Can Jewish donors repair our community?

There was plenty of sophisticated thinking that infused the annual Jewish Funders Network (JFN) Conference, which I attended this past weekend in San Diego.
April 6, 2016

There was plenty of sophisticated thinking that infused the annual Jewish Funders Network (JFN) International Conference, which I attended this past weekend in San Diego. Donors and foundations are always looking for new ideas, new causes, new ways of maximizing impact, anything that will make their philanthropic dollars go further. They found it at the Conference.

Experts in big data spoke about the transformational power of digital technology to measure impact, create communities and help develop more meaningful programs.

Financial experts spoke about the merging of the non-profit and for-profit worlds, so that each strengthens the other. I saw a presentation on “Impact Investing” that discussed an emerging new instrument called PRI’s (program related investments) that treats foundation money more as investments rather than straight grants.

Everywhere you turned, you found another cause helping the Jewish world. This year, arts and culture played an especially prominent role, as did a growing participation from Israel.

The conference is like a human laboratory of goodness. Donors discover new causes and share their own. They tinker to see how they can improve their initiatives. Put 600 Jewish donors and professionals in one hotel for a few days, throw in a few dozen workshops and breakout sessions, sprinkle some fun activities and you’re bound to see good things happen.

In fact, it’d be interesting to see what new initiatives have been spawned by the intense networking that happened at the conference. Maybe JFN can present them at next year’s conference in New Orleans, and title the session, “A metric on the power of networking.”

But while all this networking and diversity of ideas was impressive, it didn’t surprise me. It’s what I expected. It’s clear that the JFN conference has become an important event in the Jewish calendar, if only because so many of the attendees have an enormous amount of influence– what professionals call “capacity” and I call lots of money.

There is one thing, however, that did surprise me, and it happened at the very beginning of the conference.

Instead of talking about giving, the opening plenary talked about talking.

The organizers decided that the discourse in the Jewish community has become so nasty and divisive, they better address it up front.

So, in the grand ballroom on Sunday afternoon, as a packed crowd of influential Jews looked on, JFN President Andres Spokoiny kicked off the conference by talking about something unpleasant but necessary: The growing division in the Jewish community.

Of course, everyone knew the elephant in the ballroom: Iran. Everyone remembers how the Jewish community was torn apart during last year’s debate on the Iran nuclear deal. And everyone knows that the wounds are still raw and have yet to heal.

Here’s how the program booklet announced the plenary: “If a house divided against itself cannot stand, neither can a kehilla. Political polarization has increased across American society, and the Jewish community has been particularly affected. The past year has seen extraordinary disunity and divisiveness in our community, with our internecine battles even hitting the front page of The New York Times.

“What tactics and choices do funders make that lead to increased polarization? How can our funding decisions and behaviors enhance civility and respect? How should we function when we have disagreements with grantee organizations or within our own families? Can we refrain from turning political opponents into enemies to be vanquished?”

There was a panel that discussed these issues. Unlike the rest of the conference, in this panel no one talked about innovative breakthroughs or metrics. There was no “big data” analysis to guide the audience on how to bring more civility to community discourse. Let's face it– when it comes to human behavior, there are no secrets. We all know the basics: Be nice, don’t insult, listen.

What hovered above the discussion, however, more than the actual words of the panel, was the actual power of the crowd. Here is a group that controls much of the philanthropic money going to Jewish causes.

What if they decided that no cause is more important or fundamental in the Jewish world today than civility in discourse?

What if they decided to make unity within diversity a top priority?

What if they decided that healing is just as important as innovating?

It's that possibility that gave the three days of the conference an added dose of electricity.

Maybe by next year’s conference, some genius will have developed a metric to measure the intangible of civil discourse, so that donors and foundations can use their influence to improve the cohesion in our community.

It may not bring on the Messiah, but it would certainly be big data.

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

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