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Jewish Charities Top List, but is It a Complete Picture?

October 27, 2006
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Jewish groups annually look to The Chronicle of Philanthropy’s list of top 400 fund-raising organizations the way the business world looks to the Forbes Fortune 500 list — to see how well Jewish philanthropy is doing. This year’s list, called “Philanthropy 400,” placed 24 Jewish groups or institutions in the top 400, with the United Jewish Communities, the umbrella organization of the North American federation system, ranked highest at No. 34. It raised $333,824,000 last year, down slightly from $344,106,000 in 2004.

But the list, published this year in the bi-weekly’s Oct. 26 issue, raises questions about how accurately — and completely — it portrays Jewish giving.

The list ranks charitable groups based on money collected in 2005 from private donors — not from government grants or fees that organizations charge. It was culled from IRS Form 990 tax documents and from information the charities provided.

The Jewish Communal Fund of New York, a direct-assist giving fund to which donors contribute and then decide later how to allocate their gift, was the second-highest grossing Jewish organization. It climbed to the No. 54 spot after seeing a huge increase last year, from some $165 million to more than $247 million in 2005. The increase was due in large part to a donation of a $40 million art collection, according to Susan Dickman, the fund’s executive vice president.

The Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston also made a huge jump, moving up 64 spots to No. 174 after increasing its earnings by 40.8 percent, according to the list.

And the Jewish National Fund, which raised more than $43 million in 2005, made the list for the first time, at No. 354. Its addition is significant because the organization’s campaign has steadily gone up since 1998, when it raised $18 million, according to the vice president of its campaign, Bud Levin.

But it wasn’t all good news on the Jewish front.

The Chronicle showed a 1.7 percent drop in total intake by the Jewish federations listed, and three federations dropped off the list, as did the Jewish Community Foundation of San Diego. That drop, according to UJC officials, does not represent a drop in the overall money that the federation system took in 2005, which was up by $20 million. Instead, they said, it reflects some declining campaigns in certain cities.

In the past, Jewish groups have looked at the list as a yardstick that shows that Jews are disproportionately philanthropic, as the number of both dollars and Jewish groups represented is much higher than the tiny percent of the American population they represent.

And those who utilize the list, mostly other charities and foundations, are quick to praise it as the only such accounting of the country’s top charities. As Mark Charendoff, the president of the Jewish Funders Network, noted, it is the only benchmark against which charities can measure their fund raising against that of other charities — both Jewish and non-Jewish.

But how accurate a portrait of Jewish giving does it actually paint?

It’s “astonishing in any system, where Jews make up 2 to 2.5 percent of the population that they represent 5 percent of the organizations on this list,” said Gary Tobin, the president of the Institute for Jewish and Community Research, which studies Jewish philanthropic trends.

Still, he said, the list “doesn’t even reflect the size and scope of the philanthropic network,” because some major Jewish charities are under-reported and because of a discrepancy in how the Chronicle and how Jews define religious giving.

JTA discovered at least one accounting error that left one federation off the list.

The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore was ranked No. 243 on last year’s Philanthropy 400 after raising more than $60 million in 2004. It was dropped from the rankings this year, which would have meant it dropped below the nearly $38 million that the 400th-ranked United Jewish Communities of MetroWest, N.J., took in.

But when JTA contacted the Baltimore federation, representatives there said their campaign and endowments both saw gains in 2005, bringing its intake to about $68 million.

The Chronicle investigated the discrepancy and found that it had indeed made an error. The publication will print a correction, said Holly Hall, the features editor at the Chronicle, who put together the Philanthropy 400 with seven staff members over the last three months.

The capacity for error is just one of the problems in using the listing to evaluate the Jewish philanthropic landscape, according to philanthropy experts.

The biggest problem, Tobin said, is that UJC’s ranking is not based on a comprehensive picture of what the federation system as a whole brings in. The 990 forms show UJC took in $333 million in 2005. That represents the total of what each of the federations gave to UJC, the umbrella organization for the 155 member federations, to distribute overseas and for its operating expenses.

But in 2005, that system as a whole took in more than $839 million through individual campaigns alone, a UJC spokesman told JTA. And that is on top of $1.4 billion in new gifts to federation endowment funds. In total, the federation system has more than $10.5 billion in endowment funds, which yielded $800 million and paid out $1.2 billion in grants in 2005.

The Chronicle has pushed UJC to consolidate the private donations made to all 155 federations, similar to what the United Way does with its subsidiaries. Hall said that two years ago, UJC submitted to the Chronicle an off-the-record sum of $2 billion, which would have made it second on last year’s list, after the United Way.

Whether to file as one federation system or not is a constant discussion within UJC, according to Steve Hoffman, the group’s former CEO and president of the Jewish Community Federation of Cleveland, which ranked No. 212 on the 2005 list.

But, in the end, he said, federations prefer to file individually so that some of the larger federations can stand out.

“There is value in brand identity on the local level,” he said. “In case of New York and Chicago, they are among the most prominent charities in the U.S., period.” The 72nd-ranked UJA-Federation of Jewish Philanthropies of New York raised nearly $197 million and the 141st -ranked Jewish Federation/Jewish United Fund of Metropolitan Chicago took in more than $111 million.

But that arrangement helps skew the landscape of Jewish giving, Tobin said.

“You have this huge network of federations operating year in and year out through regular and special and emergency campaigns and building and philanthropic funds. It is a huge enterprise, and it doesn’t show up on this list, ” Tobin said.

Another issue in using the list is that religious groups are not required to file 990 forms. So while some religious groups are included on the list because they submitted information to the Chronicle, according to the report, they are not well represented in general.

Tobin noted that excludes some significant Jewish groups, including the vast network of Chabad-Lubavitch.

The Chabad-run Federation of Jewish Communities of the CIS, which supports Jewish life in the former Soviet Union, made the list at No. 383 after taking in almost $40 million. But that money is just a fraction of the money that Chabad outposts around the world raise.

Though the outposts do not generally funnel money back to Chabad headquarters in Brooklyn, worldwide they are collectively raising more than $1 billion, according to Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, the chairman of Chabad’s educational and social service arms.

The Chronicle reported a 24.2 percent increase in religious giving in 2005. That does not include money that the federation system took in; rather it reflects gifts to organizations that “are focused on spreading the religious message,” Hall said.

But this definition is at odds with many Jews’ definition of religious giving, Tobin said. For many secular Jews, giving to a federation or to an Israeli institution, such as the Technion or Weizmann institutes — both of which made the list — is religious giving.

In the end, though, even if the Philanthropy 400 raises some serious questions, it is still worth its mettle, Tobin said. “It is a flawed document, but it’s all we’ve got, and it is the best research on the philanthropic landscape that we have,” he said.

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