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What we need: Philanthropreneurship

by Gary Wexler

March 1, 2007 | 7:00 pm

When American Jewish leaders hear I'm consulting in Canada, they often comment that Canadian Jewry is years behind American Jewry. After several years of intensively working with the Toronto Jewish community, I'm not so sure. In fact, I see them as being ahead of us.

Since 2001 I have been intimately involved with UJA-Federation of Toronto as the marketing partner in an infrastructure campaign that is raising nearly $300 million over a seven-year period. The federation has raised more than half the amount while doubling what it raises in its annual campaign during the same period.

As Toronto Jews re-envision their community, they're rebuilding it in three geographical areas of what is referred to as the Greater Toronto Area: the vibrant, gentrified downtown area, in the north of the city where the major Jewish population is; and in the far northern region where young Jewish couples are moving.

Throughout this project the federation is partnering with community institutions, acting not in a traditional allocations capacity but as the actual fund-raising arm -- identifying mega-donors, cultivating them and ultimately making the request.

They're acting as collaborative partners in an imaginative planning process as well. They're building and rebuilding JCCs at state-of-the-art levels with floors of stores -- the Birthright Israel store, the Mount Sinai hospital storefront, the Second Cup coffee chain and possibly commercial establishments such as the Gap and others.

In the same spirit, they're also building and rebuilding day schools, Hillels, museums, theaters, a Holocaust center, the federation building, open spaces and celebration centers. They're bringing in the best architects, space planners, program professionals, educators and thinkers -- creative and Jewish minds.

The Vaughan campus, now called the Joseph and Wolf Lebovic Campus for the brothers who made a $25 million naming gift, is described by the architect as having been designed in the spirit of the great Jewish area of Vilna and as an integral part of the community where the city streets traverse the center, filled with inspirational and spiritual design, plazas, nature and public spaces.

Through the physical building and rebuilding of their community, Toronto Jews in essence are building and rebuilding the community's soul, setting a model for Jewish communities throughout the world.

We have a lot to learn from our Canadian brothers and sisters, particularly those of us living in Los Angeles. It's time Toronto's tale was told.

Spending a week per month there, I'm learning that to American eyes, Canada can be very deceptive. It looks and smells like America, but scratch the surface and our northern neighbor is a million miles away. It's a very different place and culture.

How Canadian Jews see themselves as Canadians is very different than how we American Jews see ourselves as Americans. Active American Jews are in a constant struggle between two very rich senses of identity -- our national identity as Americans and our communal, religious and Zionist identity as Jews.

Active Canadian Jews, I have observed, live with a completely different dynamic. They're proud of their Canadian citizenship, but don't have a deep sense of Canadian national identity. Their national identity is ebulliently Jewish, belonging to the Jewish nation. Their Jewish communal work leads them on a much different path.

It's only partly against this backdrop that UJA-Federation of Toronto is pulling off what no American federation is.

Two other critical parts have laid the groundwork for this campaign, which I believe are the more influential factors.

First, unlike America's highly mobile society, Toronto's Jewish leaders are deeply committed to maintaining family continuity in the same city. They want their children and grandchildren to remain Jewish and in Toronto. How to do it is a constant discussion that arises in many meetings.

As a result, these leaders recognize that they must build a community of the future, creating the type of institutions that will be seen as mainstream and world-class, inspiring the imagination, enthusiasm and pride of a new generation of Jews who are sophisticated and worldly.

The second, and by far more important, factor is their leadership.

They realize that in order to achieve their dreams, they cannot just maintain a community but must work to envision one -- in a big way. This has led these leaders to create big ideas and take huge risks to claim an unprecedented return. As they often say, the alternative is to shrivel and lose.

As a marketer I've seen that vision, big ideas and risk are everything when leading a community organization such as a federation.

From the start of this project, the executive director of the Toronto federation, Ted Sokolsky, risked professional safety, going out on a limb to articulate a bold vision, create big ideas and inspire allies among professional and laypeople, and ultimately to motivate Toronto's wealthy Jews -- those both deeply and peripherally involved in the federation -- to donate generously of their own funds, ranging from $5 million to $25 million.

That's what demographer Gary Tobin describes when he talks about how federations need to move from the annual campaign business into the philanthropy business. Watching the success of Toronto, I would call this "philanthropreneurship."

Philanthropreneurship means identifying needs, setting a bold, risky vision, then creating big ideas to be funded in order to carry out the vision.

In philanthropreneurship, the funders are viewed as investors and treated like partners. The return has to be quantifiable.

Federations needs philanthropreneurship, and Toronto is a prime example. So are the initial foundations that created the vision and funded the ideas of Birthright Israel.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is a model of philanthropreneurship. So is Warren Buffet. Hopefully, so will be the foundation of Sheldon Adelson.

What has been the trajectory of philanthropreneurship in Toronto? In the past 20 years, Toronto grew from a Jewish community of 80,000 to nearly 200,000 due to an influx of English-speaking Jews leaving Francophone Quebec, and immigration from the former Soviet Union, South Africa, Israel and English-speaking countries around the world.

Toronto also has attracted families from across Canada who are seeking a Jewish community of size, breadth, depth and multiple alternatives.

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