NEW YORK, Nov. 7 (JTA) — When a Jewish studies scholar-turned museum head was selected a year ago to head a brand-new foundation connected to the federation system, not many in the Jewish world understood just what the new entity would be.
Today, the foundation, called the Trust for Jewish Philanthropy, is starting to take shape.
But, with just one project announced so far — and that not yet up and running — it is still unclear what role the trust will play.
At issue are the sorts of projects it will fund, what relationship it has with the federations, and whether it succeeds — as many are hoping — in attracting a sizeable amount of new wealth to Jewish causes.
The trust aims to forge partnerships among individual donors and foundations to take on large national and international Jewish projects that no one player or federation could address on its own.
Its first project, announced in October, is an effort to recruit and groom more women for top posts in Jewish organizations, where the overwhelming majority of executive positions are held by men.
Launched with a $1 million gift from philanthropist Barbara Dobkin, the project is still seeking additional funds from other donors.
The trust is also exploring “at least a dozen areas” for additional projects, said David Altshuler, who heads the trust.
Such projects could involve Jewish summer camps, Jews in the former Soviet Union, personnel needs in Jewish education, ecology in the Middle East, an international Jewish service corps for young adults, Jewish journalism and partnerships with Israeli philanthropists.
At the federation system’s General Assembly in Chicago, which begins this weekend, the trust is presenting a panel discussion on the emerging field of Israeli philanthropy.
The trust is also expected to help fund projects of the UJC’s newly formed “pillars,” or agenda-setting committees.
Altshuler, who founded New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage — A Living Memorial to the Holocaust describes the work as “matchmaking between the funders and doers.”
The trust emerged out of suggestions from federation leaders, as well as Charles Bronfman, the chair of the United Jewish Communities. Housed in the UJC offices, but incorporated as an independent nonprofit, the trust was envisioned as part of, but separate from, the federation umbrella.
The new entity, said Bronfman at a 1999 gathering of independent Jewish funders, would be a “joint center for Jewish philanthropy,” one that would unite the rapidly growing world of Jewish family foundations with the more traditional federation world.
In addition to launching new projects, the trust would assist small federations in creating endowments and foundations for donors.
While federations have benefited from a thriving economy, they are not growing as rapidly as other philanthropies. A growing number of wealthy Jews are focusing their attention on secular, rather than Jewish, causes.
With federation campaigns funneling gifts into a collective pot, they are spurned by many donors seeking more control over how their money is spent.
In response, many federations have created their own foundation offshoots that allow donors programmatic control, while others — in hopes of building relationships with donors — help donors manage large foundations that donate largely to secular causes.
The trust was envisioned, in part, as a way of creating a national counterpart to these local foundations.
Despite the hope that the trust could attract new people, many in the federation world initially worried the trust would simply siphon donors away from them.
In recent months, federation leaders say that concern has been alleviated as a result of visits from Altshuler as well as the formation of the trust’s board of directors. Of the 17 trustees, 14 are either on the boards of federations, the UJC or the federation system’s overseas partners — the Jewish Agency for Israel and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.
A 15th is on the board of the Jewish Venture Philanthropy Fund, an offshoot of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington.
Now, some wonder whether the board, because of its large federation representation, will have greater difficulty attracting newcomers.
Dobkin, the trust’s first donor and a philanthropist who makes the majority of her contributions outside the federation system, said she is concerned about the heavy representation of federation people on the board.
“If they’re looking to think outside the box and to show that it’s autonomous and to attract donors who are not giving to federations, then I don’t think their board reflects what they say they want to get,” she said.
Evan Mendelson, the executive director of the Jewish Funders Network, an association of family foundations and independent philanthropists., said she would have liked to see a board with “a broader range of funders,” and a “higher percentage of board members who are independent funders.”
However, she said that while there may be some potential donors for whom the federation-dominated board is a turnoff, she does not expect many people “are going to say they don’t want to have anything to do with this” because of it.
“Everyone likes to gripe,” she said. “But the fact is what really counts is if people want to do something with their money — if funders see issues of concern to them — they are going to want to come to the table.”
For his part, Altshuler says the board composition is not too heavily weighted to the federations.
“There’s not one person on the board who wears only a federation hat,” he said. “Virtually all have other commitments to Jewish and non-Jewish organizations.”
Calling the board members “blue-chip human beings,” Altshuler said, “it would be wrong to typecast them by any of their associations.”
He noted that the board is quite diverse in terms of having a mix of men and women and representing a range of ages and geographic locations. Six of the trustees are women.
Those involved with the trust say it has great potential to address a full range of important issues.
Steven Nasatir, one of the initial planners of the trust and a board member who is executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago said, “The whole continuity/renaissance agenda is tailor- made for the big ideas” the trust might be able to address.
For now, most observers are saying the trust is simply too new to be judged.
“This kind of fund raising generally speaking doesn’t have instant results,” said Stephen Hoffman, executive vice president of the Jewish Community Federation of Cleveland. “I believe people are still sitting back to give Altshuler room to produce.”
John Ruskay, executive vice president of UJA-Federation of Greater New York, said he hopes the trust can replicate the success of some local federation-based foundations while involving foundations and corporations that “have not been involved to date in Jewish philanthropy.”
“That remains the challenge and the opportunity,” he said. “It’s far too early to know.”