Can young Jews give as good as they get?


On the last day of a Birthright alumni mission to Israel last year, participants got a taste of something that was not a part of their initial trip to Israel: a fundraising pitch.

Birthright is credited with reframing the formative Jewish years for 200,000 young North Americans who have received the gift of a free trip to Israel over the last 11 years. The experience also put them squarely on the receiving end, and some wonder if it has also imbued this generation with a sense of Jewish entitlement.

But this group of 25 alumni — who each paid only $500 to go on the mission organized by the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington — donated $14,000 to Federation while on the trip, signaling their readiness to pay it forward. The same group raised $22,000 for Federation in 2011, and, on top of that, members of the group organized a photo exhibit to benefit a program for Ethiopians they had visited in Israel, bringing in hundreds of people and raising thousands of dollars.

“I think Millennials will act and become those funders, but only after they see where the money is going, and after they’ve been inspired,” said Rachel Cohen Gerrol, a Birthright alumna who led the mission and is a founder of The Nexus: Global Youth Summit, an organization for young philanthropists.

Figuring out how to get these 20- and 30-somethings — alternatively called Gen Y, Next Gen or Millennials — to pivot from receiving to giving Jewish philanthropy is a challenge whose outcome will define the Jewish future.

As teens, Jewish Millennials were beneficiaries of the Jewish community’s “anything to get you through the door” response to their alarming indifference to Jewish involvement — free pizza to come to Jewish clubs, free Hillel Shabbat dinners, services and events in college, capped off with a free trip to Israel. Raised by parents focused on building their self-esteem and their college resumes, they turned out to become more dedicated to community service and more diverse, tolerant and fearlessly active than generations before them. But, they have shown little patience for formalities, bureaucracy and hierarchical structures, believing passionately in their own power.

How that will play out in terms of financial giving is still unfolding.

“There is an incredible amount of education and awareness that needs to happen,” said Irit Gross, who heads the Birthright Israel Foundation’s Alumni and Young Leaders Campaign, a fundraising department founded last year. “If you can create awareness that other people have done things for you, and if you can make a good enough case for giving, and get people to understand that we’re not looking for millions and that every $18 check counts because collectively we can make a difference, then it actually clicks that they’ve received a gift and want to do whatever they can to pay it forward and make a difference for the future. It’s about changing the mindset of giving,” she said.

The largest challenge, to be sure, is that the vast majority of 20- and 30-something Jews are not actively connected to an organized Jewish community, and so have no reason to give Jewishly. For the small percentage that has a strong Jewish identity, Judaism might be one of many pieces of an identity that may or may not rise to the top as they determine where to focus their giving.

Gerrol asserts that because this is a generation so focused on community service, to give them a Jewish context for that work and for their charitable giving might accomplish the dual goals of making them stronger Jews while also making them bigger givers.

“I think we are plagued as a generation by a picture in our minds of what it looks like and sounds like and feels like to be Jewish — Federation happy hours, pro-Israel rallies and High Holy Days services. But I think our generation is actively choosing not to opt into those activities in big numbers,” said Gerrol, who sits on the board of The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington. “It seems like the Jewish community needs to work to connect the dots between the values that Millennials are already living by and how those values are Jewish. …We need to reframe the Millennial experience.”

Next summer, Gerrol hopes to take 100 Jewish philanthropists to Rwanda through a new organization she founded, the Olam Project, which will bring young Jews to rebuild in areas torn apart by genocide.

Gerrol was inspired to found the Olam Project after she realized at a Nexus: Global Youth Summit that, of the 400 young wealth holders there, many were Jewish.

“I started asking people, ‘How does being Jewish inspire or influence where you give your money?’ And the resounding answer was there was no correlation. One is about my family and where I celebrate holidays, and the other is where I spend the money I earn,” said Gerrol.

The 2011 Millennial Donor Study, conducted by nonprofit consultants Johnson, Grossnickle and Associates and Achieve, surveyed 3,000 mostly college-educated 20- to 35-year-olds, not specifically Jews. It found that 93 percent had donated money to nonprofits in 2010, and that most gave small gifts to multiple organizations. Nearly 80 percent volunteered time, and while they do their giving through online mechanisms and research the organizations online, they are most likely to give to organizations that are endorsed by peers or to which they are personally connected. Eighty-five percent reported they are most driven to give by a compelling mission or cause.

They want to know how their money is being spent, and to believe they can trust an organization to use the money to make the impact they seek.

In its first foray into turning to alumni as funders and fundraisers, The Birthright Israel Foundation has found some of this out firsthand.

The Birthright Israel Foundation doesn’t solicit alumni in the first 12 months after participants return, other than giving them the opportunity to donate back some or all of their $250 deposit. In 2010, more than 1,000 participants donated $165,000 of their deposits.

While the Birthright Israel Foundation works with Birthright Next — the alumni programming arm — for the most part, Birthright Next stays away from fundraising and focuses on building on the positive Israel experience with opportunities for engagement and networking. A Birthright Next office in Los Angeles has two full-time employees and eight community engagement fellows, who plan events and meet personally with some of the 18,000 alumni in Los Angeles.

In June 2010, The Birthright Israel Foundation set up the Alumni and Young Leaders Campaign to reach out to the maturing population of alumni — the oldest alumni are now 37. In 2010, the alumni campaign raised $230,000 from 1,400 past participants, and so far this year it has already reached nearly 1,900 alumni and young donors, who contributed a total of $272,000.

Most of the alumni fundraising for Birthright has been through personal solicitations with select participants — those who stepped forward wanting to give back after the trip transformed their lives, or those who had been identified as potential donors or having connection to potential donors.

Birthright’s fundraising material lets past participants know that tens of thousands of young people are wait-listed because of lack of funds and gives them specific giving targets — $36 for a night in a Bedouin tent for one participant, or $150 to pay for five people to hike Masada at sunrise.

But the campaign revealed some surprising results, too.

“Although this generation lives and breathes e-mail and handheld devices, we have not yet had tremendous success from e-mail campaigns,” Gross said.

Jeffrey Solomon, president of The Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies, said the Millennials who choose to engage in philanthropy fall into two extremes.

“The first extreme is the growth of Twitter philanthropy — when there’s a spontaneous, almost impulsive giving, whether to the Haiti earthquake or because it’s Justin Beiber’s birthday,” Solomon said.

“There is a second group that studies philanthropy a bit more, and thinks about it more, and engages with a quest for information that has the potential to make them far more effective in philanthropy than their parents and grandparents, because in every aspect of life, information is available and they want that same information about their philanthropy, and want to be certain they are making the impact they want,” Solomon said.

Solomon has worked with the population through two organizations the Bronfman Philanthropies spawned — 21/64, which guides family foundations in involving all the generations, and Slingshot, which produces a Zagat-type guide to innovative Jewish organizations.

Slingshot was founded in 2003, and in 2007 it added the Slingshot Fund, composed of 30 young philanthropists who pool their resources to support a subset of undercapitalized organizations featured in the Slingshot guide. Over the last five years, the fund has distributed $1.8 million to organizations from the list, giving members experience in analyzing institutions and making thoughtful grants.

+