Entrepreneurial Philanthropy, the New Charity

On a chilly autumn morning in late October, in a rooftop sukkahatop New York’s Abraham Joshua Heschel School, a small group ofrabbis, Hebrew teachers and millionaire investors joined hands tomark what their leader called a “defining point in American Jewishphilanthropy”: an $18 million fund to help create new Jewish dayschools around the country, paid for by a “partnership” among a dozenof America’s richest Jewish families.

Unwary listeners might have mistaken it for a defining point inJewish education. It wasn’t. The group’s leader, the canny investmentmaven Michael Steinhardt, is smart enough to know that $18 million,while a serious gesture, won’t revolutionize Jewish schooling. Itwill barely cover the chalk.

Jewish giving is another story. An alliance of a dozen wealthyfamilies could start a revolution. “This is the first time,”Steinhardt told the rooftop audience, “that 12 philanthropists ofthis stature have come together as equal partners.” It represents, hesaid, “the emergence of entrepreneurial philanthropy in the AmericanJewish community.”

For those new to the term, entrepreneurial philanthropy is anewish form of charity that devotees liken to venture capitalism.”Rather than just giving money away, I want to identify a need,identify the social entrepreneurs who are coming up with solutions,and make sure they have enough money to do the work,” said New Yorkinvestment fund manager Alan Slifka, who pioneered the practice inthe 1980s with such innovative projects as the nondenominationalHeschel School and the Abraham Fund for Jewish-Arab coexistence.

“If you look at the venture capitalists of, say, Silicon Valley,they’re in the business of looking ahead at the market trends of thenext 20 years. I want to create the not-for-profit organizations ofthe next 20 years.”

It’s not for the fainthearted, nor for the poor. Critics say thatit amounts to rich people going off and starting their own Jewishorganizations. For the rest of us, it’s a bit like that Ming vase youadmired at Sotheby’s: If you need to ask, you can’t afford it.

Over the past decade, however, it has become one of the mostinfluential trends in Jewish organizational life. Practitionersnumber only a handful — perhaps 10 real players, including Slifkaand Steinhardt, yet they are changing the structure of the Jewishcommunity.

Some examples:

  • Ohio clothier Leslie Wexner. His Wexner Heritage Foundation, which he funds at an estimated $3 million per year, runs tuition-free, two-year study programs for selected Jewish lay leaders — 120 in six cities per year — to raise the literacy of Jewish leadership.
  • California real-estate developer Larry Weinberg. A former president of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), he and his wife, Barbi, in 1984, launched a think tank, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, to change the tone of Middle East debate in Washington.
  • New York cosmetics heir Ronald Lauder. Through his Ronald E. Lauder Foundation and Jewish Renaissance Foundation, he is the main backer of Jewish cultural and educational renewal in Eastern Europe.

In a sense, this is nothing new. Most Jewish humanitarian programsearly in this century were built by a well-heeled few with names suchas Rothschild, Schiff and Rosenwald. After World War I, however,baronial largess largely gave way to the federation system ofcommunity-wide fund raising and decision making.

Now the barons are making a comeback. Why? “My feeling is that theJewish community is becoming more conservative and risk-averse,” saysSteinhardt. “The federations are consensus organizations. They moveglacially slowly in responding to change. So a number of people areseeking new ways to effect change.”

Then, too, Jewish crises are changing. Unlike the challenges ofthe last 50 years — building a state, rescuing postwar survivors,bringing Jews out of Yemen and Russia — the next Jewish crises don’thave clear-cut answers. No one is sure how to cope with intermarriageor how to arrest Jewish illiteracy.

The solutions may emerge from small incubator projects, just whatventure capitalists do best. A handful of projects are underwayalready. Israel Experience Inc., created by whiskey baron CharlesBronfman and run jointly with the United Jewish Appeal, incubates andtests strategies for increasing teen Israel travel as a tool to buildJewish identity. Ma’yan, a New York think tank created by feministactivist Barbara Dobkin, is exploring ways to increase women’sleadership roles in the community. Both are long-term, uphillprojects requiring a strong-willed backer with deep pockets.

Cooperation among the barons was the inevitable next step. Theday-school partnership emerged, insiders say, from a secretivediscussion group that brings together a clutch of the superwealthyabout twice a year to chat informally about the Jewish future:Included are Wexner, Steinhardt, Cleveland’s Morton Mandel, thebrothers Charles and Edgar Bronfman, the brothers Laurence andPreston Tisch, stockbroker Alan Greenberg and a few others.

It was Steinhardt who raised the idea of joining forces to promoteday schools. Wexner, Mandel and the Bronfmans bought in. The othersdidn’t. Steinhardt then recruited other partners to round out hisdozen (one of the 12 is not an individual but the extended family ofNew York UJA-Federation). Steinhardt sees it as the first of manysuch initiatives.

Is this good for the Jews? Not if it replaces federations.Hidebound as they may be, the traditional Jewish bodies at least tryto listen to voices from the grass roots. Entrepreneurs do not.

As leavening in our cake, however, the entrepreneurs can play avital role. “If one thinks of a private foundation having aleadership role in society, think what could happen when five or 10of them get together,” says Jeffrey Solomon, who left the No. 2 jobat New York UJA-Federation last summer to become director of thenewly created Charles and Andrea Bronfman Philanthropies. “They canchange the world.”

J.J. Goldberg is author of “Jewish Power: Inside the AmericanJewish Establishment.” He writes regularly for The JewishJournal.

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