Striking the Right Balance Between Designated Giving and a Strong Central Jewish Communal Structure
Steven H. Klinghoffer is a Wexner Heritage Program alumnus from MetroWest, NJ. Steve is President of WPI Communications, Inc., a marketing communications firm located in Springfield, NJ. He has served in a wide range of Jewish communal leadership positions including President of United Jewish Communities of MetroWest. Steve can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
I look back at my thirty plus years of involvement in the organized Jewish community and marvel how the landscape of Jewish giving has changed so dramatically. The norm used to be that individuals would make their largest contributions to a central campaign – UJA. Community leaders would then decide not only what resources were to be allocated overseas and locally but also how they would be divided among our local agencies and overseas partners.
During the last decade or two there has been a growing trend towards individuals designating just how their tzedekah is to be spent. In some communities UJA campaigns allow individuals to designate some or even their entire annual donation to specific uses. More importantly, there is a growing trend to select specific programs to fund thereby completely bypassing the community allocation process.
Designated giving certainly has its benefits. It has been attractive to mega donors who might not have been willing to donate as much otherwise. Young donors, many of whom have substantial resources, are attracted to the concept of being more “hands on.” Some of the great initiatives of our time such as Birthright Israel, PJ Library and Jewish Camping, just to mention a few, probably would not exist were it not for designated giving.
However, I have a deep concern that designated giving may become so popular as to endanger our long standing tradition of maintaining a central Jewish communal structure. Acting individually or in small groups we can accomplish some wonderful things. However, without an effective communal allocation process we may put our community at substantial risk.
An effective Jewish communal structure serves five important functions. First, it provides basic funding for long standing institutions. In many communities it permits the JCC, geriatric center and days schools to “turn on the lights.” It is difficult to fund raise for such mundane but important functions.
Second, it provides a mechanism for us to respond to emergencies and supports the infrastructure that enables our response. For example, in 1991 through Operation Solomon we were able to play a significant role in airlifting thousands of Ethiopian Jews to Israel on just a couple of days notice. More recently, we relocated just about all the remaining Jews in Yemen. Last year almost every federation established a safety net for Jews suffering from the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. Earlier this year federations opened mailboxes for a Jewish response to the Haitian crisis. Over $4 million was raised in a very short period of time. Can we count on individuals to respond to these situations in a timely and coordinated manner without a central communal structure?
Third, a Jewish communal structure enables the organized Jewish community to reconcile competing interests. For example how can we – as individuals — balance the needs of the developmentally disabled with providing affordable Jewish education? Is it more important to feed elderly Jews in Eastern Europe or to build a new geriatric center here at home? These and many other very difficult issues require a communal allocation process.
Fourth, without a Jewish communal structure who would serve as a convener? Our individual federations and our umbrella organization, Jewish Federations of North America have conducted many studies over the years regarding shifts in Jewish population, Jewish education and intermarriage. These studies have been used to convene discussions about some of the largest issues facing our community. In many cases they have actually inspired very large designated donations. Once more, can we expect individuals to perform this function?
Finally, the intersection between designated giving and a strong communal structure can be synergistic. For example, federations have played a large role in service delivery and follow up required by Birthright Israel and PJ Library. Federations have provided the mechanism and knowhow for soliciting supplementary and planned gifts in order to sustain major programs initiated by donors such as day school endowments and residential Jewish camping. Having an effective communal fund raising structure can actually amplify the impact of designated giving.
Clearly, the emergence of designated giving has resulted in many new creative programs. As an attractive and successful way to raise money, it has engaged individuals in the organized Jewish community who might not otherwise have been involved. However, if we each make our own shabbos, will we continue to act as a community? If we do not have a robust central communal structure provided by federations, which needs will simply be overlooked? Our challenge is to creatively strike a balance between designated and communal giving that will give us the best of each.