Amid bad economy, philanthropists urged to dig deeper

They're not rock musicians or movie stars, but the group meeting later this month in San Jose has an understandably huge fan base.

That's because they're a contingent of people who are in the business of giving away money — often, lots of it.

The more than 300 participants expected at the 13th annual conference of the Jewish Funders Network from March 29 through April 1 find themselves more popular than ever.

At the same time, many also are substantially less well-off than they were two years ago.

Mirroring the overall economic tailspin, many of the network's 900 members "just have less money to give away," says Mark Charendoff, president of the New York-based agency that provides foundations and independent funders with information and strategy for their Jewish philanthropy. To join the network, foundations must give away at least $25,000 annually, though many donate far more than that.

Even those relatively few funders whose portfolios have grown in recent years may be suffering from what Charendoff terms the "stomach test." It's a common syndrome in which people get nervous about spending when the economy is weak.

With those realities in mind, the four-day meeting at San Jose's Fairmont Hotel, entitled "Crisis or Opportunity: Jewish Philanthropy at a Crossroads," aims to help foundations navigate through tough times.

The network currently is telling many of its donors that "these are not times when we should be shrinking. These are times when we should be digging deep," according to Charendoff.

That's because nonprofit agencies that rely on public and private funds for survival are particularly hard hit, he said.

While they're watching their grants shrink or evaporate altogether, these agencies are facing growing demands from the needy populations they serve.

"The not-for-profits we care about are effected," Charendoff said. "You have to be more strategic about your giving. You just have to be smarter with your money."

That advice was echoed by Pamela David, executive director of the S.F.-based Walter and Elise Haas Fund. She foresees "a different level of thoughtfulness" among philanthropies.

"Foundations need to be looking at what their mission is" and be flexible about the best way to support their nonprofit recipients, said David, who will offer grantmaking strategies to conference participants.

"If you like the work a nonprofit is doing, give them dollars they can use flexibly," she recommends, noting that some struggling agencies will need help with basic overhead costs in addition to grants to run programs.

One positive outcome of the bad economy, she predicted, would be that funders become "really willing to partner with [recipients] in a healthier way."

On the downside, many funders may shrink their level of giving. That, said David, could be the case with the Haas Fund.

"We've taken our hits like everyone else," she said. Over the past year, the fund's assets have dropped by more than $20 million, to $180 million. "Nothing has wavered about our commitment to the Jewish life funding-arena," she said. However, at her foundation and others, "there's a recognition that we're not going to save everybody."

For its part, the JFN encourages foundations to annually donate more than 5 percent of their assets — the minimum payout required for tax purposes. Considering a foundation with $500,000 in assets, "the difference between them giving away 5 percent in an average year and 8 percent is a huge difference," Charendoff said.

"Not every foundation should be around forever," he added. "There's plenty of money out there and there will be plenty of money in the next generation."

Murray Galinson, the chair of the conference and a member of the agency's board, has adopted some of that philosophy with the family foundation he runs in La Jolla.

"We decided that we should not reduce our funding because now's the time people need it more than ever," said Galinson, whose fund yearly disburses between $200,000 and $250,000 to Jewish and non-Jewish causes alike.

Priorities for Galinson's foundation include education, youth and the elderly.

Both Galinson and Charendoff predict that Israeli causes may get more attention — and money — from funders worried about that country's ability to weather ongoing terrorism and a bad economy.

"I think there's a real frustration among our members because they see the situation in Israel as acute, and they're not sure how to make a difference monetarily," said Charendoff.

In an attempt to provide some answers, Rabbi Michael Melchior, a Knesset member and former deputy foreign minister, will address the funders.

The conference will also offer sessions on such issues as crisis versus long-term grantmaking in Israel, domestic violence in Israel, anti-Israel tensions on North American college campuses, and will hold a "town hall" discussion on the role that philanthropists can play in Israel.

The Jewish Funders group eventually hopes to open an Israeli office, according to Charendoff.