Pilot Program Gives Young Adults Different Look At Philanthropy

Though the atmosphere is casual, twelve young adult Jews of varying backgrounds aren’t gathered to drink beer and schmooze. Instead, they’re grappling with a serious question: what are your philanthropic values?

Part of a pilot program with the St. Paul Jewish Federation, Jewish Family Service of St. Paul, and YALA Twin Cities, the group is on a six-month journey all about philanthropy. In the process, they’re beta testing a new kind of Jewish community and disproving the reputation that precedes them.

“The common misconception is that if young Jews aren’t coming to Jewish institutions, that they are apathetic about their Judaism,” said Charley Smith, the Twin Cities Young Adult Engagement Manager for the Minneapolis and St. Paul Federations, and a program participant.

“This is a problematic point of view because it invalidates individual Jews’ experiences and Jewish identity. Instead, we need to be thinking about how our Jewish institutions can empower these individuals to make Judaism for themselves and enrich their already Jewish lives.”

Thus, the giving circle: engaging young Jews in the Jewish community by educating them about the financials that run one.

Each participant has donated a minimum of $100 to the giving circle, matched 2:1 by the Federation. Over the course of six meetings, the participants develop their personal and group sense of philanthropic Jewish values while learning about the work of different Jewish organizations. At the end of the meetings, they will use what they’ve learned to decide where to donate the group’s money.

And though the giving circle is only three meetings in, participants say they are being engaged in a topic that might otherwise be inaccessible to them.

“I think it’s a fantastic way to learn more about what I value as well as what other people in our community value,” said Lindsey Marcy, a member of the giving circle. “It’s not something that’s really talked about readily; you don’t sit down and have a conversation with somebody about why they give, necessarily.”

The program is also inspiring for younger board members of the St. Paul Federation, like Aaron Biel and Jeffrey Perlman, involved in the giving circle. They say that learning about their personal values, as well as those of other community members, helps prepare them for better leadership.

“It’s important to reflect on one’s own values and reflect on what one cares deeply about, before you represent others and represent their values to try to decide where the money goes,” Biel said.

Perlman added: It’s “good to see everyone’s different perspectives on how they’re involved and why they’re involved.”

The giving circle, though not a new philanthropic tool, represents a shift in the world of federated Jewish giving. Most Jewish Federations have struggled in the decade since the 2008 recession and the Bernie Madoff scandal, which St. Paul Federation CEO Rob Jacobs says opened the door to members of the Jewish community restraining their donations.

With the economy in bad shape, there was good reason to hold on to money, and far less guilt associated with reduced giving. Federations did a poor job adapting to the new playing field.

“We had to make the sales pitch that is honest, that says there is a reason, there is a value in supporting Jewish community. That’s where we’ve had the problem,” Jacobs says. It was difficult for “Federations that have been trudging on the same tracks for many years, having to all of a sudden go beyond ‘will you give what you gave last year,’ but sell the service and the need…and get it past the point of guilt.”

Jacobs has a personal understanding of the relationship between Jewish philanthropy and guilt. His wife was once told she was letting down the community for cutting back on Federation donations due to a job change.

Jacobs also remembers Federations aggressively gatekeeping local Jewish life. “If we didn’t do [donating] the way the Federation wanted then there was some assumption they had the power to exclude us from the community.”

Now, as CEO of the St. Paul Federation, Jacobs is honest about his approach to facing these issues, and the reality of the Federation’s potential future.

The “reason you might be engaged with the Federation is because you find the experience positive enough that you want to maintain it and bring it on,” he says, rather than by virtue of negative social pressure. “If we can’t make that value proposition work for you…then we’ve outlived ourselves.”

The giving circle is a two birds, one stone approach that came out of the St. Paul Federation’s six-year strategic planning process.

By teaching about philanthropy and allowing participants full control over the money, instead of being forced into the traditional Federation model of “we know best,” the giving circle is ensuring a continuity of engaged young Jews and philanthropic leadership.

And by facilitating, the Federation is hoping to reinvent its relevance.

“The more that we’re building relationships and the more that we’re offering these opportunities that seem different, seem fresh, seem not the usual way, that in and of itself is drawing people in and allowing the Federation to change not only its image, but in reality how it works,” said Judy Sharken Simon, planning director for the St. Paul Federation and the facilitator of the giving circle.

It helps to not go it alone. The Federation has been assisted by Amplifier, a national organization that specializes in consulting and training for Jewish giving circles. Sharken Simon credits Amplifier for helping her create an impactful curriculum for the pilot program.

Both Sharken Simon and Smith see a future in which giving circles are the norm for fundraising and engaging with the Jewish community. But “we’re still on the outskirts of that,” Sharken Simon cautioned. “This is a single program, out here, it’s not the way the Federation works yet.”

For now, participants seem engaged and excited for the rest of the six-month journey. Some said that a two-hour meeting wasn’t enough for all of their philanthropy conversations.

And others, like Aaron Biel, are already confident in the lasting impact of the giving circle.

“It’s something we don’t see every day, but it has started a great conversation,” he said. “I think its convened a community of young Jewish leaders who will think long and hard about what their priorities are today and help them shape a better Jewish future tomorrow.”