More Dollars, Fewer Moonshots

The following is a transcript of Episode 99 of the Identity Crisis Podcast. Note: This is a lightly edited transcript of a conversation, please excuse any errors.

Yehuda: Hi, everyone. Welcome to Identity Crisis, a show about news and ideas from the Shalom Hartman Institute. I’m Yehuda Kurtzer, and we’re recording on Thursday, May 5th, 2022, Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israeli Independence Day. 

So in 1946, the leaders of the United Jewish Appeal, a Jewish philanthropic umbrella organization that eventually merged into the Federation system, set out an audacious and unprecedented goal of raising a hundred million dollars in their annual campaign.

I learned a lot of this history by the way, in a monograph called the history of the United Jewish appeal written by Mark Raphael in 2020. That a hundred million dollars would be the equivalent of about $1.5 billion today. The Holocaust was in the immediate past and the birth of the state of Israel was the immediate future and it was time to act in a consolidated and coherent way.

Despite opposition and resistance, they blew past that goal and increased the campaign for the following two years. By 1947, just a year later, the campaign, again, for the United Jewish Appeal was launched by none other than President Truman in Washington together with General Eisenhower and then UJA General Chairman Henry Morganthau Jr. 

Elsewhere online, I found a photo of Eleanor Roosevelt who was the featured speaker at the UJA dinner in Phoenix that very same year. In retrospect, it was a minute of unbelievable American Jewish cohesion, on planning, priorities, and philanthropy, and it carried forth with varying numbers over the next couple of decades with emergency campaigns for the rescue of Jewish communities around the world or in the lead-up or in response to Israel’s wars for its existence.

Raphael calls the 1947 campaign, the quote campaign of sacrifice and the 1948 campaign quote the campaign of destiny. There’s a lot more history we could use to make a single and straightforward point that philanthropy has been a powerful tool of American Jewish power for a long time. And it’s also served as a window for us as American Jews to take stock of our state of communal affairs.

In a capitalist society, what we spend our dollars on bears witness to our commitments and our concerns. And I would say also that how we spend our dollars, what infrastructure we construct for philanthropy, what ethics govern the spending of philanthropic dollars, how we go about making our choices, tells us a lot about ourselves, as well. 

For instance, it’s hard for me to imagine any single campaign today by American Jews that could achieve those numbers and that success, not about Ukraine, not about American democracy, not about American Jewish education, and certainly not about Israel. This is the result of a long unfolding story that we know very well about polarization in the Jewish community, as well as the decline and appeal and effectiveness of central communal organizations.

And maybe it also tells the story of the rise of a kind of ideological and idiosyncratic philanthropy for better and for worse. But I want to raise the temperature a little bit. Philanthropy in North American Jewish community, it’s not just a single index among many that would attest to our values.

Organized philanthropy has actually become, I would argue disproportionately the most powerful force in the Jewish community and in our institutional landscape. And therefore, some of its habits and its vicissitudes impact and our institutions impact us and our institutions in really profound ways. It’s been two generations now, since there’s been visibly more resources in private family philanthropy than in the Federation system. And that means there are far fewer communal constraints or structures for input that would dictate how that money has been spent. 

In turn. I felt for a while, personally, that something has changed pretty significantly in the covenant, whether a real covenant or just something taken for granted between organized philanthropy and the system, the organizations and funds it makes possible.

And I would say that that change is most palpably felt in a decline of trust. I’m not sub-tweeting any of my own funders here, but I hear it a lot in the field that funders feel a lack of confidence in the fields that they are funding, that they feel a lack of confidence that those fields be creative visionaries, worthy of funding, or at least honest and competent stewards of that funding and that a lot of professionals, in turn, feel that distrust or share it in turn towards their funders.

Organized philanthropy has been a much more professionalized field. There’s a major annual conference, a whole organization devoted to field-building in Jewish philanthropy, and a major rise in the culture around standards and benchmarks and best practices in grantmaking. I think there are signs that aspects of the empowering of this sector is throwing off the power balance with the rest of the fields of Jewish communal leadership, and at the risk of being reductive, the implicit covenant, for better or worse, used to be between those who quote unquote have expertise and those who have resources, or at least between those who would do the work and those who would pay.

In both of those models, there’s an obvious, shared need on both ends for what the other can bring to the table. But what happens when that calculus changes? What happens for instance, when those who make money in the financial marketplace, come to believe that they’re better stewards of how to spend that money in the philanthropic marketplace?

What happens when one side becomes jealous of the resources of the other and the other side becomes skeptical of the capacities of the other and here’s the real irony, and maybe the tragedy, if we go back to the opening anecodote. We don’t really have any major plays today, the likes of what it took for American Jews to get together and literally participate in building the state of Israel.

Not because we don’t have challenges, but we actually have more resources in Jewish philanthropy and fewer, big plays, fewer moonshots. We’ll come back to that word. And I do wonder whether all of this static, this buildup of tension and distrust, all that has come with turning philanthropy into a big Jewish industry is part of what’s getting in the way. 

I’m talking today about this with Dr. Felicia Herman, who’s the COO of the Maimonides Fund. Previously, the president of the Natan Fund. Felicia was named number 42 of the Jerusalem Post’s 50 most influential Jews of 2021. She’s also the managing editor of the Sapir journal, a major leader in the field of Jewish philanthropy, and a historian of American Judaism, and a friend. 

And I want to explore together with you, Felicia, how we got to this moment in philanthropy and what might need to change. Not because either of us care, I think, all that much about the industry per se, but because both of us and probably a lot of our listeners really care about making Jewish life flourish and philanthropy is ostensibly one of the tools by which the Jewish people make our dreams come true, or at least help our institutions balance their budgets. 

So, Felicia, I don’t know that you disagree either on the diagnosis of what I’ve put on here or even the history, but I want you to start with, um, the first there’s been change a lot of change, uh, over the last number of years in philanthropy, you’ve presided over a bunch of it in your institutional leadership. What do you think has happened, uh, around the field of philanthropy and how have we gotten to the, to the moment that we’re in?

Felicia: Well, thank you, first of all, for having me on the podcast again. Um, and, one of the reasons why I love talking to you, Yehuda, is, um, that we agree on a lot of things and we see things also from very different perspectives. So if we could just go back and forth on your opening framing, um, that would take all the time, but we don’t have to do that.

Where you, where you stand depends on where you sit. Um, and if there’s actually one thing that I want to get across today, more than anything, its that it’s precisely these kinds of conversations, open and honest, and maybe even a little funny, that would be nice, um, between funders and practitioners, if that is the word we’re gonna use today, that I think we need to be having more of.

Cause I actually think I would frame where we are today as a moment of incredible opportunity. Um, and I’ll go back a little bit in history to say how I think we got to this place of opportunity. Um, but part of the framing of this that I think we would disagree on, um, if we went back and forth on it, is that so much of your framing just now is through a lens of power.

And I think that this conversation about Jewish philanthropy, like every conversation about American Jewish life, is embedded in American conversations. And so much of the American conversation today is about power as kind of, uh, you know, we have many totalizing lenses on which to view American life today and American Jewish life, power being one of them or race or gender or class.

And I just don’t buy totalizing theories at all. So I’m happy to talk about power and philanthropy till the cows come home. But I also think that we, part of, I think we’re actually sort of distorting reality, um, by looking at this through a lens of power. So when you and I spoke, this is actually a reprise of a conversation that you and I had at the Jewish Funders Network conference on power and philanthropy.

And as we were speaking, uh, your opening then also, um, had a lot to do with American Jewish history, which I loved, and the history of philanthropy. And one day we’re going to have a really amazing, um, history of American Jewish philanthropy. And I don’t know if I’ll have time to write it, but somebody’s going to write it.

And I want to give, uh, in very broad strokes, I am not a practicing historian, and I am sure that historians listening to this are going to poke a lot of holes in my very broad strokes history, but here’s how I would look at, from the beginning to where we are now. 

Philanthropy was part of the beginning of Jewish settlement in North America because the Jews who landed in New Amsterdam in 1654 had to promise as a condition of their settlement, that they would take care of each other, that they wouldn’t let the Jews become a burden on the colony. 

Which was pretty easy for them to do, because that was the way that Jews basically existed, I think, all over the place, Jews took care of themselves, who else was going to take care of them. And the Jewish community was fairly small. It stayed pretty small. This I think was, um, American Jewish philanthropy 1.0. 1654 to let’s say the 1880s. The 1880s, when we see an overwhelming number of immigrants, Jewish immigrants coming from Eastern Europe, they just overwhelmed the system. Um, a sort of informal, uh, individualized, a little communal system. 

You all of a sudden, you have so many people arriving on America’s shores who don’t speak English. Many of whom are poor. They need jobs. Um, they need to Americanize, um, that the system, the existing informal system really got overwhelmed. And that’s when you see, I think the emergence of a Jewish philanthropy 2.0 with the creation of the federations. The federations, the first one in 1895 in Boston, then Cincinnati, Chicago, uh, the New York federations fund created in 1916.

Even if you look at what they were called in the very beginning, it tells you what their job was. In New York it was the Federation for the Support of Jewish Philanthropic Societies of New York. They were there to be a centralizing force in terms of fundraising, one-stop-shop, you know, you could give to the Federation as opposed to giving to a hundred you know, or 200 little organizations coming to your door.

So one-stop-shop for fundraising and then a one-stop-shop increasingly professionalized for allocating money. So you would have now a new class, all of this in line with developments in American history, a new class of professionals. Many of them, social workers deciding on where this money that they were raising from the Jews would get allocated across the community.

And let’s say this held till the end of the 20th century. Smack dab in the middle of it is the example that you gave. I love that example from 1946, I actually, um, was asked to write a piece in a new book um, that’s a documentary tribute to my dissertation advisor, Jonathan Sarna, called New Perspectives on American Jewish History.

And it’s a really beautiful volume because you take a previously unpublished document, and you publish it. You know, you transcribe it, put it in the book, but then you annotate it. And the document that I looked at was from the 1950s. So it was a document about philanthropy. It was a radio address for the United Jewish Appeal.

And it just took me into this whole world that I really, you know, if I had known about it in graduate school, I had forgotten, this amazing history from the fifties, forties and fifties of huge amounts of money being raised for Jews here, for Jews abroad, for the building of the state of Israel. This is American Jewish philanthropy, 2.0 the Federation era.

And it starts to decline for all sorts of reasons in the let’s say the sixties or seventies, eighties. All sorts of American reasons, all sorts of Jewish reasons. But then we get to the period that you are starting with here. The rise of the entrepreneurial foundations. That’s American Jewish philanthropy 3.0. The Avicahi foundation created in 1984. The Wexner foundation also 1984, the Charles Bronfman, 86, Schusterman, Steinhardt, Grinspoon. These are again aligned with American trends, funders who are creating professional foundations, creating staffed, foundations. And trying to be more strategic, more proactive, more entrepreneurial, more independent.

They clash in many cases with the Federation system. Either overtly cause some of them like to criticize the Federation system. Or just because of, for example, the, I think the, the moment that’s sort of the pinnacle of the early clash is a creation of Birthright Israel in 1999, where it’s created by foundations who then turn around and say the way we’re going to pay for this thing is a third through philanthropy, a third from the state of Israel, and a third surprise from the Federation system. 

And the Federation system was like, wait, whoa, like, why do you, it’s sort of this classic moment, right? Why do you get to decide where the money’s going and how the Federation is going to allocate its money? The great thing about history is that it’s not linear. It’s not static. Action, reaction, right? Thesis, anthesis. The conflict over birthright then creates things like a group called the Tarrytown group, which is a group of foundation and federation CEOs who start coming together to really try to negotiate this new dynamic, where you have foundations that have some kind of power, federations that have much more powe, I would argue. I mean, lots and lots of money. Trying to figure out what is this new world going to look like. 

And that creates a new kind of collaboration over time. I would say, then, we get to American Jewish philanthropy 4.0 with the pandemic. So up until the pandemic there, you see increasing amounts of collaboration, foundation to foundation, foundation to Federation, and between the funders and organizations.

One of the things that we tend not to talk about when we talk about power and philanthropy, is that the funders and the practitioners need each other fundamentally. If you’re a really good funder and you have a strategy and you have a mission for what you’re trying to accomplish in the world, you can’t accomplish that mission without the organizations.

You said it in your introduction, we need to be working together. I might have financial resources or connections, or who knows what, but you’re literally doing the work day-to-day on the ground. Um, we need each other, so you have a kind of a power. The funders have a kind of a power. There’s a power pluralism um, that hopefully we’ll get to talk about, that I think you see coming to the floor even before the pandemic and then the pandemic just changes everything. 

Like with everything, even in philanthropy, it accelerates all trends, um, coming out of the pandemic, which is where we are now. I think we have something that we can build on, and what happened during the pandemic in terms of collaboration, between all of these different parties across all of these different sectors, that I think we have the opportunity to build on for the future. We also have a new generation of leadership in a lot of these places, a lot of people who have known each other for a very long time, in many different kinds of roles. There’s a social capital that’s been built over several decades now, that is also, I think, part of a sense of partnership and collaboration between the funders and the practitioners, that this conversation is a manifestation of. And that I hope is what we can be talking about moving forward. 

Yehuda: Great. So with all of that history, and I guess what I would say to your opening is, I also don’t subscribe to kind of a moral theory that roots everything in power and powerlessness. It’s, uh, I think that’s a bit of a toxin in our society if you are powerful,

Felicia: Agreed.

Yehuda: because it’s it companies with, if you are powerful, therefore you are immoral. And if you’re powerless, therefore moral and it just, I think that’s, that’s profoundly broken. I think it’s anti-Jewish. 

However, in the story that you described, part of the reason that happens, why individuals and families build out their own philanthropic infrastructure is partly because the scale of wealth transforms over the 20th and 21st century making possible humongous accumulation of capital by individuals and families to do these, to do this work.

And partly because like, if you want to move the needle on something, why would you route it through the committee superstructure that shared grantmaking is oriented around. That’s what the Federation table is, that, that the community, the board, the leadership, the committees essentially decide what our priorities are and all of us put money into that system.

So therefore, one of the clear ways why this system has changed is because of a reallocation of power empirically through dollars, but also a reallocation of like the desire to control outcomes by particular individuals. Depends what kind of foundation you are with a lot of family foundations are basically the family members who hire professionals and are able to make those calls by themselves. 

So what, what is, what’s behind the reluctance on your part to kind of name and notice the ways in which the culture of philanthropy has transformed the allocation of power in the American Jewish community. W why did you want to push against that as the framework for this discussion?

Felicia: Partly because the public discourse is so binary and is so accusatory. And the ways that the conversation is usually had is exactly what you just said. The people with the power are necessarily bad. The people theoretically, without the power are necessarily good. And I mean, you can even look, the cover article of the Chronicle of Philanthropy for this month, May, 2020 is called power shift. So I think it’s a terrible article, terribly written article. It’s just a bunch of opinions from a bunch of organizational leaders basically saying, why do the foundations get to have power at all? They canceled the meeting on me. They, you know, they have a closed process. They expect outcomes. They want to quantify our impact. What a hassle, why can’t they just give me the money and let me do the work. So much of the conversation is like that. That’s not what our conversation is going to be, but that’s what so much of the conversation is like. And that’s very dispiriting. That’s, that’s not a constructive path forward. 

I think there are so many ways that we can get into this really complex system. One of the reasons why I think this is an even more complex picture than the one that you described, is that Jack Wertheimer had this great piece that he wrote a few years ago for the Avicahi Foundation about mega donors. 

And he estimated, and we don’t have good numbers on these. This is another very frustrating, part of this. This is not often very empirically driven. Jack estimated that the top 250 foundations that are allocating serious amounts of money to Jewish causes, those top 250. So every name you could think of, right, and a whole bunch more that you don’t even know, are only one fifth of the total of Jewish giving. 

So part of the problem with these conversations in my mind is that we’re actually missing most of the picture four-fifths. So if he’s right, even if the numbers are a little, there are still far more than half of Jewish giving is being given by me and you and people like us and everyone who has, does not have a staffed foundation.

Like, there is this story of mass giving in American Jewish life that I think is not often discussed, incredibly rich, and complicates this whole narrative of like, where does the power of. You know, if we, again, go back to where you stand, depends on where you sit you, Yehuda, sit in a place that is funded by a lot of the major national foundations by the names that we mentioned and many more.

And you, yourself, your perspective is shaped by an interaction with these big national funders. You also have a lot of individual donors. Most organizations don’t even have the national funders attached to them. The day-to-day work of Jewish communities is happening, you know, with individual donors and organizations.

So that’s part of like my reluctance to sort of accept the framing altogether, because I think we’re ignoring a major piece of the story, but the one other piece that I want to talk about, and I think you probably do too, is, is that, that middle category of the foundation professional, right? You talked about people who have made money, in one way, um, thinking that that gives them somehow some degree of expertise over how money should be used in Jewish communal life. 

Well, there’s actually a really big growing middle category of the professionals whom they hire to advise them on their philanthropy. And those people tend to be people who come, who are practitioners, you know, they’re rabbis, they’re educators, they’re Hillel directors. It would be great to do a study of Jewish philanthropy professionals today. Where do they come from? They come from within the community, by and large, they have a degree of expertise. They’ve run programs in many cases. And they actually are, you know, experts themselves.

A lot of the folks also, now that we have a couple of generations of staffed foundations, people who have been staffing these foundations know what they’re doing. They’ve been doing it for in some cases, decades. And there’s a level of expertise now sitting in the foundations that I think again, sort of like busts this, these, this binary categorization that we have funders over here with just the money, and the practitioners over here with the expertise. I think it’s a lot messier than that. 

Yehuda: Yeah. I mean, even, even with that example, There are, for instance, there’s a vastly different experience for professionals who work in philanthropic foundations between those who are dependent on living donors to continue populating the Corpus of money that they give away every year and who are effectively supervising them versus professionals who work in foundations that are already endowed or where there’s deceased donors. 

And there too the power dynamic of, that they have relative to their boards, their charters, their donors, winds up being being quite different. It’s interesting you point out about the, let’s say it’s 20%, that the major family foundations, that, that are kind of the alphabet that people tend to know in the organized Jewish community represent just a small amount, relatively speaking of the total Corpus of Jewish giving.

And in order to get there, you have to tally all the membership donations to synagogues around the country, right. And everybody who gives, you know, a thousand dollars to their schools, building funds, um, and so forth. And yes, it winds up being a far more, I would say, participatory system. However, what distinguishes the large, uh, family foundations is the capacity to do massive amounts of giving under essentially autonomous conditions, at a much larger scale than then, you know, then the 80% can do. 

And I guess I, I want to get into that by asking, like how much do you believe in the capacity of massive amounts of money to achieve change in the American Jewish community? And I go back and forth on this myself. I believe in general, massive philanthropy can make change. I think the 1946 example is one of them. You can build an army, you can build a kibbutz system, you can build hospitals, et cetera. But I’ve heard you say at times a kind of a skepticism that like, just because somebody is putting a lot of money behind a project can they actually achieve major change?

So, I guess that’s the way of saying, like, how do you see the relationship between putting a lot of dollars behind something and actually achieving a change strategy?

Felicia: It’s a great question. Um, because another one of the things that bothers me about the way conversations like this are usually framed is that there is a sense that if you put a bunch of money behind something that there’s like a coercion, sort of like an implication of coercion, if I create this thing, even if I create birthright Israel, right, there still need to be people who have agency who wants to participate in that program? Birthright Israel is only going to be as successful, they’re not, I mean, they are paying people to go on the trip, I guess, but even still, you have to decide that you want to do it.

And the best philanthropy is philanthropy that really understands the field and the market, and is really looking at where are the gaps or where are the opportunities or where are the bright spots of things that are working really well? And how do we do more of that? Part of the way that you know that things are working really well is they’re either having a broad impact, lots and lots of people are participating or they’re having a really deep impact, they’re really profoundly changing people.

So I think a lot of money if deployed intelligently in conversation with the field, can have a profound impact and we see it all the time. Your example from 1946 is a great one, again, because that was before we had any of these named foundations, right. We had a lot of wealthy people, but we had also a lot of not-so-wealthy people that was a mass giving enterprise, um, that changed the world.

Um, the dynamics of course are different now that we have a bunch of foundations as well. But there’s not, there’s like seldom this, the sense that there’s a, a dynamic between the funder and, and like the ultimate user of the dollars, who is a person who chooses whether to do something or not. 

Yehuda: Yeah. I mean, the principal example that I think about when it comes to the flaw in the assumption that just because dollars go to something, it effectuates change, is in electoral politics. Now it’s a mess, funding of electoral politics, but it is just simply not the case that the better-funded candidates win. It’s just not. 

Felicia: Right. Right. 

Yehuda: So, uh, and it just happened this week, actually with the, you know, the Ohio primary, um, the better funded candidate, who was accusing all of this dark money from coming into the district and lost, ultimately lost in a free and fair election, and had raised more money. Um, so it’s an easy way of avoiding the question of number one, do people have agency to make their own choices? And also i it’s a dodge around when money actually makes change and when it doesn’t. 

Let me pick up on one thing that you and I have been around tables, where people were debating this and it kind of gets into the, the psychology of the trust issue a little bit of, like, where are the big ideas supposed to come from? Right, you and I were once sitting at a table. I’m not going to name names where there was this, um, prevailing ethos from folks in philanthropy of, nobody has good ideas. And the reason why major money doesn’t get put towards new innovation and new ideas in the field is because people don’t have enough good ideas.

Meanwhile also through Sapir, you published an issue about moonshots, what would you want to see, like what would it look like to have like major, major plays? And I think that this is a real tension between the quote, unquote practitioners and funders of a complaint on one side, nobody has good ideas that are actually worthy of a hundred million dollars of funding versus well, if only I had the funding, I could have the freedom to pursue those ideas.

So maybe you could give us like a diagnosis of where the block is around that kind of massive creativity that would lead to transformative.

Felicia: That’s a phenomenal question that we should keep talking about and convene more tables around. I think good ideas come from anywhere. I don’t think that the professionals in the field have the lock on good ideas. I don’t think people running organizations have a lock on good ideas. One of the things that’s been really beautiful, beautiful about Sapir is that it’s been pretty cross-sector.

We have Jewish communal leaders. We have funders, we have academics. We have journalists, we have policy people, all different kinds of people. I think good ideas can come from anywhere, is answer number one. Um, the table that we were around, I don’t think anybody said there are no good ideas up there. That’s hyperbole. I think all the funders around that table actually are major investors in the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, or at least most of them. Um, so clearly believe that there are good ideas out there. 

And I think another thing that does not get talked about is that there is a sense of entitlement on the practitioner’s side, that the practitioners do have all the ideas. We’re the experts. We’re really good at this. And you should just give us more money. If only we had more money, we would do more. It’s an interesting, I, I, you know, everybody in philanthropy is watching this, uh, MacKenzie Scott’s giving, right, massive amounts of money just sort of dumping out of the sky, essentially into the laps of organisms. A really good organization then has to go through a lot of work to try to figure out how to use that money really well. 

I’ve been watching the way, for example, that Repair the World, which is one of only a couple of Jewish organizations to get money from MacKenzie Scott, how they’ve dealt with this amazing problem to have, which is a huge amount of money that just came out of nowhere with no strings attached, a really responsible organization now has to do a ton of work to figure out how to use that effectively. So money is also not the answer to everything and more money is not the answer to everything.

But as much as we talk about the need for funders to have humility, and I have talked about this a lot, um, talked about it in Natan, um, which essentially is a donor education project. It’s a giving circle and you have members coming into philanthropy sometimes for the first time. And we talk a lot about what it means to be a good philanthropist.

And then Natan launched amplifier, which was a network of giving circles. I wrote all of the early materials for amplifier, humility, humility, humility, humility, it’s all over all of those materials. We talk a lot about that. But the practitioners need to have humility too. And Natan is a funder of social entrepreneurs and emerging ideas in Jewish and Israeli nonprofit life.

And I love funding social entrepreneurs. But as a person who every year would read a couple hundred grant applications from social entrepreneurs, I can tell you that not all ideas are good. And there is an element here, I think also of, there’s like a generational element.

We have a generation of people who are the, everybody gets a trophy generation, right? Every idea is brilliant. Like Lake Wobegon. Not everybody really is above average. And we need to have a sense that when funders say no, or when funders say there’s a huge gap in the field, and I need to go out and start my own thing, that maybe they’re actually working with, not an ego trip, but working with maybe an accurate assessment of where the field is at and what the capacity of the field is to accomplish certain things, including how good the professionals are in the field.

This is why over the past few years, you see new initiatives around improving Jewish communal professionals, maybe improving is the wrong word, sort of strengthening, you know, the professional field as well, because we have a dearth of leadership. We have a really excellent leadership, right. And those people are out there. Um, we’re maybe not doing a great job of finding them. Sometimes they work in foundations and they create their own programs because the field isn’t doing it itself. 

Yehuda: And you don’t fear that that process is in competition with the field? We’ve talked about this a little bit also, of around talent and recruitment, the capacity sometimes to pay more than the organizations that are getting funded, the move towards operating foundations, which are actually running parallel programs to the field. When, when that happens does it concern you, vis-a-vis the field itself?

Felicia: It concerns me when it’s not done in dialogue with the field. It concerns me when it does come out of a place of ego, when it comes out of a sense of, oh, I know better than everybody else out there. I don’t like that rhetoric at all. Um, but a lot of what I have seen from good foundations over the past many years and good federations as well, which also create their own programs all the time, um, is that if you truly understand the field in which you’re operating and you’re coming at it with knowledge, expertise, humility, Then I actually trust that funders too, can be creating things that the field is not creating for itself.

Keep in mind also that, like, as I said, so many of the people working in foundations, like they are there’s, there’s, they’re not different than you right there, like right.

Yehuda: Right. 

Felicia: They are also experts. There are also rabbis or PhDs or Hillel directors or, you know, a million different examples. And I’m not sure why we would say that just because they’re sitting on the funding side of the equation, that they aren’t just as capable of creating excellent organizations as people on the ground. 

Yehuda: Oh, totally. And I oftentimes, when I’m doing professional coaching for people, especially early in their career, I recommend, spend some time on the funding side. You’ll understand aspects of this work in a totally different way. And by the way, in parallel, I tell every early career professional who I mentor, um, if you want to ultimately run something, learn how to fundraise early in your career. 

Felicia: Yeah.

Yehuda: Um, so you have to find a way to be on both ends. I sometimes get worried that people move from this side of the table to the funder side, and then just stay there for their whole careers. I actually want them to go back and forth. I think what would make this field healthier is if there was a kind of a regular exchange, because it would create the, the empathy that we’re talking about, of what it feels like to be reall anxious about whether you’re going to get funded versus the other side of what it feels like to be really anxious about whether this funding is actually going to the purpose that it’s supposed to go to. I’d love to see that kind of exchange. 

Felicia: That would be interesting. Yep. 

Yehuda: Let me ask you a, a more granular question about the trust piece, which is, you know, one of the things that is hardest to raise money for, uh, in Jewish education, are endowment funds, and it’s not true in the wide field of philanthropy, universities raise endowments all the time. Um, but in Jewish education, it’s very, very hard to raise endowments. 

The premise of an endowment, if it actually got to the place where it could, uh, serve a function, is that it peels off sufficient interest, that it actually lowers your fundraising responsibilities for a year, frees you up in certain ways and potentially gives you, um, through those interest dollars, un-designated dollars to grow, to innovate, et cetera. I tend to experience a tremendous amount of resistance in Jewish education towards that kind of, um, that kind of funding, a bias towards shorter term giving that is designated towards particular ends. 

I get why it’s, it feels less strategic to like move money out of a foundation endowment into an organization endowment. But it’s one of those examples of like, wait, why, wouldn’t this be a way that you could actually secure the long-term future of, of, um, educational institutions and potentially lower the fundraising burden. So maybe you could talk me through, like, why you think that that bias is there. Maybe I’m misreading it, but I, I see it as a bias that’s particular in the field of Jewish education.

Felicia: I would definitely want to see data to know if that is accurate or not. It could, it could very well be. I mean, I can certainly speak more generally to, why do people make short-term grants rather than long-term grants? And why are some people reluctant to give endowment gifts? I mean, the reluctance to give endowment gifts, um, I think does come out of in many cases, a lack of trust, whereas what is this institution going to be in 10 years? How do I know? Just because I like it now that I would like it in the future?

But I really don’t know that there’s been a decline in that. I don’t know that maybe it’s, you know, what you’re perceiving is, you know, Jews will give endowment gifts to other places, but not to some places. But I really don’t know, I would, I would want to see data on this. 

I think, you know, it’s similar actually to the question that philanthropists and people who set up foundations have to run. Which is, are you setting up an endowed foundation? Um, or are you giving, uh, maybe through a donor advised fund, something sort of year to year? Are you putting money into the foundation every year or is it coming out of some kind of Corpus?

Um, and is your foundation set up to exist in perpetuity or is it going to sunset and, we should have another time a conversation that the point that you raised about endowed foundations, you know, that exist in perpetuity, sort of, I think they, many of them in the, in the philanthropic world sort of trend one way over time as their boards turnover, as the generations turnover, I have a lot of experience, much more experience with the people who made the money, the earners, rather than the inheritors.

And they have made the money. They tend to want to have some say in how the money is spent. And you know, of course there are many people, you know, lots of different views on this, but a lot of them will also say like, I don’t want it to go to something that I actually don’t really believe in.

And not only do I maybe not trust an organization, what’s going to happen to it in 20 or 50 years or even five years or even next year. And the, the pace of change is so fast. I don’t even trust my own kids to make a decision that I would make. And therefore I’m not setting this up as an endowed family foundation in perpetuity. I want to spend it all in my lifetime, and give my kids maybe some money that they can work with on their own, but they’re, I’m not sure that a lack of trust is necessarily a bad thing, if you also believe as I do that donors should have control over where their money goes. 

And if there are things in a system that are causing people to lose trust in the system, that’s what we should be talking about. Not is there a problem the way the system is set up, but what’s the thing that is the roadblock. And I, and I don’t know, because I think we’re both just kind of speaking with a lot of conjecture here. 

Yehuda: Do you think enough money is moving into the system from pbilanthropy?

Felicia: I don’t know what that means, enough. Um, I think we live in a time of amazing abundance. My whole career, um, at Natan was about trying to inspire more people to give and try to catalyze more giving. Um, I feel very lucky to sit in a foundation right now where we give a lot and want to give more. And all I want is for more people to be giving in a way that is meaningful to them, that helps them self-actualize not only because it’s good for the system, but also because it’s good for them as human beings to be generous people. So I don’t know what enough means, but I always want there to be more. 

Yehuda: I’m just reminded of something that our mutual friend Rabbi Eli Kaunfer said to me a few years ago, which was, you know, watching a number of philanthropic endowments grow and grow and grow, sometimes in communities where the population of Jews is declining. You basically said like, we’re going to wind up with a situation of like massive endowments and no Jews

And I, I don’t, I’m actually not nervous about new Jews. I, I have a little bit of a different view on Jewish identity and continuity, but, but I do feel oftentimes really frustrated that the things that are afflicting us as Jewish community leaders, that we think we have some of the infrastructure to solve, we’re just not putting enough behind it. And I, I say that not even being sure what, what you would do with the money, if you had more of it. So it’s not like, oh, I know exactly what to solve for, but something is just, something around, I don’t know.

Felicia: So all I want to do for the next few years, you know, is sit and talk with you and with other people and with Eli and all kinds of people that we know who are so smart from the funding side and the practitioner side, and think together about what might look like, because there, there is so much money being left on the table. A hundred percent. 

Part of it is also because there are a lot of Jewish people with wealth who aren’t giving Jewishly because what exists in the Jewish community isn’t inspiring them. And also because they’re largely ignorant of what exists in the Jewish community to give to. My piece in Sapir in the fourth issue in the moonshot issue was about how we need to invest in philanthropy, came right after your piece, it was why we need to invest in democracy. 

Um, there’s no end of good things to give to no end of let’s say causes and problems and opportunities to give to, we do need to, now coming out of the pandemic, think together as much as possible about what the structure should look like. How do we affect the change that I think we all want, we might have different visions for exactly what it looks like, but we are talking about, as you said, in the beginning, making Jewish flourish. We’re talking about thriving Jewish communities that people want to be part of where they’re well-educated and generous and take care of each other. 

And, you know, the social entrepreneur dynamic that I talked about before, and even the rise of the entrepreneurial foundations, all of those come out of the same instinct that the system that we have now is not necessarily the system that we need to take us into the future, or let’s have some creative destruction let’s take with us from the past what’s still working, but constantly reinvent, constantly innovate, so that we can meet the needs of the future. And I, and I also just, I loved Eli’s example of the, uh, community, where there are no Jews, but a big endowment.

That’s a great reason not to have an endowment. You actually see this in communities that especially have these hospital conversions, you know, like, um, Denver, Cincinnati, they sell a Jewish hospital. The terms of what you have to do with the proceeds are that you have to use it in another way for the Jewish community of, you know, in that location.

But they may not have enough Jews to give to, there may not be enough to do. And a lot of the reason why my sympathies probably lie personally, with the folks who keep a more dynamic system of giving that is in much more of an active feedback loop with the field itself, is that sure, like populations change, right?

We, we see this, the sale of, you know, HUC and the buildings and whatever’s happening out in Cincinnati. Like there used to be a huge hub of Jewish life and it isn’t any longer. It happens to have an enormous foundation, Jewish foundation, you know, in Cincinnati, it’s bigger even than the Federation because of the sale of the hospital, but not a huge community to give to. So, I like the, the, the dynamic feedback loop of constant conversation and innovation. 

Yehuda: So, let me ask one more, right turn question. Um, there was a well-publicized kind of ugly episode a few months ago, which we’re not going to fully go into today cause neither of us are kind of stakeholders in it, but it involved at the University of Washington, a donor who had given, uh, at the time a naming gift, to a professorship, to a center on, on Israel studies.

And then ultimately wanted to take those, take those monies back because of um, her perception or the reality of how one of the faculty members involved was, uh, showing up. The kind of classes that person was teaching, uh, the politics that they represented. So there’s a whole piece of this, which is about Israel and American Jewry, but a lot of it is also about philanthropy. I remember when this came out, you said basically like, I don’t think you said as explicitly don’t give money to universities, you said something much more specific, but it was about what, what one could do as part of a lead into a process like this that could avoid the ugliness that comes with trying to like peel back your money away.

So, uh, it’s kind of a best practice question. What should happen in the kind of covenanting between grantor and grantee that could make this process not only healthier at the outset, but maybe a little bit immune or could prevent the kind of situation that emerged on the other end, which I think everybody felt was ugly. The funder was unhappy. The university was unhappy. The professor was unhappy. Um, what, what would you, what would you want to see different?

Felicia: Well, I’m glad that we’re talking about this today, because just yesterday there was a piece in E Jewish Philanthropy that basically said we should not, not ever invest ever again in Jewish studies or in Israel studies because the whole field is rotten. And I don’t agree with that at all. My point in the, in my Facebook post about this was that, uh, donors need to know themselves, right?

So donor know thyself point. You as a donor need to understand what the change is that you want to make in the world. And you need to have, uh, you need to be transparent about that to the folks who you are funding, and they need to be transparent with you about the system that you are buying into and their goals.

Right? Good giving is like matchmaking. It’s like getting into college, you know, they need a bassoon player and you play the bassoon. Um, whether or not your sat scores, sort of merited you getting into a particular place. So this is the same kind of matchmaking. Like you shouldn’t assume that a university in perpetuity is going to fulfill your wishes as a donor, unless you spell out what those wishes are explicitly in an agreement.

And it’s an agreement that, again, you’re not coercing the university into. That the university on its side is willing to meet you part way in different things. So you have to understand the system that you’re buying into, whether you’re giving to a university or anywhere else. And this I think, and I don’t have any inside information into it, but this, it looked to me from the outside was a story of a poorly crafted endowment agreement where the donor had specific ideas about what they wanted the money to accomplish, what their red lines were on this extremely tendentious issue, and it wasn’t clearly enough stated. 

And what was troubling to me about the way that that conversation played out publicly was that it became a critique of philanthropy that was trying to violate academic freedom. When actually, I mean, A the philanthropists should know about academic freedom, if that’s you know, that’s a system you’re buying into and B the university gave the money back. So it wasn’t actually a violation of ant of academic freedom that professor’s still there doing exactly what that professor wants to do on campus and funded, by the way, you know, by the university, just not funded by this particular donor.

So I want there to be both excellent matchmaking and donors who are really proactive, intentional, thoughtful, humble, who know what they’re trying to achieve in the world with their money and whatever other resources that they’re bringing to the table. And then you can have an honest conversation about whether this is the right. fit for those resources.

Yehuda: Right. And for the institutions as well. I mean, some of the moments I’m most proud of as a fundraiser were the times when I was like, if we take this grant or this donation based on a certain set of assumptions, it’s going to tie us into commitments or expectations that we can’t meet.

And I’d rather turn it down. You know, you can’t do that all that often, but I do think that the, in this case, like the university could have also anticipated, like, you know, oh, it’s great. We’re about to get a $5 million gift, but what are the consequences? If we don’t write this into this, then we’re creating consequences that are going to come back and hurt us as well. 

Felicia: There’s a whole fascinating conversation to be had another time about the funding and universities and, you know, the perceived distance between funders who are perceived as being more right-leaning I don’t think that’s true. Thhe university perceived as being left leaning and what you do, if you’re a funder who is trying to make change in the world in a system that you know is actually trying to change a system. That’s a whole other area for us to talk about another time. 

Yehuda: To be continued. Well, thanks again, Felicia for coming back on Identity Crisis. And thanks to all of you for listening to our show. 

Identity Crisis is a product of the Shalom Hartman Institute. This week’s episode was produced by David Zvi Kalman and edited by M Louis Gordon with assistance from Miri Miller and Shalhevetz Schwartz and music provided by so-called.

Transcripts of our show now are available on our website, typically about a week after an episode airs. To find them and to learn more about the Shalom Hartman Institute, you can visit us online at We’re always looking for ideas for what we should cover in future episodes. If you have topic you want to hear about, or if you have comments about this episode, we read all the comments. Please write to us at [email protected] You can also rate and review us on iTunes to help more people find the show. You can subscribe to our show everywhere podcasts are available. We’ll see you next week.