Study reveals the who, what and where of Jewish giving

When Jews feels connected to their community, money will flow – to Jewish causes and elsewhere.

That, in short, is the main finding of a broad new nationwide study of American Jewish philanthropy. Coordinated by Jumpstart, a Los Angeles-based think tank and incubator for innovative Jewish nonprofits, the study, titled “Connected to Give,” asked nearly 3,000 Jews across the United States about their giving habits.

This central finding, published in a report released Sept. 3, may seem self-evident, but that doesn’t make it any less significant, according to Jumpstart CEO Shawn Landres, who has spent the past two years working on this project, along with the nonprofit’s COO Joshua Avedon and a team of more than two dozen researchers and advisers from around the world.

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“The more engaged you are in the Jewish community,” Landres said, “the more likely you are to give, not only to Jewish causes but to non-Jewish causes as well — and more generously, at that.”

To date, “Connected to Give” has cost around $700,000 to conduct, paid for by grants from 15 institutional funders plus one individual from across the United States.  Surprisingly, it represents the first time anyone has polled such a broad sampling of American Jews about their philanthropic activities.

Researchers asked respondents all sorts of questions, including about their links to the Jewish community. To assess connectedness, researchers asked respondents whether they are married to someone Jewish, what proportion of their friends are Jews, how frequently they attend religious services and whether they volunteer for a religious or charitable organization.

These factors combined turned out to be the best predictor of how likely a person was to give charitably – and also correlated with how much a person would contribute.

“Connection is the most important factor,” Landres said. “It’s more important than income; it’s more important than age.”

The Jewish Journal got an early look at the first report released – “Connected to Give: Key Findings from the National Study of American Jewish Giving” — which, over the coming weeks and months will no doubt be examined and evaluated in detail by Jewish funders and fundraisers, as well as budding Jewish social entrepreneurs and long-time professionals, machers and would-be machers. Its central conclusion alone could guide fundraising and programmatic efforts for years to come. Some executives from Jewish Federations have already been told some of findings, and the Jewish Funders Network plans to highlight the results at its conference in 2014.  

But for the average American Jew interested in how, how much, and to what causes members of their community give, the study, which was designed in collaboration with the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, offers a chance to look in the mirror.

Among the key findings:

–       On the whole, Jews give, and are more likely to give, than their non-Jewish counterparts. Among Jews, 76 percent of households reported having given a donation of $25 or more in the previous year. Among non-Jews, the number was 63 percent. For Jews, the median annual gift was $1,200; among non-Jews it was $600.

–       Non-Jews are more likely to give to their own houses of worship than Jews are. As part of the study, researchers polled almost 2,000 non-Jews, using the same set of questions. When asked about specific philanthropic priorities – like basic needs, the arts and education, among others – Jews gave in higher numbers than non-Jews in every category except for one: gifts to their own religious congregations or ministries.

–       Jews are more likely to give to nonsectarian causes than to Jewish ones. Of Jewish givers, 92 percent gave to a non-Jewish organization; 79 percent gave to a Jewish one.

–       Young Jews are less likely to give to Jewish organizations than their older counterparts. Eighty-one percent of Jews over 65 gave to Jewish organizations; among Jews under 40, the number drops to 72 percent.

Jumpstart plans to publish other, topic-specific reports culled from the data over the course of the coming year — including findings focused on Orthodox American Jews, whose Jewish lives and giving practices, the researchers said, are different enough from their non-Orthodox counterparts to be parsed separately from rest.

For now, the study’s central finding – the more Jewishly connected you are, the more you give, Jewishly and otherwise – is being highlighted, in part because it has the potential to inform the work done by all kinds of Jewish organizations in the immediate future.

Engineered serendipity: Creating space for innovation and risk-taking

The state of funding innovation in the Jewish community presents encouraging and discouraging realities at the same time. Los Angeles and New York are foci of innovation in the Jewish world and the vibrancy of Israel as a center of innovation is undoubted (I refer, of course, not to the high-tech sector only, but to myriad innovative social programs). Also the newly rebuilt Jewish communities of Eastern Europe and the Former Soviet Union are producing innovation in community programs. It’s understandable why: they aren’t limited by a tradition of community work and they have to rebuild communal life from scratch.

There’s also innovation in the way we fund. We see the emergence of giving circles, venture philanthropy, impact investing, collaborative funding, co-investment and the like. These innovative ways of funding are only being timidly tested in the Jewish community but they are gaining ground.

On the other hand, we are seeing big issues and discontents in the field of innovation. To describe them I will use three metaphors: the coffee shop, the printing press, and the recycle bin.

The coffee shop: innovation rarely happens in a vacuum. It needs an ecosystem, a breeding ground that is conducive to the generation of ideas. Innovation comes from an environment in which ideas are shared and networks provide a platform for exchange that is somehow structured but mainly serendipitous. The model for that is the coffee shops that sprung up in Paris, London, and Vienna in the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries, where savants, polymaths, philosophers, and scientists conversed freely. Benjamin Franklin, for example (as Steven Johnson aptly remarks) is a product of that culture: he didn’t patent a single one of his inventions.

The lack of a “coffee shop-like” space in the Jewish community is hurting innovation. Turf and proprietary programs and information put a brake on innovation. We need to re-create a space where people from different disciplines can exchange information and talk about new ideas with each other—a space where ideas flow freely and information breeds creativity.

The printing press: we all assume that Gutenberg invented the printing press around 1430 in Mainz, Germany. In fact, he didn’t. The actual creator of the printing press is a Chinese inventor called Bi Sheng. Gutenberg’s innovation made movable type more efficient and revolutionized the mechanism with which the press operates. Gutenberg lived in the winemaking region of Germany. So Gutenberg’s “invention” was in fact an adaptation of two different, older technologies: the wine press and Bi Sheng’s printing press. This does not detract from Gutenberg’s genius—rather the opposite. What Gutenberg did is something that we call “exaptation,” taking something from an external, seemingly unrelated field and adapting it to our own. Creation ex nihilo (from nothing) pertains only to G-d. We, humans, create by combining, adapting and exapting existing knowledge. “Invention” in Latin shares the same root as “inventory.” One can only invent with what one has.

Fields of knowledge that are self-contained produce less innovation because they lack exaptation. The Jewish community is far too insular and if we are so, the possibilities for exaptation are limited. The best laboratories of ideas are always a little contaminated.

The recycle bin: innovation cannot take place without a culture of high tolerance for risk and failure. Many of the big ideas of humanity were, actually, mistakes or failures. They came from the “recycle bin,” but they were not dismissed. Viagra failed as a heart disease medication, but it created the best pharmaceutical business in history. Imagine if somebody had emptied that recycle bin at Pfizer…. A culture in which we learn from both past failures and successes is critical. Innovation is almost always born out of an iterative process of trial and error. In many cases, it’s born out of reusing and recycling previous failures.

We sometimes pay lip service to failure but our actual tolerance for risk and failure in the Jewish community is limited. We don’t support those that fail, we don’t circulate the learnings that stem from failure, and we don’t reward risk-taking.  Moreover, we don’t create structures that facilitate the process of learning from failure and capitalize on the lessons of past experience. Learning needs vehicles, structures and channels. As it’s often said: we need to fail fast, cheap, and smart.

The post-modern organization necessitates a new model, one in which leadership is distributed and not concentrated, and in which information is shared and not owned. The networked organization will be the ultimate vehicle for innovation to take place.

In sum, we need to invent a new way of inventing.

Andrés Spokoiny is President & CEO of the Jewish Funders Network. This op-ed is excerpted from his keynote remarks at Innovation to Transformation:  Changing Jewish LA, Changing LA Jewishly, a philanthropy summit organized by Jumpstart and JFN in January 2013.  For his complete essay, and the full summit report by Dr. Saba Soomekh, please visit

How much is Jewish innovation worth?

On May 8, in a very cool space in Culver City, I listened to a hundred very cool people talk about their very cool vision for the Jewish future.

The occasion was something called — OK, bear with me — “ALCHEMY: The Science & Art of Jewish Innovation: an evening of thought-provoking learning and conversation presented by the Joshua Venture Group, Jumpstart & LimmudLA with the Joshua Venture Fellows.”

I know, almost as long as the production credits for “Prometheus.”

But this title at least shows there is a bull market in Jewish innovation. Groups like these have arisen, at least in part, to find, develop and fund young, or young-ish, Jews who are trafficking in innovative approaches to Jewish life.

Indeed, “innovation” is the hottest word in organized Jewish life these days. Say you are doing something “innovative,” and Jewish organizations will roll out the welcome mat and funders will prick up their ears. To what do these young people owe their windfall? Three things.

First, society has never looked more kindly on innovators. We all live in the post-Jobsian glow of the next new thing, and it’s no surprise that a people who lay claim to the “Start-Up Nation” are particularly susceptible to start-up ideas.

Second, there is a deep fear among the older Jewish generation — the people giving away the money — that Judaism is losing its hold on the younger generation of Jews. “Innovation” is the solution begat by the last buzzword of Jewish anxiety, “continuity” — the fear brought on by the 1990 Jewish Population Survey that younger generations of Jews are detached, assimilated or marrying out of their People. In Los Angeles, of course, we have zero proof whether this is still true because, unlike in other large Jewish communities, there has been no subsequent scientific survey. (New York just released a new comprehensive survey this week, as it does every decade.) But, hey, data is so old-fashioned.

Third, social media has made the cost of seeming to build an organization or movement fairly cheap. Your parents’ chavurah never had more than 15 people in it, and their synagogue maybe only had 500 members. In the Internet age, 500 is how many people join Facebook every minute.

I’m not saying that the organizations that presented at Alchemy were not thoughtful or serious or worthy. Just the opposite. To become recipients of Joshua Venture grants, they had to prove their abilities at organization and leadership. Nati Passow of the Jewish Farm School, Eli Winkelman of Challah for Hunger, Ari Weiss of Uri L’Tzedek and Alison Laichter of the Jewish Meditation Center, to name a few, all spoke impressively.

The Alchemy organizers asked me to listen to the evening’s worth of these and other presentations and then, at the end, “synthesize” what had been said, especially in the context of the Los Angeles Jewish community, in a final wrap-up speech. I did just that, but with the fair warning that as a columnist it takes me at least a week to think on my feet. The interim has allowed me time to innovate some further thoughts.

I told the Alchemy attendees, first, that I was humbled. 

I said that they do need to recognize that they are just the latest in a long line of innovators. In fact, the coolest, youngest innovators I know in the Jewish community are all between 60 and 90 years old. Think about it: Rabbi Marvin Hier created the Simon Wiesenthal Center out of thin air. Rabbi Uri Herscher built the Skirball Cultural Center from the ground up. Rabbi Harold Schulweis has been at the forefront of the chavurah movement, the righteous persons movement, the Jewish response to Darfur, the acceptance of converts and intermarrieds. Rabbi Laura Geller keeps creating new models for women and synagogue leadership. There’s Brandeis-Bardin, the Shoah Foundation, the Israeli Leadership Council and everything the Cunin family initiated years ago — I mean a Chabad telethon.

Today, the institutions these men and women built look like … institutions. But in their day, they struggled against a status quo that, to put it mildly, did not welcome them with grants and conferences. What looks mainstream today was anything but at the conception.

The lesson from this is that innovation is not new: It is built into Jewish life. That’s because Judaism itself was once an innovation — a radical departure from the status quo that realized only through balancing tradition with hiddush, innovation or renewal, can a culture move forward and thrive.

And that’s what leads me to my caveats and worries: I wonder if true innovation among young people isn’t hampered, rather than helped, by our rush to reward innovators with grants and aid. If innovators have an idea and don’t get communal monies to pull it off, can they develop the skills, or cojones, to just strike out on their own and sustain their ideas, like the Hiers and Herschers did?

It’s one thing to create the next new Web site or cool organization, but lasting innovations have always been solidly linked to visionary leadership, often forged in adversity, and committed for the long haul.

I would hope, too, that existing Jewish organizations understand the benefits of bringing young innovators on board, of just saying yes to more outside ideas, if only to save on the money and energy expended to start yet more groups.

And finally, I hope — pray — that grantors balance their eagerness to fund “new and cool” with the much less sexy need to fund “old and sick,” or lonely and disabled, or poor and weak. Maybe we as a community are so awash in money that we can afford to spend millions getting perfectly healthy, smart, upper-middle-class Jews excited about Judaism and Israel. Fine. But before we spend a penny there, let’s make sure we have taken care of the needs of all those who otherwise could use that money: the Holocaust survivors, the working poor, the hungry and disabled and ill. That’s not innovative. It’s just Jewish.

Heads of young innovative Jewish organizations debrief L.A. Jews on their work

As part of their visit to Los Angeles last week, the outgoing class of Joshua Venture Fellows, all leaders of innovative Jewish organizations that are less than five years old, spent a few hours one evening talking to a group of L.A. Jews.

At an event co-presented by Jumpstart and LimmudLA, the fellows presented the work of their own organizations. Headquartered around the country, their nonprofits engage in work that ranges from the very hands-on, to the heady, to the overtly political, to the radically reductive. 

For a few hours on May 8, though, the fellows functioned as the hub of a self-contained ecosystem of Jewish innovation that popped up in a shared office space in Culver City. The approximately 80 (mostly young) Angelenos who joined the (also youngish) fellows included leaders of more established Jewish organizations, aspiring Jewish innovators, and staff members from Jewish Community Foundation and The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

It was both an opportunity for the Joshua Venture Group, the New York-based organization that funds the two-year fellowships, to present the fellows to Los Angeles and a chance for the fellows themselves to seek out partners to help advance their work.

While the crowd talked, noshed, networked and (occasionally) Tweeted, the fellows themselves made clear their awareness that they were coming up to the end of two years of both training and exposure to other Jewish resources for innovation, as well as grants from the Joshua Venture Group to each of their organizations of up to $100,000.

“We are working on replacing that funding,” said Rabbi Ari Weiss, executive director of the Modern Orthodox social justice nonprofit Uri L’Tzedek. In addition to the Joshua fellowship, Weiss and Uri L’Tzedek have been supported by other organizations, including getting funding, office space and other resources from Bikkurim over the last four years.

Weiss said the organization is stronger today than it was before those programs invested in it.

“I think we’re a much more mature organization, having been in this ecosystem, he said.

A break in the pipeline

They say a good mensch is hard to find. Without the Professional Leaders Project (PLP), the Los Angeles Jewish community might never have met mensches like Gabe Halimi and Ari Moss (“L.A.’s Top Ten Mensches,” The Jewish Journal, Dec. 31). Or innovators like Elishia Shokrian Bolour, who launched the Society of Young Philanthropists here in Southern California and is expanding it to Dallas. Now that PLP has announced it will suspend operations, who knows how many prospective mensches will never be discovered?

What appears to be the end of the PLP story next week will mark a milestone in the history of the Los Angeles Jewish community: the first time in recent memory that a major nationwide initiative was born here in Southern California, grew and thrived for a time, and then closed its doors. PLP, one of several L.A.-based organizations that have helped to define the innovation ecosystem nationally, has become the premier independent entity for developing and educating the next generation of Jewish leaders, both volunteer and professional. Thousands of people will carry the lessons they learned through PLP to organizations old, new and yet to be born.

PLP founder Rhoda Weisman and her team understand well the fluid nature of nonprofit leadership in the 21st century, recognizing that individual leaders, and the relationships between them, lie at the heart of effective innovation and advocacy for change. The values they have instilled in PLP’s programs are applicable throughout Jewish organizational life: institutional independence, the recognition that volunteer and professional leadership are intertwined and often interchangeable over the course of a person’s career, and, most importantly, not only a genuine belief in and commitment to the process of innovation and renewal, but indeed the explicit acknowledgement of the real contributions that new leaders bring to the missions and institutions they serve.

More practically, the Jewish community is losing a critical clearinghouse for the entire nonprofit workforce pipeline. This is not a trivial need. As the NonProfit Times reported on Aug. 13, the senior management gap in U.S. nonprofits is a matter of growing nationwide concern. The Bridgespan Group, a nonprofit human capital think tank, predicts that overcoming this “leadership deficit” will require a commitment “to attract and develop a leadership population 2.4 times the size of the total number currently employed” (Finding Leaders for America’s Nonprofits, 2009).

This issue is only magnified in the organized Jewish community, where according to a recent study for the Jewish Funders Network and The Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies (ACBP) entitled “Executive Development & Succession Planning: A Growing Challenge for the Jewish Community,” retirements by long-serving baby boomer executives will create succession challenges at as many as 90 percent of Jewish organizations over the next decade. As the only independent initiative dedicated to identifying, recruiting, nurturing and mentoring new volunteer and professional leaders regardless of their institutional affiliation, PLP has played a vital role seeding the Jewish ecosystem with human capital.

PLP’s absence will have an immediate impact on the hundreds of young leaders who have been a part of its networks and participants in its leadership development programs. These include hundreds of emerging leaders from around the nation who were recently recruited for PLP’s LiveNetworks 2009, a yearlong seminar series incorporating leadership development, Jewish learning, analytical tools, coaching and mentoring.

Especially pressing is the question of how to honor the commitment made by the newest members of the LiveNetwork hubs here in Los Angeles, as well as in Chicago, New York City, San Francisco and Washington, D.C., 20- and 30-somethings who signed up (and even were willing to pay) for training, networking and mentoring as volunteer and professional leaders in 2009 and 2010. They now have nowhere to go. Our community cannot afford to let their energy go untapped: We must find alternate ways for them to engage their passions and skills. For example, we could imagine local agencies in each of the five cities adopting the LiveNetworks members, either by creating new programs for them or by absorbing them into existing next-generation training projects.

Earlier this summer, in these pages, we challenged the Los Angeles Jewish community to establish a common strategy and comprehensive support system for local innovation (“Let’s Bring Innovation Into the Fold,” July 10). PLP’s suspension of operations only adds to the urgency of our task, opening a critical gap not only locally but indeed nationally. Los Angeles still can be a vital source for the current wave of Jewish creativity and innovation, but sustaining that energy will take vision, hard work, and, most importantly, collaboration across and within our community. We should feel great pride in PLP’s homegrown success story, deep regret at its departure and a strong sense of responsibility to carry on its mission of turning Jewish leadership over to the next generation. It’s what a mensch would do.

An earlier version of this op-ed, co-authored with Joshua Avedon, appeared on

Shawn Landres is the co-founder and CEO of Jumpstart, a think tank, catalyst, advocate and support system for sustainable Jewish innovation.