If U.S. Jews Are Among Donor Elite, Why Aren’t Jewish Causes Getting More?

Roland Stanton’s $100 million gift to Yeshiva University is the largest ever to a U.S. Jewish institution. Yet as Stanton himself said, “There are plenty of people who could do it.” Our research shows he’s right: Dozens of Jewish philanthropists are capable of equaling Stanton’s gift.

So why don’t they? It’s not that wealthy Jews have no reputation for making large gifts to Jewish causes: Julius Rosenwald in his day invented modern Jewish philanthropy; Charles and Edgar Bronfman have built and continue to sustain the core elements of Jewish life around the world.

The question is not one of capacity, the question is whether the Jewish community can imagine and prepare for gifts of that size and scope.

Jews are among America’s elite in philanthropy today. They endow professorships, fund museums, build hospitals and science labs and set up foundations. Clearly, wealthy American Jews have no problem parting with tens or hundreds of millions of dollars at a time.

But why not more to Jewish causes? Stanton is proof that we can succeed when we ask for big figures — $100 million or even $1 billion. Other Jewish organizations can set their sights as high as Yeshiva University, or even higher.

Our annual research of mega-gifts — gifts above $1 million — turns up at least 50 people who could match or exceed Stanton’s generosity. These typically are wealthy Jewish business leaders who give only relatively modest gifts to Jewish causes.

It’s tempting to write these people off as uncommitted Jews, but it would be wrong.

If Jewish causes want to receive mega-gifts, they have to prove themselves worthy. They have to compete on equal ground with the secular hospitals, symphonies, museums and universities, all of which court and inspire Jewish donors.

Richard Joel came to lead Yeshiva University three years ago; his vision has energized the place, and clearly energized Stanton, who is chairman of its board. Stanton could have directed his gift anywhere, but last week he chose Yeshiva University. It means that he believes in something.

That’s the character of today’s new philanthropists. They typically are unimpressed by the donor recognition events of typical charities — the fancy dinners and building-naming ceremonies. They’re more hands-on and active in their philanthropy.

They want to give away their wealth during their lifetimes. Many of them are entrepreneurial in background and temperament; Bill Gates is their living embodiment. They will disburse their money with the same attention they paid to the building of their businesses.

The Jewish communal world not only should prepare for this shift in the philanthropic world, it should rejoice. There are hundreds if not thousands of wealthy Jews who have yet to become fully engaged in Jewish giving. There is an enormous opportunity to engage these Jewish givers.

Look at birthright israel. Sending thousands of young Jewish adults to Israel for free is expensive, but it has support from some of North America’s biggest Jewish philanthropists. Look at Nefesh B’Nefesh, a project that is helping thousands of people to make aliyah. And look at the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s efforts to feed the hungry and poor.

Big ideas attract big donors. These are examples of what good, provocative ideas can do, and we need more of them.

Of course, the Jewish nonprofit world — the professionals who staff the organizations — also must be prepared to become more entrepreneurial. Most often, good philanthropists work hand-in-hand with good professionals.

Look at it this way: Today’s philanthropists think like investors, because that’s how they got wealthy. They want their money to achieve a return; they want results.

We should applaud philanthropists who choose to search for cures for deadly diseases, feed the hungry or educate America’s youth. At the same time, we need to develop and support ambitious initiatives that ensure a secure Jewish community, help grow the Jewish people around the world and take care of the Jewish poor and elderly.

Philanthropists then would feel that the Jewish community is worth both a mighty financial investment and the invaluable donation of their personal involvement.

Gary Tobin is president of the Institute for Jewish & Community Research in San Francisco.

NEXT STORY