Network of philanthropists aims to hone grant-giving

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That transfer is of great interest to Mendelson. If Jews are 2 percent of the population and control an estimated 4 percent of the wealth, "we're talking about $400 billion that is going to change hands within the Jewish community," she said.

Assuming that some of that $400 billion will go toward philanthropy, a significant amount of money will soon be available to enrich Jewish education and culture, aid Jews in need, and fund new peace-inspired opportunities in the Middle East.

But how can this new generation of potential Jewish philanthropists find out where their money is most needed? And where can they get the most bang for their collective buck?

These questions and others helped spur the establishment of the JFN in 1990. The various Jewish foundations and individual philanthropists "don't really ever talk to each other about mutual concerns and interests," Mendelson said. Some of these issues include trends in Jewish philanthropy — such as which types of organizations are the most popular among donors — and the legal and administrative technicalities of grantmaking. "People want to know who's granting money to whom," she said.

For the past five years, the JFN has maintained a steering committee and held annual conferences exploring aspects of grantmaking. But it has lacked a professional staff. Mendelson, the former executive director of the Northern California Hillel Council, is the group's first full-time professional staffer.

She joined JFN because she liked the idea of working on a national level, she said.

In addition, "this organization is dedicated to advancing the growth and quality of Jewish grantmaking," said Mendelson, 48, who moved into her JFN office on San Francisco's Market Street July 1.

"If I can be part of that, that would be making a major contribution to the Jewish community."

Though the JFN does not yet have official members, any individual or foundation who grants $20,000 or more annually can join.

Mendelson does not know how many members the network will attract, though with at least 3,000 Jewish family foundations in this country, and many more individuals who donate annual funds over $20,000, she sees great potential. The organization's steering committee includes representatives from 22 organizations, including the Koret Foundation, the C.M. and Raquel H. Newman Trust and the Limantour Fund — all based in San Francisco.

The foundations considered "Jewish" vary in size and the amount they give to Jewish causes. But diversity in the world of Jewish funders extends beyond dollar amounts. The JFN's last conference, held in Boston in March, attracted 200 people ranging in age from their 20s to their 80s.

Such a span reflects a challenge facing many of today's family foundations. Often, older generations of contributors have very different priorities than younger ones.

An article in the July/August 1993 issues of the trade magazine Foundation News describes some of the ways that baby boomers view philanthropy differently than their parents, according to several recent studies. Leaving a legacy that perpetuates the family name is less important to younger donors, for example, than bettering the community.

Also, baby boomers care little for large, bureaucratic institutions and may be openly antagonistic towards them. And, motivated by a desire to play a hands-on role in improving the world, they may be more personally involved in the ins and outs of foundations than their parents.

Not surprisingly, studies show that Jewish baby boomers tend to give more money outside of the Jewish community than their parents did. That, Mendelson posited, may have to do with increasing assimilation in American society, a force that leads to increased contact between the Jewish and non-Jewish worlds.

The inter-generational dynamics of family foundations is the sort of issue the JFN has addressed in the past and will continue to analyze in the future, Mendelson said. Members will also learn from experts about issues — such as education — that interest both Jewish and non-Jewish donors, explore the relationship between foundations and federations, and discuss the core values of Jewish philanthropy.

Though Jewish giving has a history rooted in biblical imperatives, "Jews were very late in the game (only in the last three decades) in terms of developing foundations compared to the general community," Mendelson said.

At a March 1994 seminar on the role of Jewish foundations in North America, one foundation head offered theories for that late entry into foundation life.

Eli Evans, president of the Charles H. Revson Foundation in New York City, said many Jews probably felt uncomfortable becoming involved in such clearly non-Jewish organizations as the Carnegie and Rockefeller foundations, which dominated institutional grant giving in America during the early part of this century. "Perhaps it was that in the early years it was WASP domain," he said.

Then came the 1930s and charges by Hitler and others that Jewish financiers were controlling the world. "And so there was during the Depression a black cloud over the idea of Jewish philanthropy through something as visible as foundations," Evans said.

Sixty years later, Jewish foundations are becoming increasingly visible, and like the Jewish Funders Network, are gearing up for a busy — and potentially lucrative — future.

Leslie Katz
Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is the former culture editor at CNET and a former J. staff writer. Follow her on Twitter @lesatnews.