The danger is assuming that youth and inexperience automatically mean knowing less. Often it’s knowing different,” said Solomon of Bronfman Philanthropies.
Gerrol thinks currencies other than dollars need to be recognized.
“I think what we don’t recognize is the power of young people to raise money for something they believe in,” Gerrol said. “I would be willing to take someone who has a $50,000-a-year salary and 2,000 Facebook friends. They can post something on Facebook and raise unbelievable amounts of money from their network.”
That network also provides something else the Jewish world covets — the unaffiliated. Having young people invite in their diverse circles could open up a whole new population to Jewish life.
Birthright Next has recognized this with its Next Shabbat program, where it reimburses alumni who host Shabbat dinners for friends.
“The list of people who come to a Next Shabbat dinner are not the same people on the list of any Jewish organization,” Gerrol said.
One organization that has tapped into that model is Moishe House, which in the last five years has established 40 cooperative-living homes, including three in the Los Angeles area, where three to five residents live in each house, with subsidized rent. The residents commit to planning and executing Jewish programs for their networks and local young people. Around 40,000 people a year attend events through Moishe House, including Shabbat dinners, social service projects and arts events.
And while nearly all the programs are offered for free, eventually buy-in has to come from more than just pitching in to set up or clean up, said Jordan Fruchtman, chief program officer for Moishe House, based in Oakland.
At Moishe House’s national retreat, residents see the nitty-gritty of the budget and fundraising, and get to meet with donors. Last year, Moishe House residents sent an e-mail blast to peers asking for donations, and the response was solid, Fruchtman said.
“We want a model where there is buy-in, and not where everything is handed to you by the Jewish community on a silver platter,” he said.
Young donors can surprise themselves with what they can contribute if the request is framed in the right way — $83 a month is easier to get your head around than a $1,000 annual gift, for instance.
And letting budding donors know what is expected is key. IKAR, a Los Angeles spiritual and social service community, recently launched a $3 million capital campaign for a new building to serve as a hub of Jewish activity for the unaffiliated. During an appeal on Yom Kippur eve, the board president asked everyone to envision the largest gift they could imagine giving — and then double it.
“When he first said that, I thought, ‘That’s ridiculous. I can’t believe he even said that,’ ” said IKAR member Maya Barron, a community organizer who used to work for IKAR. “Then I started thinking about how much we need the building, and how beautiful the vision for it was, and that it’s not just a space for us, but a space for the Jewish community of Los Angeles,” Barron said.
Though she lives on a modest salary, she determined that forgoing about five Anthropologie shopping sprees would enable her to make a significant gift.
IKAR also has sought to make its fundraising consistent with its focus on social justice. When IKAR raised $120,000 to start a preschool last year, it also pledged $8,000 to $12,000 a year to Jewish Heart for Africa to support a preschool in Uganda.
“Our goal is to have people think about it in a different way. It’s not about, ‘Oh, they’re coming after me for money again,’ but about, ‘How can I participate in a way that is meaningful to me and meaningful for IKAR, even in the confines of my limited disposable income?’ ” said Melissa Balaban, IKAR’s executive director.
And once you get the younger generation to start thinking like philanthropists, the trick will be to get the older generation to see them as such.
This is the first time in history, Solomon of The Samuel Bronfman Foundation points out, that four generations are sitting around the same table, and the education process is complex.
“So often, parents and grandparents would like to think, ‘They are going to be like me — they’re just young now.’ And we know that is not the case,” Solomon said.
He tells the story of one woman who went through training in strategic planning in philanthropy with 21/64.
“When she went to her first family foundation board meeting, her father sat across the room from her texting her how to vote,” Solomon said. “The parent generation has to recognize this is a very empowered young adult generation, and they expect to have a voice.”
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