At the March 2019 Jewish Funders Network conference in San Francisco, (from left) Joshua Foer, Lucy Bernholz and Rabbi David Wolpe discuss the potential impact of technology on giving. (Photo/Stuart Locklear Photography)
At the March 2019 Jewish Funders Network conference in San Francisco, (from left) Joshua Foer, Lucy Bernholz and Rabbi David Wolpe discuss the potential impact of technology on giving. (Photo/Stuart Locklear Photography)

How donors can get up to speed in the digital age

Lucy Bernholz bounded off the stage at the opening panel of the Jewish Funders Network conference in San Francisco and approached a man sitting in the front row.

“Give me your phone,” she said, as he obliged.

She then turned to another attendee and asked for $20, while pointing out that this was, after all, a philanthropy conference. “This is the only allowed solicitation,” joked Bernholz, a scholar at Stanford University’s Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society.

With the money aloft and phone in hand, Bernholz proceeded to explain the difference between the two commodities. With the $20 bill, she told the audience, she was in sole possession of the currency and any value it held. Once she returned the money, she would lose all possession of its value.

“That, my friends, is the root of capitalism — and it’s absolutely at the root of philanthropy: ‘I have it, you don’t. Let’s create a system where I can give it to you.’”

In contrast, the phone contains valuable data, from addresses to shopping history to browsing habits, held simultaneously by multiple entities: the cellphone company, the owner’s email service, the credit card company that allows seamless online shopping — and, for the time being, Bernholz herself. All could be monetizing the same data. Donors who rely on technology to operate their foundations, make grants and conduct basic business should be thinking about this new economic paradigm, Bernholz said.

“You are dependent on those systems, all day, every day, for everything you do at your foundation,” she said. “Yet you are operating in an economy and in an environment that is completely intermediated, all the time, by organizations you have no control over.”

Bernholz was joined on a panel by Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and moderator Joshua Foer, a freelance journalist and entrepreneur who helped create Sefaria, a digital library of Jewish texts. The three discussed possible ways for Jewish organizations to avoid the pitfalls of a technology ecosystem run by companies that are not operating in the public interest.

Wolpe acknowledged that social media and the internet have enabled him to share his sermons widely, providing a tremendous opportunity to use technology as a tool to spread Jewish culture and encourage Jewish learning.

“You have to weaponize, if you will, social media to actually spread information and knowledge,” Wolpe said. “That’s a profoundly Jewish goal.”

The panelists also offered some practical ideas that Jewish foundations could implement to circumvent problems in the digital space. One suggestion was that granting foundations, as a precondition of funding Jewish projects, could require that certain digital standards be met around privacy or proprietary data.

For example, a donor could require a Jewish organization to store user data securely. Likewise, a foundation could stipulate that website development is “open source,” which would give other developers universal access to the code.

Foer noted, however, that such a system is not modeled in the current funding landscape. Sefaria’s code is publicly available, he said, but many donors initially balked at paying for website development that others could then replicate for free.

Donors need to understand such issues in the ever-changing digital world so they can develop ethical and practical technology standards and make them a base requirement for the organizations they fund.

“This room [of donors] has so much leverage in reshaping norms,” Foer said. “You can say, ‘If you want our money, you have to uphold these norms’ — and there is so much need right now for … new norms.”

Arno Rosenfeld
Arno Rosenfeld

Arno Rosenfeld is a reporter at the Forward. He is a former J. intern and has worked as a correspondent for JTA and The Times of Israel.