Sign of the times: The Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) announced the other day that it was discontinuing a program that has been providing support for nine national Jewish agencies for many years. They are: HIAS, BBYO, 70 Faces Media (which publishes JTA, the Jewish news agency), Hillel International, the Association of Jewish Family and Children’s Agencies, the Jewish Community Services Association of North America, NCSEFJ: National Coalition Supporting Eurasian Jewry, and the American Jewish World Service.
The funding at stake is relatively small — about $4 million in total. But the decision by the JFNA’s Alliance (formally, the National Federation/Agency Alliance), a coalition of about 30 federations from across the U.S., is another indication that the sense of collective responsibility that once defined the core of American-Jewish philanthropy has diminished significantly.
In the federation system, local federations increasingly want to make their own decisions about whom and how much to fund rather than be bound by JFNA, the national umbrella group. And overall, a revealing new study of trends in U.S. Jewish philanthropy commissioned by the Avi Chai Foundation shows that major donors, defined as the top 250 foundations that contribute a half million dollars or more a year to Jewish causes, play an outsized and growing role in determining where and how charitable funds are distributed. The report, written by Jack Wertheimer, a respected academic, is entitled “Giving Jewish: How Big Funders Have Transformed American Jewish Philanthropy.” It notes that “programs to build Jewish identity have now superseded social services as favored causes.” The top donors are less interested in supporting the elderly, immigrants, poor Jews, and Jewish education, according to the report, and more focused on “what they call engagement — activities that bring the least involved Jews to episodic gatherings of a Jewish flavor.”
These and other changes have their strong points as well as reasons for concern. The sociological trend of independent giving in Jewish life is consistent with American society in general, where funders want to have a more direct say in where their dollars go and are less attached to traditional non-profits. And while the amount of money generated by top foundations is remarkable, far fewer and wealthier people are determining the priorities in Jewish life.
The nine national agencies that benefited from the Alliance funding will now be on their own in seeking support from some or all of the 30 local federations that formed the coalition, in addition to other sources. The Alliance had described the agencies as “vital,” according to the JFNA website. It notes that the member groups were chosen “based on their effectiveness, impact in advancing the Alliance’s strategic directions, and relevance to the mission of the Jewish federations.”
But times and priorities have changed, and the community needs to have a better understanding of the causes and effects of these dramatic shifts in giving.