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.


We need to pay to make our communities sustainable

Haaretz 9/12/13

For the past ten years, Jewish communities the world over have been providing committees, events and avenues of involvement for me. Reading the communal and demographic tealeaves it was clear that a huge drop off point was during and after university for this generation of Jews.

The focus on the ‘young professional’ has not been without its controversies. The communal pie is only so big and the amount of free or hugely discounted events for me created a tab for others to pay.

One of the side effects of this level of communal welfarism has been an expectation of services without fees. This is all well and good when one has no income, but it seems that many in my generation have not realized that someone needs to pick up the check.

Now, my wife and I are members of one of the new pop up prayer communities in New York. Prospect Heights Shul is a small, liberal, modern orthodox community with a couple of dozen members who pay membership. We rent whatever space we can in Brooklyn and have moved from a thrift shop to a Christian school classroom.

Starting off as a wondering minyan, the community has developed with new families coming in from the Upper West Side in search of more space and affordable homes. One of the factors holding back many young religious families was the lack of sense of a modern orthodox community in Park Slope. Having now created it our community is growing.

Though our communities’ story is similar to that of many other communities’ origin stories, we are a community made up of people who have, for many years, been coddled by a generous overarching Jewish community. Though we seem to have managed to grow in numbers, our membership is stuck.

Prospect Heights Shul is not unique within the prayer space, or any other Jewish communal space for that matter. From advocacy to welfare charities, everyone is struggling to get young Jews to start making the cash commitments needed to ensure sustainability. It is clear that the federated model is far less enchanting to this generation of Jews than for those of yesteryear. We are not looking for a Jewish tax, but equally we cannot be expecting Jewish handouts either.

While of course it is necessary to try and provide a Jewish experience to those who have no affiliations, we as a community need to jettison the concept of ‘free at the point of delivery’ for all those except the most needy. In order to create the next generation of givers, we need to institute, from the earliest age, a ‘give what you can’ model with a suggested donation.

If there is a subsidized fee, the actual fee should be displayed with a message of encouragement to those who can afford, to pay full price for their experience. Transparency about where the money goes will be essential as well. With payment comes accountability.

The extensive Jewish outreach that has occurred over the past ten years has been expansive and incredible. We have created a Jewish experience for every sort of Jew one would want to define themselves as such.  In order to achieve the sustainability of such a diverse and rich melding pot, we have to ask our users to pay and create that expectation from day one. We will all be better off as a result.