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What billionaires owe the Jewish community

While the mega-donors may foot the bill, everyone else has to live in the world they construct
Money image via Shutterstock
Money image via Shutterstock

BOSTON (JTA) — In the past decade, a new class of Jewish mega-givers has emerged, reshaping the Jewish philanthropic landscape.

This has been, without a doubt, a tremendous boon for Jewish life. Super-donors are facilitating the expansion of the Jewish enterprise. With their largesse, more young people are going to Israel, more kids are receiving scholarships for camp, more dollars are flowing to the Jewish state and more seniors are aging with dignity.

But there is a downside to this funding windfall: These donors are essentially setting the agenda of the Jewish world, and no one but them has a say in it. In some communities, a single contributor provides more funding than the rest of the Jewish community combined.

“This is a group of people with remarkable power,” Mark Charendoff, then president of the Jewish Funders Network, said in 2007, when the shift in power first became apparent. “There is virtually no accountability for how they exercise it. They can either be thoughtful or not. They can be strategic or ego driven. No matter what they decide, they have an impact.”

With all the power these donors wield in dictating the direction of Jewish life, don’t they, at the very least, have an obligation to be in an active dialogue with the larger Jewish community about how they might best use their funds? After all, while the donors may foot the bill, everyone else has to live in the world they’ve constructed.

To be sure, the impact of mega-givers is not an entirely new phenomenon. There have always been wealthy, generous people in the Jewish community who have played an outsized role in setting the communal agenda.

But the emerging class has much deeper pockets than the previous generation of givers, is contributing a much higher percentage of the annual budgets of Jewish organizations and, consistent with generational trends in philanthropy, demands a much bigger role in determining how its funds will be used.

An older generation of donors tended to give to big institutions, which they counted on to make good use of their funds. Less trustful of institutions and more keen on making a direct impact, this generation of funders tends to tailor its giving to particular areas of interest and expects an active role in molding the projects it funds.

That’s all well and good as long as the desire of the donor matches the collective priorities of a community. But in some cases the inclinations of donors have essentially become the de facto strategies of the organizations and communities that they fund. When a donor responsible for half the budget of an institution favors a certain program or service, rarely is that Jewish organization in a position to argue.

If the donor is interested in elevating a certain kind of Jewish identity program or in promoting a certain view of Israel or in building a new museum rather than, say, a new school, that donor can often singlehandedly dictate the community’s agenda. Invariably, when a large donor makes a major investment in an area of activity, that investment attracts other dollars and corrals the energy of the entire community. A community that might not have otherwise chosen to build a new museum might all of a sudden find itself completely immersed in a large-scale project, just because one donor thought it was a good idea.

It’s high time the Jewish philanthropic world adopted a new ethic of accountability. I don’t mean accountability in a legal sense. Donors can legally invest in whatever philanthropic purposes they choose. Rather, the big donors should open up the decision-making process and invite the community into the discussion about how they might best use their money.

Just as corporations hold an annual meeting with their stockholders who vote on the direction of the company, mega-donors should treat the larger Jewish community as stakeholders in their communal giving enterprise and factor in their aspirations and priorities. Mega-givers should hold their own annual meetings of stakeholders — the Jewish community — and open the floor for conversation. They should also be transparent in how they use their funds and issue annual reports of their giving.

Such input and transparency would not undercut donors’ ability to make decisions about how they use their money. It’s theirs to spend. It would, however, help the donors stay in sync with the people they are serving, and give the larger Jewish community confidence that it’s part of the process of determining the Jewish future.

As Voltaire said more than two centuries ago, “With great power comes great responsibility.” It’s time for mega-givers to exercise greater responsibility in how they help the Jewish community grow.

About the Author
Jay Ruderman is president of the Ruderman Family Foundation, which works to promote disability inclusion and strengthen Israel’s relationship with the American Jewish community.