Journalist: Jewish agencies must re-examine youth donor models

Journalist: Jewish agencies must re-examine youth donor models

Jewish philanthropy is changing to reflect its evolving donor base and reach untapped givers, Jacob Berkman said, but those changes must go deeper.
In an interview with the Chronicle during his recent visit to Pittsburgh, Berkman, a former JTA staff writer who covered philanthropic issues, and now writes a blog for The Chronicle of Philanthropy about faith and giving called “The Rising Tithe,” said Jewish fundraising groups, particularly the Jewish federations, must re-evaluate their youth models, noting that young adult Jews today may care about very different issues than their parents.
Federations and other Jewish fund-raisers must also find new ways to tap into smaller donors, the “grassroots,” as Berkman referred to them.
In a story last month for The Chronicle of Philanthropy, Berkman wrote, “The number of donors to the federations has declined by half over the past 25 years, from about 900,000 to 450,000, according to a 2010 Jewish Federations of North America study. The decline is due, in part, to a decision by the federation’s leaders to focus their attention largely on wooing big donors. But as its pool of donors is getting disproportionately older — some 90 percent of federation donors are older than 45 — officials are especially concerned about reaching out to the young, as those under the age of 45 have been particularly apathetic toward the federations.”
He added in his story, somewhat astoundingly, “Only 29 percent of Jews ages 19 to 36 even knew that federations exist, according to a separate study, conducted in 2009.”
Addressing that decline, Berkman told The Jewish Chronicle that federations (at no time did he address the Pittsburgh federation in particular) must find new ways to reach grassroots donors who may hold different values than traditional givers.
“The federations made a strategic decision about 25 years ago to focus on major donors, but in the process inadvertently started treating the grassroots as the ugly stepchild,” he said. “Now they have to figure out again how to capture the grassroots, but the grassroots has changed in 25 years.”
Responding to Berkman, Jeffrey Finkelstein, president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, said reaching smaller donors must, and is, become a higher priority.
“The federation system hasn’t done enough to focus on more modest donors, so I concur with Jacob on that,” Finkelstein said. “I do believe there’s a lot happening to address that both on the local federation level and the national federation level.”
Locally, he said Pittsburgh has committed substantial human resources to young adults — individual staff members for Shalom Pittsburgh, Young Adult Division, for instance.
Larry Schwartz, chairman of the Young Adult Division of the Jewish Federation Greater Pittsburgh, acknowledged that change must come if federations are to attract and keep younger donors. The same is true for all nonprofits, he added.
“It’s not enough to tell people it (giving to Jewish causes) is important to do; they have to feel it’s important,” Schwartz said. “If we don’t make it meaningful then they’re not going to continue to support it.”
He noted that federations and other Jewish nonprofits are facing more competition than ever before for donor dollars, with social websites and high-speed Internet access making it easier for charities to tap to younger donors. Also, there are simply more charities and nonprofits out there.
“People used to write a check every year to the federation because that’s what you did. Now, people are questioning and they have so many different options.”
Berkman said federations are trying to reach out to the younger demographic, noting March’s Tribefest in Las Vegas, which attracted about 1,300 young people including 12 from the Pittsburgh area.
The fest did not include some trappings of youth events from previous years; attendees, for instance, did not wear ribbons indicating how much the wearers gave in the past.
“It was interesting,” Berkman said of the function. “They (the federations) realize [their] young leadership model has problems.”
Schwartz, who also was at Tribefest, said it looked significantly different than past youth conferences. It attracted more people and focused less on leadership training.
“They (the organizers) wanted it to be more of a melting pot,” he said, “people who were very involved and people who were marginally involved — no barriers.”
And there were about nine sessions every time there was a breakout, giving participants a “sampler, to get people engaged,” he added.
All changes aside, though, Berkman said federations, and all Jewish nonprofits for that matter, must find ways to reach Jews not affiliated with the community, or — as he said — live “outside the bubble.”
“Federation is doing a good job in reaching out to people in the bubble, but they haven’t gotten outside the bubble, and that’s where most Jews live.”
Schwartz agreed, saying YAD, for its part, is trying to reach younger Jews who increasingly are moving further into Pittsburgh’s suburbs and away from the center of the community.
He’s optimistic YAD will succeed, noting studies that show Jews at the national level are increasing their affiliation in some way or another.
“We’re in a post-modern [period],” he said. “People are disconnected, and they’re trying to find meaning again.”

(Lee Chottiner can be reached at

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