Blazing Their Own Philanthropic Path


In a major new report on “next-gen” Jewish giving whose findings are likely to produce a collective sigh of relief among nervous communal professionals, young Jews of means appear seriously committed to donating to Jewish causes. And they are often moved to do so by a strong sense of Jewish and secular values passed down from their families.

Yet the report, “Next Gen Donors: The Future of Jewish Giving”, a collaboration among the nonprofit group 21/64, the Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy and the Jewish Funders Network, finds that young Jewish philanthropists ages 21 to 40 want to give in vastly different ways than their parents and grandparents. And they express serious frustration that they don’t “have a seat at the table” in their family foundations, a rift the authors of the study see as potentially troubling.

While there has been a widespread communal fear over the years that young Jews are becoming ever more distant from Jewish causes, the new report should calm some of that anxiety. Sixty-five percent of next-gen donors reported giving to religious and faith-based causes. For their parents and grandparents, that figure is 78 percent. For younger givers, only the category of education (73 percent) beat out religious and faith-based giving as a priority. In fact, Jewish donors make a priority of funding religious and faith-based causes far more than their non-Jewish peers (32 percent).

“While Jewish next-gen donors do give less to Jewish causes than they perceive that their parents or grandparents do, our findings suggest that the community concern is overblown,” the study’s authors write.

Interviews conducted with 11 of the 88 Jewish respondents to the national survey reveal generational similarities and differences between the next-gen cohort and their elders. The younger group, while still committed to Jewish causes, tended to be more “secular” or universalistic in its giving, while their families tended to views giving through a more Jewish lens.

“My parents tend to give to more established institutions and less grass-roots-y local causes,” said one respondent. “However, our conversations that lead us to those different choices often reflect common values and ideas about community and giving back.”

In fact, the study found that when it comes to giving to the category termed “Combined Organizations” (including United Way, United Jewish Appeal/Jewish Federation), the next-gen cohort listed its level of support at 51 percent; their families’ level of support was 71 percent. (The level among non-Jews was 18.6 percent.)

Said another respondent: “[My parents’] philanthropic approach doesn’t match up with mine 100 percent because while they focus on the Jewish community, I think it’s also our duty to help those throughout the community as a whole.”

Sixty-four percent of the next-gen donors supported giving to “Basic Need”; for their families the figure was 57 percent. Fifty-two percent of the younger cohort supported giving to “Civil Rights and Advocacy”; for their families the support figure was 31 percent. Sixty-one percent of the families of next-gen respondents supported giving to “Arts and Culture”; the next-gen figure was 44 percent.

The respondents are evenly split between those in their 20s and 30s, 61 percent are women and most are white and live in the Northeast, Pacific or South Atlantic regions. Eight percent identify as members of the LGBT community. Just over half are married and a third have children. Fifty-eight percent report earning more than $100,000 a year, and nearly half say they have a personal net worth of more than $1 million. Fifty-seven percent identify as politically liberal; 8 percent consider themselves politically conservative. Nearly 95 percent attend religious services at least once a year; about half say they attend only on the High Holy Days, and 40 percent report that they attend once a month or more.

Next-gen respondents spoke frankly about their frustrations when it comes to playing a meaningful role in family philanthropy. Nearly 40 percent said they are “not involved” or “minimally involved” in their families’ giving processes. The younger group tends to be much more involved in their personal philanthropy — serving on nonprofit boards, encouraging friends to give and giving online.

The manner in which the next-gen group carries out its giving marks perhaps the sharpest contrast with its elders. While nearly 68 percent of Jewish next-gen donors say they give to similar causes, only 52 percent say that they give in similar ways. The younger donors want their giving to be information-driven, hands-on, impact-focused, proactive and peer-oriented. Where their parents and grandparents may have been more socially motivated to give, one next-gen respondent said, “I’m interested in many of the same causes but much less concerned about the recognition and more about participation and impact.”

Reached by phone from Scotland, where he was vacationing, Steven M. Cohen, director of the Berman Jewish Policy Archive at New York University, said he was not surprised by the study’s finding that young Jewish givers remain tied to Jewish causes.

“The major factor for next-gen givers, or any givers for that matter, is their social context,” Cohen said. “So there really is no question that Orthodox next-gen givers will give to Jewish causes — or day school graduates, or products of Camp Ramah or the URJ [Union for Reform Judaism] camps — anyone with a strong Jewish background.”

Doug Rushkoff, who teaches about the media at The New School University and is the author of the 2003 “Nothing Sacred: The Truth About Judaism,” said: “I think the last few generations of Jewish donors, particularly those who lived through the Shoah and pogroms, saw Jewish giving as a way of preserving the people. So it tended in both messaging and purpose towards keeping things the same, holding on. It was defensive — or at least it felt that way. And more recently, philanthropy seemed to be largely about preventing things: intermarriage, the destruction of Israel, the dilution of Jewish genes.

“Wealthy young Jews who have discovered or rediscovered Judaism, particularly through more ‘open source’ channels such as Reboot [a Jewish cultural organization], think of Judaism less as a thing to protect than a process,” Rushkoff continued. “It’s more about the future. So they’ll steer clear of institutions that seem to be about real estate or barricades.”

Drawing conclusions from the data, the study’s authors seized on the fact that Jewish next-gen donors place a real priority on giving to religious and faith-based causes. “If Jewish next-gen major donors give to Jewish organizations because of their Jewish identities … then this suggests Jewish philanthropic values have successfully been transmitted in these high-capacity families as well. This has yielded,” the authors conclude, “next-gen family members who give Jewishly of their own volition.”

But the authors also warn of the consequences of members of the younger generation playing such a small role in their families’ giving. Speculating on why such a rift exists, the authors suggest, “The older generations want young people engaged, but fear the change that the next generation might bring.”

The research, the authors conclude, “provides a wakeup call to those interested in the future of Jewish philanthropy.” Left unanswered is whether the generations will unite philanthropically, or go their separate ways.