Friday, September 21, 2007

Jewish Philanthropy

Philanthropy is the allocation of charity funds for communal purposes. It seems to be an easy task, even fun, a rich man’s avocation that we should all aspire to. What could be better than doling out money to grateful recipients who, in turn, anoint the donor a humanitarian and a person of great wisdom? There is at once power and glory in the activity. Don’t we all want to be philanthropists?

Maybe, although those who engage in this work will likely say that it isn’t easy and it often isn’t fun. Choices must be made in a crowded field of beseechers who are ready to proclaim that, if supported, their project will accomplish wonders. The late Jack D. Weiler, a good friend who for decades was in the top echelon of Jewish philanthropists and a respected community leader, told me more than once that at times he hated his charitable work because nearly without stop there were those who were trying to separate him from his money and he no longer knew who his friends were.

Before we sink into a morose morass and excessively bemoan the fate of the very rich who have foundations or other repositories of charitable funds at their disposal, it should be acknowledged that philanthropy can be easy and nearly a sure bet, as when funds go to construct a facility and the completion of the project is the fulfillment of the philanthropic goal. It also can be fun, as when scads of money go towards the popular philanthropic pastime of sponsoring a conference.

Where it is difficult is when a gift is intended to affect behavior, to improve a social condition that is in serious need of improvement. An example is support of school-based educational initiatives where the usual goal is to improve results, whether measured by test scores, graduation rates or what students do after they graduate. Grants are made because the status quo is unsatisfactory, perhaps even dysfunctional. But the status quo is not an ad hoc arrangement but a condition or syndrome that has taken root and is being reinforced by dynamic elements that have created the problem that is being addressed. Good intentions backed up by money invariably have limited efficacy, so that if there is improvement it is marginal and limited. A reasonable yardstick for measuring success must be established, taking into account the tenacity of the social pathology being addressed. This is a subjective exercise and almost always the recipients of the philanthropic funding earnestly claim that they have succeeded and deserve renewed – and perhaps increased – support.

Jewish philanthropy is much like all other philanthropy, with significant emphasis on capital campaigns and other safe initiatives. To be sure, what is safe may be worthwhile, as when major donors provide for the construction of day school facilities. There is also considerable risk-taking, as when funding goes to initiatives that purport to raise the level of Jewish commitment and involvement in an environment that is hostile toward this goal. Then, there is apt to be disappointment, as is evident from a midsummer interview with Michael Steinhardt in which he bemoaned what he assessed to be the poor track record of his private foundation. Characteristically, Michael was being too tough, this time on himself. He has significant achievements, Birthright perhaps the most important. Still, his introspection hopefully will trigger greater communal scrutiny of what is being accomplished through philanthropy.

Jewish philanthropy is severely tested by two circumstances, one quantitative and parochial and the other qualitative and general. Our robust organizational and institutional life breeds a huge number of causes seeking philanthropic support. Some of this arises from our geographic dispersal and denominational and other divisions. At least as much results from our being a hyperactive people blessed with enormous vitality and creativity. We are all over the place and we swarm all over those who have charitable funds to distribute. It seems at times that there are more Jewish causes than there are Jews.

What to support comes down to the preferences of the donors and a large dose of serendipity, of being in the right place at the right time. There is too little cooperation among major funders, a condition that Mr. Steinhardt has done his best to rectify, and this results in an excess of duplicatory initiatives.

The qualitative issues arise from the weakened condition of American Jewry at its points of contact with American society. Much of our philanthropy is now directed at efforts to promote greater Judaic identity among the vast majority of Jews who have moved significantly in the direction away from identity. The harsh realities of American life constantly impel these Jews even further away from commitment and involvement. Demographic statistics tell the sad story of who is prevailing in this encounter. In a sense, what we are experiencing in the desperate efforts to affect attitudes and behavior mirrors what I have described regarding the educational initiatives designed to counteract social pathologies. The difference between the two situations is that the odds are less favorable for satisfactory outcomes in Jewish life than they are in the educational domain.

I suspect that when Michael Steinhardt speaks of failure and disappointment, this is what he has in mind. Some of the blame for failure rests upon his broad shoulders because he constantly spreads the gospel that Jewish philanthropy can best be directed at those who are further away from Judaism rather than at those who are already involved but who may be lost. What he and others fail to see is that whether in day school education or other spheres of communal activity, what seems to be solid needs to be constantly reinforced and this reinforcement will strengthen those at the margins. Unless this basic truth is understood and implemented, our philanthropists will continue to experience disappointment and failure.