The Future of Jewish Philanthropy: An Interview with Mark Charendoff of the Jewish Funders Network

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I had the privilege of interviewing Mark Charendoff, President of the Jewish Funders Network about the future of Jewish philanthropy.

About Mark Charendoff


Mark Charendoff is the President of the Jewish Funders Network. He is the former Vice President of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies where he helped to establish the Birthright Israel program and the Institute for Informal Jewish Education at Brandeis University. Mark received his Bachelor of Hebrew Letters and Rabbinic Ordination from the Darche Noam College of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem.

Mark has served as Chair of the Jewish Community Center Association’s (JCCA) Forum of Jewish Educators and as a member of the JCCA Commission on Maximizing Jewish Educational Effectiveness II. He serves as an officer of Edah, on the Board of Trustees of The Jewish Week (North America’s largest Jewish newspaper), and on the Advisory Board of the Washington Institute for Leadership and Values and the Jewish Institute for Pastoral Care.

Mark’s articles have enjoyed a broad circulation, he has served on the faculty of the Wexner Fellows program, and he speaks and teaches widely across North America.

For information about the Jewish Funders Network, see below.

The Interview: Five Questions on the Future of Jewish Philanthropy

1. Giving Jewishly

We know that on average, Jewish philanthropies give a small percentage of their money to Jewish causes. How should we be defining who is a Jewish philanthropist?

Are there key values that every philanthropist, as a Jew, should hold dear? What are the implications of the growing trend away from Jewish communal giving? How can Jewish organizations adapt and evolve to combat this trend?

At the JFN, we consider a Jewish philanthropist to be someone whose philanthropy is informed by their understanding of Judaism and their sense of Jewishness, and not merely by the destination of their giving.

Take for example a young woman in New York who is funding a job program in Harlem through a non-Jewish agency directed to non-Jews, but who is doing so from her understanding that the highest form of tzedakah is to make someone self sufficient.

Is there a trend away from Jewish communal giving? How do we define it? If you are talking about the Federation system, yes. Is there a trend away from Jewish causes or Israel… I don’t know. That’s not a trend that I am aware of. The trend away from giving through large communal organizations is mirrored in the larger society– less is going to the United Way, for example.

2. Jewish Youth Philanthropy

What can the Jewish community as a whole and Jewish organizations in particular do to spark the interest and investment of young Jewish philanthropists?

Are there ways in which philanthropies can or should be changing their thinking to become more appealing to young donors? How can the Jewish community help younger Jews become stakeholders in the Jewish community, and through that, Jewish philanthropy?

Good question. First of all, we could be doing a lot more, but the easiest answer is that doing this has nothing to do with philanthropy and everything to do with identity.

You can’t train a young person to be a Jewish philanthropist per se, but you can try to foster within them an appreciation of the values of their community. That should be our mission regardless of whether a person is rich or poor or in between.

I think that if the question is, therefore, what can we do to foster Jewish identity, then there are great examples: Birthright, summer camps, youth groups, day schools, a whole range of things we should be investing in.

Regarding giving kids specific skills as philanthropists– JFN is on the forefront of that. Our Jewish Teen Funders Network program is out there actually training teens in the skills they need to allocate money effectively and to appreciate the needs of the community and of Israel when they are making their funding decisions.

But the bottom line is that we are not reaching the vast majority of young people in a serious way. Certainly not. Education has to be the combination of transformative moments and formative experiences.

We are good at transformative experiences like Birthright for large numbers, but the formative experiences– those ways of engaging young people over time– we’re getting very, very small numbers of the non-Orthodox Jewish population.

3. Investing in Israel’s Top 15 Vision: Changing the Paradigm of Jewish Giving to Israel–

What can Jewish philanthropists do to help forward Israel’s Top 15 Vision of becoming one of the most developed countries in the world in the next 15 years?

What are the best ways for Jews abroad to invest in Israel and to promote and help support it socioeconomically, technologically, economically, and environmentally? What should be avoided? In short, how can we change the paradigm of supporting Israel in the Jewish community?

Two answers: American Jews can “invest” in a business sense too. If you want to foster the growth of Israel, there are investment opportunities– whether your cause is to foster small businesses in the periphery of the country [for example in the Negev or the Galilee] or joint ventures between Israeli Arabs and Israeli Jews– there are plenty of options.

In terms of philanthropic dollars, let’s start with what we shouldn’t do. We shouldn’t replace the government of Israel. Philanthropists have to be very careful not to finance bad behavior on the part of the government. It’s something that the JFN is very careful about in the foundations we manage.

That said, smart funders can use their funding to move the government into areas that they ought to be moving just like philanthropists do with the government here in the US.

Consider: the 911 [emergency telephone] system was started by a foundation. It worked and was taken on by the government. Public libraries: started by Carnegie. Headstart: same deal.

There are a lot of innovative things that only happen because philanthropists take risks and prove that it can work and then the government can take it over and take the credit for it– as they should do.

In Israel, one of our members, the Rashi Foundation, was integral to getting a program going that would provide lunches to kids who needed them so that they could remain interested and attentive during the day school. Another foundation piloted the notion of extending the school day by providing enriched subject study. Private money can go hand in hand with the government.

4. The Frontier of Jewish Philanthropy: What the Future Holds–

What can we expect to see in the next two to five years from the field of Jewish philanthropy? What should we be striving to create? Who is on the frontier of change that we should be paying attention to?

What will Birthright’s long-term impact and lessons be for Jewish communal organizations? What can Jewish organizations do to make themselves 21st century ready in terms of the needs of the Jewish community?

We’re likely to see continuation of the current trend– there will continue to be more money available, and there will continue to be far more competition as the American Jewish community gets more assimilated and starts looking more and more like their neighbors.

There will be more competition for dollars, not just within, but outside the Jewish community. We’re going to have to work harder to make the case that we’re the best investment.

5. Giving Voice to the Minority–

You wrote: “When did unpopular ideas lose currency in the Jewish community?” Are there ideas that fall into this category that you think we should be paying more attention to?

We are far too risk averse. Too afraid of making mistakes. Some of our institutions have gotten too big, so by the time an idea emerges it’s processed to death.

I think our placing consensus as a primary value has weakened creativity and entrepreneurial spirit, and we don’t reward risk taking in Jewish communal life.

We know that failure will be punished. In the business world failure is punished too, but risk taking and success are rewarded. In Jewish communal life there isn’t really a reward for anything other than raising money– which is kind of a terrible bottom line. There’s no incentive.

What’s the solution? To create institutions and train board that will celebrate failure, that obviously learn from failure, but really take seriously that notion that risk taking means you’re going to sometimes fail. There’s no way around it.

When an organization says proudly that everything is working, it’s just an indicator that they aren’t trying anything new. We should be willing to talk more about failure. We should be willing to learn more from our failures. That’s what good investors do.

About the Jewish Funders Network

The Jewish Funders Network (JFN) is an international organization of family foundation, public philanthropies, and individual funders dedicated to advancing the quality and growth of Jewish philanthropy. Membership is open to individuals and foundation that give away at least $25,000 annually in philanthropic dollars, and do so in the name of Jewish values, no matter whether the funds go specifically to Jewish causes or to broader areas. (The Jewish Funders Network is not a grantmaking organization and has no political agenda or affiliation.)

You may also be interested in learning about about the Jewish Funders Network’s strong programming in youth philanthropy. (Look for more information on this in a winter series on Jewish teen philanthropy and teaching generous giving.)

Special thanks to Jennifer Lew Goldstone and Courtney Williamson for their help.



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10 Responses to The Future of Jewish Philanthropy: An Interview with Mark Charendoff of the Jewish Funders Network

  1. Gary Kulwin says:

    This is a fascinating interview, Maya. While I generally agree with Mr. Charendoff’s remarks, I’m not sure that we should really train boards that can “celebrate failure”. While I certainly would agree that most of the large, established organizations are overly cautious, I also believe that there are good reasons (or at least, reasonable explanations) for this attitude.

    Almost by definition, any large organization or movement has a “collective memory” of its past successes and failures, and it relies on its history to guide its future actions. If some project or strategy worked out well in the past, the organization is likely to seek out more of the same (until the demand for that project is saturated). The best example of this in the “real world” is the franchise model, whether we are talking about businesses (like McDonalds) or non-profits (like local Federations and JCCs). Franchise outlets are very conservative operations (i.e. they try to stick as closely as possible to a standard proven model), but the replication of many outlets throughout a single environment can have really dramatic consequences.

    Furthermore, we need to admit that consensus has to be a primary value in those organizations, like Federations, that assume the role of the “central actor” in organized communal life. IMHO, the only structural model that can support both action by consensus and a capacity for radical change is the democratic nation-state. A “voluntary” organization or network, like the Federation system, cannot engage in overly controversial activities without risking the broad consensus that gives it so much of its current strength.

    I don’t want to sound like a “broken record” on this issue, but let me state again: instead of trying to “reform” our existing institutions, we should focus more funding on “start-ups”, in the hope that a new model will take root and find itself replicated (both by other new-comers as well as by the veteran groups). The real risk taking needs to be taken by our community’s “venture capitalists”, i.e. the Continuity Funds and other special project funds that Federations and foundations have established in recent years. The venture capitalists understand, upfront, that the risk of failure is highly and that the standards for measuring “success” may not be well defined yet. I think that asking the “Jewish establishment”, such as it is, to take the lead in the struggle for Jewish continuity by transforming itself first is simply asking too much.

    Regards, GK

  2. thenewjew says:

    Hi Gary,

    The idea of learning from our failures and celebrating them, as Mr. Charendoff says, is definitely one that I would like to hear more about as I am not sure how that would work in a practical sense.

    I have to disagree with you, though, about the collective memories of large organizations. It is my impression, at least working with Israeli foundations, that people working on various different cycles of projects have no common knowledge or collective well of resources from one year to the next. It seems collective memory is only intact when the stakeholders are constant.

    I’d like to hear you talk more about start ups versus organizational reform as an orientation for the future. In the lifecycle of an organization, especially when we are talking about a community organization, and even taking a step back from that, a community– which necessarily has limited resources– don’t we need to work on organizational reform so we don’t keep repeating the same mistakes? Won’t we hit them again as our start ups begin to take hold?

    I know we’ll hear more from you tomorrow when your Hebrew Nation proposal will be published.



  3. Excellent interview! You continue to raise the bar with your posts Maya.

  4. thenewjew says:

    Thank you, so nice of you to say.

    One of my goals for 2008 is to get the traffic to go along with them– that’s the challenge.

    Let me know what’s going on with your project. I am excited to hear.


  5. I think both Mark and Gary are discussing different sides of the same coin when they talk about risk-taking and funding start-ups.

    As co-founder of Sviva Israel, an innovative educational-environmental organization in Israel, running global Jewish environmental projects that connect young Jews to Israel and to one another, I see the understanding and enthusiasm that young Jews show for our projects, even as the “establishment” mutters, “But the environment is not part of our mission. We fund Jewish activities”.

    At the KolDor conference this past November, there was a sense of frustration that even as the mainstream Jewish leadership calls for innovative, cutting-edge ideas to excite young Jews, it often shows great distrust and reluctance to fund these brave new catalysts for change.

    Many (thankfully not all) funders don’t understand that young people today need new paradigms of learning and activism in order to reinforce their Jewish identity. If the environment is what matters to young Jews today (as it should matter to all of us), then let’s look at how we should relate to the environment as Jews and supporters of Israel. I think this is what Mark refers to when he talks about formative, rather than transformative Jewish experiences.

    I was fortunate to attend parts of the Hillel Leadership trip to Israel this week, addressing the Social Entrepreneur track. Lynn Shusterman, whom I consider a leading Social Entrepreneur in her own right, also spoke about the importance of risk-taking. I look forward to seeing the JFN take many successful risks, starting with their excellent decision to bring their conference to Israel this year.


    Tamar Wisemon
    Co-Founder of Sviva Israel

  6. thenewjew says:

    Dear Tamara,

    Thanks for your comment. It is important for us to hear as many voices from the Jewish and nonprofit sectors as possible to be able to understand all of the perspectives within our communities.

    I also commend Sviva’s efforts to use social media by blogging and putting yourself on Facebook. It’s a great example for us all and I wish you much luck in this enterprise (reference:


  7. hi all –

    nice to see the topic discussed. to one of the first questions (Are there key values that every philanthropist, as a Jew, should hold dear?) i would like to say the following:

    my mentor, danny siegel ( founder of the soon to be closed ziv tzedakah fund, has taught for 35 years that there are several “key values”, all based on traditional sources. for example, tzedakah money MUST be used efficiently and effectively – any waste in the tzedakah process (with funds going to high overheads, fundraising, high salaries, etc.) is, in essence, stealing from the poor person who is the recipient of the funds.

    classic example: the american friends of ‘purple desk chairs of israel’ has an overhead of 17%. you contribue $100, and they send $83 over to the ‘purple desk chairs of israel’ non-profit organization. the PDC of israel has an overhead of 14%. so, from your $83, an additional $12 gets shaved off. that means that $71 of your original donation actually went to program services.

    it has been my job as the ziv tzedakah fund representative in israel to ensure that all donations are used to their fullest. and i continue to do that for dozens of other philanthropists and foundations.

    another example of a key value that danny has taught is the idea of a mitzvah hero. this is the visionary, the moving force behind the mitzvah project. old, young, female, male, anywhere in the world and of any religion, the mitzvah hero is the person with the impeccable credentials that is 100% trustworthy to use your tzedakah shekels efficiently, effectively and exactly as you want. you make the personal connection to the mitzvah hero and build a relationship – that is how one ‘does’ tzedakah.

    there are many more key values – perhaps we have open up a larger discussion on it! (with room to quote sources, other opinions, etc.)

    thanks and yasher koach.

    arnie draiman
    philanthropic consulting

  8. thenewjew says:

    Thanks for your comment, Arnie.

    What an honor to have Danny Siegel as your mentor.

    I agree with you that unnecessary overhead is questionably ethical, but I think it’s also important to remember when we talk about overhead that nonprofit workers also deserve to earn a living wage and a fair wage for the work we are going. No, a nonprofit executive shouldn’t be earning $200,000 annual salary, but a grant writer shouldn’t be making $25,000 either.

    I also wanted to direct you to Shai Litt’s proposal for a Jewish Community Incubator, part of which has to do with Mitzvah Heroes, and see what you think. Here’s the link:

    Are you able to say why the Ziv Tzedakah Fund is closing?

    Shabbat Shalom,


  9. Mark Charendoff says:

    Thank you for the comments and discussions above. When I talk about risk taking and celebrating failure I am being very practical. Let me start by being critical of my own community – family foundations. Many foundations pay for evaluations to be conducted on projects that they are funding or not for profits that they are supporting. Those evaluations that confirm the success of the program are often circulated within the foundation community. Those evaluations that point to failure in a given project are usually buried. We need to create an ethic where failures are discussed and where lessons can be learned in a supportive manner by the broader community. That ethic simply does not exist to the extent that it should in the grant making world, and certainly not in the broader Jewish organizational universe. Conferences and consultations ought to spend as much time trying to understand what did not work as celebrating that which does.
    As to risk taking, we are far too conservative. Edgy projects are often dismissed as being unrealistic. Programs that challenge the status quo are shunned for fear that supporters will be alienated or that political landmines will be triggered. It’s a safer road but a dull one indeed.

  10. […] Interview with Mark Charendoff, President of the Jewish Funders Network, on “The Future of Jewish Philanthropy” […]

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