Fundermentalist from Phoenix at the JFN conference

For the next couple of days, I’ll be filing from Phoenix, where the Jewish Funders Network is holding its annual conference.

Some 250 funders and professionals from foundations that give more than $25,000 per year to Jewish causes are gathered here at the Biltmore Hotel, the Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired hotel where I am told Clark Gable honeymooned. The JFN is billing this year’s conference as a summit to discuss the current state of Jewish philanthropy.

Sunday kicked off with a pre-conference workshop for foundations and individual philanthropists to talk about giving circles, small groups of donors who pool together money and decide together how to allocate it. The JFN, it seems, is positioning itself to help grow a movement of Jewish giving circles to engage more donors in giving to Jewish causes.

The conference itself kicked off yesterday with an opening plenary featuring Duke University professor of behavioral science Dan Ariely.

Ariely was pleasant and spoke mostly about the negative motivation money can be in terms of getting people to do good. But perhaps the most interesting part of the plenary involved some live polling of the folks here in attendance.

Last Year’s JFN conference, held in St. Petersburg, Fla., was difficult, to say the least. The blood from the financial meltdown and Bernard Madoff was still very much on the floor. No one, it seemed, knew their fate, fear about the future of funding for Jewish projects pervaded the air, and some of the biggest news about the conference regarded what major foundations and donors would be cutting back their giving.

I’ll be here talking with the participants about what has changed over the past year.

After slightly more than 18 hours on the ground, the sense I get is that the mood is definitely lighter than last year — and I believe that it has to do with more than just the fact that it was absolutely gorgeous here in Phoenix yesterday.

Now it seems most donors at least know where they stand. Few foundations are anywhere back to the heights that they saw in 2007, but most have seen some bounceback from the absolute bottom a little more than a year ago. And the sense is that people know now they have money to give — though they may never give as much as we saw before the crash.

The JFN’s polling reflected a stabilizing in giving to Jewish causes and that we may see a slight rise, as 33 percent of those who participated said that they would increase their giving to Jewish causes this year and 61 percent said that they had not decreased their giving to Jewish causes over the past year.

Those numbers should be couched a bit. The JFN did not ask how many people had decreased their funding over the past year, and it is important to remember that while 33 percent said they would give more, many of those are likely starting from a baseline of giving that is well below what it was before the crash.

My coverage of the conference started yesterday on Twitter, and will continue here on the blog and on the Twittosphere through Tuesday evening, when the conference ends and most of us leave to file our taxes. You can follow the twitter feed for the whole conference at twitter.com/#jfn2010.

Stay tuned.

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