Jewish funders discuss ethics, mission of philanthropy

NEW YORK — "Next to sex, you don't get much more intimate than talking about money and power."

So quipped Jeffrey Solomon, president of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies during the Jewish Funders Network conference.

With the theme "Power Philanthropy: Redefining Jewish Responsibility and Influence," the conference, held this spring, represented a first public discussion of the ethics involved in controlling and allocating large sums of money.

It comes as the world of Jewish family foundations is becoming increasingly influential, launching large projects and partnerships that reach tens of thousands of people.

The foundations' influence is evidenced in the growth of the Jewish Funders Network. Created 11 years ago by a handful of mostly left-leaning philanthropists, the group has grown to 800 members from more than 300 foundations.

Together, Funders Network members give at least $250 million, which the network describes as a "lowball estimate," to Jewish and secular causes each year. It is not clear what percentage goes to Jewish causes.

The network faces a transition period, with its longtime executive director, Evan Mendelson, leaving in coming months to start her own consulting firm, and its associate executive director leaving soon to head Amos, a new organization promoting Jewish social justice activism. Their successors have not yet been chosen.

Not all Jewish foundations belong to the network. Moreover, it is difficult to determine how many such foundations exist, how much they donate and what exactly constitutes a Jewish foundation.

For example, many foundations created by Jewish families do not allocate significant funds to Jewish causes, while secular foundations — such as the Ford Foundation — sometimes allocate large sums to Jewish projects.

The Trust for Jewish Philanthropy, a federation system offshoot that forges partnerships among individual donors and foundations for large Jewish projects, estimates that Jewish family foundations have $12 billion in assets.

In addition, the Trust estimates that another $8 billion is in endowments, donor-advised funds and "supporting foundations" under the auspices of Jewish federations.

Assets of supporting foundations are managed by federations, but the donors decide where the foundations' income is allocated — and not all goes to Jewish causes.

Among Jewish family foundations in the United States, approximately 250 give $200,000 or more each year to Jewish causes, said Donald Kent, former vice president of marketing and development for the federation system's United Jewish Communities.

Together, those foundations allocate slightly under $250 million to Jewish causes, Kent said.

Only a fraction of Jewish family foundation money goes to Jewish causes. But combined with federation endowments, donor-advised funds and supporting foundations, they compose a war chest of funds that surpass annual federation campaigns. Long the mainstay of Jewish philanthropy, federation campaigns raised approximately $880 million last year.

In addition, foundations increasingly are involved in setting the Jewish communal agenda.

In the past, major Jewish initiatives generally grew out of the federation system. Yet some of today's largest projects — such as Birthright Israel, which sends young adults on free trips to Israel, and the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education, which provides startup funding and other aid for new day schools — were initiated by independent philanthropists and foundations.

In addition, many major federation projects are now funded through endowments raised outside the annual campaign. For example, the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit recently raised approximately $10 million in endowments for Jewish education, synagogues and cultural programming.

In the conference's opening plenary, Marlene Provizer, executive director of the Jewish Fund for Justice, called on philanthropists to treat grant seekers with respect, to be more open about how funding decisions are made and to consider adding grant recipients to their boards.

Provizer urged philanthropists to acknowledge that "there's an imbalance of power inherent in the relationship between funder and grant seeker — even if they went to college together or camp or share the same world-view."

Another plenary speaker, Rabbi Irwin Kula, compared the role of money in Jewish organizational life to the role of money in politics.

"We need philanthropic finance reform and no one knows how to do it," said Kula, who is president of CLAL: The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.

Kula said the Jewish community, which is relatively new to affluence, is not yet comfortable dealing with money and the accompanying "toxic mix of mistrust, suspicion, humiliation, resentment and envy" it can bring.

"I have philanthropists who have cried in my arms," he said. "Especially the children of major philanthropists. There are people my age, 43, who say 'The only reason people respect me is because I have money.' "

Despite the frankness of the plenary, most participants were reluctant to talk about their own personal experiences with money, power and related ethical issues.

"This is a great place to be provoked, but people aren't going to talk about these things in a conference," said Lisa Farber Miller, senior program officer of Denver's Rose Community Foundation.

Instead, she said, the plenary likely will spark private conversations in the coming year.

While pressing its members to talk more freely about money, the network is highly protective of its largely wealthy members. Invited speakers were repeatedly reminded not to solicit, and were discouraged from participating in conference sessions where they were not speaking.

Several sessions were closed to the press, such as one on intergenerational issues in family foundations and another on family funding issues for interfaith families.

For more JTA stories, go to