Scrap ‘Pet Projects,’ Philanthropists Urged
03/27/09
Editor and Publisher
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St. Petersburg, Fla. — In a bold address that implicitly criticized his constituents, the president of the Jewish Funders Network (JFN) said this week that in response to the economic crisis, member philanthropists and foundations must change the way they way they do business by consolidating efforts, collaborating with each other and sacrificing pet projects for the greater good of the community. Mark Charendoff addressed some 225 members and others at the annual conference here of the international organization of family foundations, public philanthropies and individual funders that meets to discuss common goals, learn about new projects and form strategic partnerships. He noted that family foundations have lost about 30 percent of their assets this year and small foundations are expected to donate 60 percent less to Jewish causes than previous years. But Charendoff said that despite the dire economic news, “this is a time of opportunity,” a time for leadership to step up and focus on “the bigger picture. “In an age of scarcer resources we need to decide what our priorities are as a community and get behind them, whether they are our personal cause or not.” In a departure from his usual role as convener, Charendoff  offered his own vision of three primary objectives for American Jewish philanthropy. One-third of Jewish funds should go toward improving Jewish literacy, he said, including day schools, camps, alternative minyanim, and Birthright Israel. “Ignorance of Jewish texts and tradition is not an option,” he asserted. Another one-third of funding should go to strengthen Jewish peoplehood, including ensuring the safety and well-being of Jews everywhere, and one-third should be earmarked for dedication to service, not just for Jews but “to make the world better,” through projects that address poverty, racism and sexism. To accomplish these goals, Charendoff continued, funders should set aside one-third of their donations for general operating support for grantees; one-third for cooperative efforts, such as “giving up pet projects” for ones that others can work together on; and one-third to “rewarding good behavior,” helping non-profits be more productive, including encouraging mergers among them. Charendoff emphasized that the vision was his alone and that he welcomed, in fact urged, debate on the specifics, but added: “‘no’ is not an option. ‘Business as usual with 30 percent less money’ is not a business plan.” Many praised Charendoff’s talk for being specific and providing a challenge, as well as a model. Others questioned his role, going from convener to spokesman. Later, in an interview with The Jewish Week, Charendoff  acknowledged that “it’s fair to say that I was criticizing the funders here,” adding: “I’d like to think I’m their harshest critic.” He said the JFN role is “to serve funders” but he felt the need “to push them” under current circumstances. “The people here can make decisions and change Jewish life.” Charendoff serves on The Jewish Week’s board of directors. There was much anticipation about what this year’s conference would be like in light of the economic meltdown and Madoff scandal. There were the usual tensions, in discussions and panels, about the balance between supporting establishment Jewish organizations like federations, and innovative start-ups, which were described in one session as “the eco-system” of the Jewish future, with some 300 small nonprofits (with budgets of under $2 million a year) emerging in the last decade. In truth, most JFN philanthropists are also among the biggest contributors to their local federations. And there were less-discussed tensions among representatives of some of the two dozen innovative non-profits invited to display their projects and meet funders at a “venture philanthropy fair.” Several said they felt like second-class citizens while others expressed appreciation for being able to attend, even if they were not part of the full conference. But while this conference had fewer attendees than in recent years, there was not the dark mood among the participants that some had feared. Certainly the economic crisis was the central focus of discussions, but there was a sense of inspiration, if not optimism, about a willingness of the assembled philanthropists to continue their work, with an eye toward the long-term future. The keynote speaker of the conference was Nobel Peace Laureate Elie Wiesel, whose humanitarian foundation was decimated as a result of the Madoff scandal. “He didn’t bring shame to the Jewish people, just himself,” he said of Madoff, without mentioning his name. “I’ve never believed in collective guilt,” Wiesel said. “Responsibility, yes, but not guilt.” His main message: “stay together” and work in a spirit of unity for Israel and the Jewish people.

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