Jewish charities brace for financial hardship

The sweeping nationwide financial crisis has Jewish

philanthropy professionals preparing for a potential calamity in the world of charitable giving.

At its worst, they say, the unstable stock and real estate markets could force large foundations to cut their allocations significantly. Also, smaller donations from the middle class could dry up, and a renaissance of Jewish programming could come to a halt.

At its best, the economy could stabilize, and there could be no more than a short-term slowing of philanthropic dollars.

“I think you will begin to see cutbacks now in terms of commitments for the future,” said Richard Marker, an independent philanthropy adviser and a professor of philanthropy at New York University. “If you were to start a major campaign now and are asking people for lead gifts, I think you will begin to see an atmosphere of reservation.”

Philanthropy typically follows the economy by two years — if the economy falters, usually it takes two years for philanthropists to slow their giving. But Marker and others predict this downturn will have a much quicker effect.

“I think people are taking a deep breath,” Marker said. “I don’t think that people right now are looking to make major new commitments, whereas maybe a year ago, if a great new idea came along, someone might say, ‘OK, let’s take the risk.'”

Marker, who acts as an adviser to a number of foundations and philanthropists, said he has heard of one foundation that already has said it will not provide grants next year, but declined to name it.

At the annual conference of the Jewish Funders Network, which recently gathered some 350 of the world’s wealthiest Jews and most prolific givers in Jerusalem, philanthropists and foundation professionals expressed concern that a philanthropic recession is on the way.

Even the behemoth of the Jewish philanthropic world, the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, is nervous. The foundation, which last year was worth some $2.3 billion, gives out more than $100 million a year to charities, most of which are Jewish.

Foundations are required to give away 5 percent of their assets each year, which means they generally try to earn 7 percent annually on their investments to pay for their allotments and overhead.

But the Weinberg foundation, which has about two-thirds of its money invested in various markets and the rest in real estate, has lost 9 percent of the value on its invested assets since the beginning of the year, according to its treasurer, Barry Schloss.

He said the impact on the foundation’s giving will not be felt immediately, as its allocations for the last fiscal year, which for Weinberg ended Feb. 28, are already set. “We’re not cutting grants at the moment.” But if the market continues to tumble, “the real effect will happen next year.”

The real crunch, though, may come not from major foundations but the middle class.

Givers tend to make charitable donations in accordance with how comfortable they feel financially. In this economy the middle class — and therefore smaller donations — could suffer tremendously.

“We are very concerned about the manner in which the volatility in the markets and the repercussions of the credit crunch will have on fund raising in general and the abilities of the charities to function,” said Sandy Cardin, the president of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation.

While he expects those charities that receive a significant portion of their budgets from foundations to be relatively secure, charities that depend on smaller donations from the public could be in trouble.

“Regarding the larger group of donations — gifts from the general public — it is unknown,” Cardin said.

Charitable contributions are among the first cuts for Americans feeling insecure financially, say experts in the field.

“Consumer confidence is at its lowest level in 30 years,” said Gary Tobin, the president of the Institute for Jewish and Community Research. “Small donors are no different than mega-donors. If their retirement funds are down and unemployment touches them and they are behind in mortgages, then giving will suffer. No one knows how long this will last.”