We need to have a conversation about DAF’s in the Jewish Community

This first appeared in Ha’aretz April 29th 2017

Over the past year or so, stories of Jewish donor-advised funds blocking grants have started to appear. These moves by the Jewish community are both hypocritical and self-destructive. To understand why, it is important to understand what a donor-advised fund is.

If you had to guess what was the highest grossing non-profit in America by revenues received, a hospital, a university or major aid organization would probably top your list. But you would be wrong. The top receipt in 2016 was Fidelity Charitable Gift Fund, a sponsor of donor-advised funds (DAF).

DAF’s are one of the biggest changes in the non-profit landscape and the Jewish community has been getting involved in the DAF business for a long time. DAFs are a tool in which a donor can transfer the totality of their charitable giving into a fund and get the tax benefit immediately. They then make recommendations to the fund on which registered charities they wish the fund to give to, and the grant is made on their recommendation.

By getting the Jewish donors to direct their giving through Jewish communal funds or the federation system, the established community maintains a link with major contributors and has the opportunity to pitch issues the Jewish community cares about.
When a donor uses a DAF they realize that they cannot utilize the funds to fulfill personal pledge commitments or buy tickets to galas or charity auctions. They also know that their recommended beneficiary must be a legal non-profit that does everything above board. Apart from that, the donors assume that the money is theirs to give where they choose.
While the vast majority of DAFs respect the recommendations of the donor, it appears they are not under any obligation to do so as events on the West Coast this past year have shown. In San Francisco, the Federation blocked donors from giving grants to American Friends Service Committee on the basis of guidelines on BDS that were passed after the donors had set up their DAF. In Los Angeles a grant to IfNotNow was blocked given their hostility to Jewish Institutions.

The hypocrisy and self-destructive nature of these moves cannot be stressed enough.
Blocking these donations is hypocritical as they only apply to the left of the political spectrum, but not the right. If you support BDS or the goal of a single democratic state, you will be denied a platform and the donors who have placed their resources within the community will be prevented from supporting you. If however you support annexation, settlement or groups that attack equal rights for Israel’s citizens, there is no platform or funding test. In the case of San Francisco, a grant was made to the Hebron Fund even though it was shown to give a stipend to a Jewish terrorist.

The blocks are also self-destructive as donors have the choice to remove their funds and go to a fund like Fidelity or any of the thousands of other hosting agencies for DAFs that have none of the hang-ups of the Jewish community. The opportunity to move ones money elsewhere means that the Jewish community does not have the luxury of being the only provider of DAF’s to add politics into the mix.

The Jewish community DAFs are one of the few places left where both the right and left of the community use the same resources. It bonds the donor to the Jewish community as they see it as their gateway to giving to Jewish and non-Jewish causes allowing them to express their Jewish values in their largesse. The desire to control where donors can and can’t place their philanthropic dollars will kill this public commons to the detriment of us all as the community will lose one of the last elements of the institutional glue holding back the partisanship.

There is a way to save the public commons and keep Jewish donors using Jewish mechanisms for their giving but it requires a shift from control to conversation. On the right or on the left, the donor community will never accept a committee telling them where they can or can’t place their gifts (as long as they are a legitimate charity). Rather then demanding control, the Jewish DAFs should require that donors engage in conversation with each other if they wish to make grants that the fund feels is not within the mainstream of the majority of donors. This should be applied evenly on the right and the left. This can be through the same committee structure that is currently blocking grants. We need to move our mind-set from control to education.

Being invited to explain why you wish to support a group, with the express understanding that the grant will be made in any case, utilizes the fund as a platform for dialogue and conversation between our fractured community and keeps everyone invested in it. Donors enjoy the opportunity to evangelize about their chosen causes and the conversation that comes out of these discussions can keep difficult conversations within a common space, something that we are losing.

The Jewish communal funds are things that are worth saving. To do so we need to remember our communities strength is not a monolithic approach, but a vibrant never ending passionate conversation, one that we all can be invested in.

The Genesis Prize blew its first impression

Ha’aretz 10/28/13

When I first heard of the Genesis Prize  I was intrigued. One million dollars for an individuals “whose values and achievements will inspire the next generations of Jews”? The pure sum was inconceivably vast.

Though it did sound fancy, aspiring to be on par with the Nobels, the Pulitzers, and MacArthur Awards.

I was lucky enough to be invited to meet Wayne Firestone,  the president of the prize’s foundation, in a posh art gallery in Midtown Manhattan, where he told some 100 Jews about the prize and asked the young among us what and who inspired them.

One thing that perplexed me, and something I raised with Wayne at the time, was that the nominations for this process would be secret. I told him that a secret process would not help to ingratiate the prize to the young Jewish community it sought to inspire.

This past week, we found out that the inaugural prizewinner was none other than New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. When I heard that the global Jewish community was about to give $1 million dollars to a man worth $31 billion  I laughed out loud. Then I got sad.

My sadness was not due to the fact that Bloomberg is not a figure to be respected. A titan of the business world, a global philanthropist and one of the most recognized public officials in the world, Bloomberg is the paradigm of success.

But Firestone had made clear that this so-called “Jewish Nobel Prize” was aimed at helping young Jews find inspiring figures, and while Bloomberg surely is inspiring, giving him $1 million and yet another award makes the prize look silly rather than give a shine to the mayor.

The Genesis Prize has blown its first impression on the world. Rather than putting the awardee on a pedestal for young Jews to emulate, it reinforces the challenges many within the young Jewish community already face. How exactly does it inspire youth to see old, white, mega-rich men awarding each other prizes and accolades, when 20 percent of the community in New York City is poor?

This is not how you inspire a young generation of Jews; it’s how you turn them off. Rather than a Bloomberg, finding a small community group that has been working against the odds, or a volunteer that has made a global impact would have been far more appropriate. Even a regional superstar would have been better than a global public celebrity.

Sadly, none of us will ever know if any such figure was even considered. For not only did Genesis get its debut prizewinner choice wrong, it shut the public out of its selection process. Inspiration does not come from secrecy, but from a global network of nominators with open ballots and public voting. In the age of the Internet, a secret cabal bestowing honors on behalf of the global Jewish people is the last thing that my generation wants or needs.

Misused Diaspora dollars undermine Israel’s democracy

Ha’aretz 6/20/13

Being a member of the Jewish community I have come to expect charitable requests when they come knocking, and, as a member of a global community that highly values charity, I have never minded the dinners, young professional committees and email appeals that come across my desk. It is part of being a member of the Jewish people who lives in the West. My wife and I normally sort through the different groups, picking out whom we want to support each year.

The amount of solicitations that I received dramatically increased when I moved from the United Kingdom to the United States. This was understandable – now that I belonged to a bigger and generally richer community, I was expected to support more global Jewish causes.

Now, I have written in the past about the need to change the donor-based dependency of all the different groups in Israel and the Diaspora. I, of course, do see the Zionist value in supporting Israel through one’s wallet, but I also feel strongly that Israeli millionaires should pay for their own poor.

In terms of Zionist bang for your buck, the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces can be seen as the charity to get American Jews to open their wallets for. No group is more perfectly situated to make U.S. Jews feel the obligation to give. Here is a group that basically says, “We fight for the Jewish State, your job is to support us in this mission.”

For many U.S. Jews who feel guilty at the fact that it’s other people’s kids who have to fight, this charity is a perfect vehicle by which they can feel a part of the war effort.

It is odd in general that charity funds support another country’s military. The IDF is very well funded, both through general taxation in Israel and through the aid that the U.S. government gives it every year.

The money raised by FIDF is supposed to go toward recreational rooms and other creature comforts that make compulsory conscription just a little bit less awful. In the words of the FIDF, it seeks to provide conscripts with “love, support, and care in an effort to ease the burden they carry on behalf of the Jewish community worldwide.”

I was surprised then to find out that money raised by FIDF had gone toward paying for a NIS 8 million ($2.2 million) gym for the Mossad. The Mossad is a professional intelligence outfit, not a conscripted army. For the FIDF to provide the Mossad, the Israeli equivalent of the CIA, with a gym seems outside their mission statement. How does a NIS 8 million gym for the Mossad provide “love, support and care” to compulsory conscripts? The people who will enjoy this gym are well-paid  employees who choose to work for the country’s national intelligence agency; they are not compulsory conscripts.

What could possibly justify why FIDF decided to fund this project? Is the Mossad’s funding so strained that they cannot train their legendary spies without charitable funds? Is the economic situation in Israel so desperate that the state cannot afford to run its own intelligence service? Or was it that the Israeli government decided such funds were better spent elsewhere?

As Israeli ministries continue to tackle for their share of limited budget funds, those who miss out on the big bucks may lay their eyes on the Jewish Diaspora. There they hope to find Diaspora dollars that will fill the gaps. If the Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry wants to do job training but can’t find the shekels, why not find a Diaspora program to fund it? If the Defense Ministry is going to find its budget shaven, why not ask the FIDF to make up the shortfall?

The danger in using charitable funds for programs that should be run by the state lies in the risk of skewing the democratic process. Budget cuts are, sadly, part of democratic governance; if elected officials decide that the Defense Ministry budget is bloated, the Diaspora community should not re-inflate it. If the government wants to cut subsidies to the ultra-Orthodox to encourage them back into the workforce, Diaspora groups should not make up the difference with donations. (Nor should Diaspora groups be expected to pay the full cost of job training necessary for adding the ultra-Orthodox to the workforce.)

The status quo is dangerous. We risk falling into the trap where charitable money replaces the role of the state. This has the potential to both absolve the state from its responsibilities and prevent it from carrying out it’s polices. As a member of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Israel is not the charity case it once was. To continue to treat it as such is a disservice to all involved.