Despite shaky economy, charity and security can coexist

Not so long ago, as the stock market soared and businesses flourished, the time was ripe for tzedakah — in a big way.

Though philanthropy has always been a core Jewish value, in the last decade many people grew so prosperous they established private family foundations through which they could select and support worthy causes, receiving some tax benefits as well, and leave a meaningful family legacy.

But today's sour economic climate is forcing some to re-strategize, while others have found that running a family foundation is complicated and costly. For these individuals and others, Bay Area Jewish federations can provide a valuable resource.

"We work with philanthropists in lots of different ways, depending on their needs," explained Lisa Gurwitch, director of gift planning at the Jewish Community Endowment Fund of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation. Whether individuals have a private foundation or are interested in working through the JCEF's public foundation, they can receive assistance on numerous levels — from grant-making to investment strategy to tax expertise.

For one reason or another, with passage of time people often reassess and change their course of action, Gurwitch said.

One factor involves simple economics. "A few years ago when everybody had a lot of appreciated stock, and with the whole high-tech boom, a lot of people established philanthropic vehicles," she said. Now, given the depressed market and lower stock values, the high-tech slump, and explicit Internal Revenue Service requirements for disbursing funds from private foundations, many well-intentioned donors are seeking different options.

Another reason for change involves family dynamics. It is not uncommon after the death of a family member who established a foundation for succeeding generations to change they way they give to charitable causes, doing so in a way that requires much less hands-on management.

JCEF, which allocated $125 million to the Jewish and general community from total assets of $779 million in fiscal 2001, provides a few alternatives.

One way is to set up a "supporting foundation," which qualifies as a public charity but has some of the advantages of a private foundation. These include personal involvement in grant-making to reflect a donor's special interests, or creating an investment strategy that is specially tailored according to one's desires. This method generally requires at least $1 million in assets to establish during one's lifetime or through an estate.

For those with smaller fortunes to disburse, a donor-advised philanthropic fund can be created with as little as $5,000 to start. While the gift bears the name of the donor or an honoree selected by the donor, and the donor recommends the recipients, the fund is managed by JCEF, which has about 3,000 charitable organizations (both Jewish and non-Jewish) on its approved list for giving.

The donor-advised fund, for example, perfectly suited the needs of Paul Roskoph of Roskoph & Associates in Palo Alto. Roskoph, an attorney specializing in tax and estate planning, has set up "a lot of private foundations" for clients who want to maintain control of their assets and get their families involved in the process of tzedakah. However, community funds and foundations, he said, provide "the perfect answer" for many others, including himself.

Roskoph set up a philanthropic fund through JCEF and is "delighted" with the results.

Technically, Roskoph makes "suggestions" for grants, which he said go to both Jewish groups, such as the federation, and community nonprofit organizations, like the symphony. Though JCEF has the right to veto suggestions that do not meet its approval, so far "100 percent" of his recommendations have been adopted.

As an attorney, Roskoph is well aware of the many legal requirements involved in operating both private and public foundations. And though it is routine for people to have their attorneys do all the paperwork establishing a foundation, he said, they don't always "stay in touch" with their legal advisers to ensure that continuing needs are met. Working through an organization such as the federation ensures that all requirements are met, he said, and yet fees range "from nonexistent to nominal."

As chair of the JCEF 's Peninsula legal and tax professional subcommittee, Roskoph keeps abreast of current issues and convenes a lunchtime meeting every-other month during which professionals in the field discuss pertinent legal, accounting and estate-planning issues.

Jill Dodd, a member of the JCEF's San Francisco legal and tax professional subcommittee, agreed that charitable giving through a federation can make a lot of sense.

"For the average donor, all they know about are private foundations," said Dodd, an estate planner and nonprofit attorney at Steefel Levitt & Weiss in San Francisco. Dodd works with both the S.F.-based JCF and the Jewish Community Federation of the Greater East Bay, which also has an independent but affiliated endowment, the Jewish Community Foundation. Both organizations, she said, have the "back-office capability" to provide services for philanthropists.

During shaky economic times, converting to a donor-advised fund or establishing a supporting foundation offers a safe vehicle for worried philanthropists.

Besides relieving the administrative headaches involved in running a foundation, charitable giving through a federation can bring peace of mind, Dodd believes, solving the dilemma of "who to give your money to."

JCEF staff will meet with families to help them identify goals and charitable interests, then find organizations that match the donors' interests. Also, JCEF evaluates programs on an ongoing basis and will even work with agencies to help develop new programs. And it can provide investment management.

"What we're trying to do," said Gurwitch of the JCEF, "is assist people with their philanthropy and help them become more effective…We can help people establish a philanthropic mission; sometimes people want to be more strategic, and we have the infrastructure to help them do that."

Liz Harris

Liz Harris is a J. contributor. She was J.'s culture editor from 2012-2018.