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Engaging Jewish Next-Gen Donors

August 14, 2013

(Andrés Spokoiny is president and CEO of the Jewish Funders Network. As chief executive officer of Montréal-based Federation CJA from 2009 to 2011, he was instrumental in changing the federation's operations and relationship with the community.)

Headshot_andres_spokoinyImagine you’re in a foreign country and don't speak the language. There are no dictionaries. There is no Google Translate. You aren't able to convey anything more than basic thoughts. 

I work with funders and foundations every day. In my experience, Jewish organizations, when seeking to engage a new generation of donors, often behave like tourists. They need next-gen support, but in many cases these organizations simply don't speak to next-gen donors in a language they understand. They don't bother to learn next-gen donors' motivations. They don't recognize new patterns of next-gen giving.

The world of philanthropy is facing a generational transformation. Only organizations that adapt and learn how to "speak" this new language will survive. And the need to do so will become ever more critical as this new generation of donors becomes philanthropically active and replaces their parents as the major donors for thousands of organizations. The time for these organizations to build relationships with "Jewish next-gen donors" (JNGDs) is now.

While we work primarily with funders at the Jewish Funders Network, we also seek to build bridges between donors and the wider Jewish community. We believe that donors and organizations benefit when they understand each other's needs. Accordingly, we were pleased to collaborate on the recent release of Next Gen Donors: The Future of Jewish Giving (22 pages, PDF), a report from philanthropic consulting firm 21/64 and the Johnson Center for Philanthropy. Even for seasoned "pros" in the Jewish and philanthropic communities, the report is an eye-opener and offers grounds for both optimism and urgency. Here's what we learned, and how to apply it to your donor-engagement activities:

The good news is that religious causes are the second most popular area of giving for JNGDs -- although they give less to religious causes than do their parents. Rather than focusing all their efforts on JNGDs' boomer parents, organizations need to start cultivating relationships with JNGDs. If organizations don't take action to build those relationships today, the interest of these young donors in their Jewish identity could fade, or they could be engaged by secular organizations that have figured out ways to interact with them and provide the kind of hands-on experience so many next-gen donors crave.

JNGDs also are demanding a more active role in their families' philanthropy. Unfortunately, Jewish families are less likely than non-Jewish families to afford younger members of the family opportunities for formal involvement in philanthropic decision-making. That's a shame, because, when it comes to family philanthropy, JNGDs want to take on leadership roles and are frustrated when they are relegated to the "kids' table." In many cases, their patience is running thin and they are looking elsewhere for opportunities to engage in meaningful philanthropy work, finding roles on the boards of nonprofit organizations, in venture funds, or giving time and money to their peers' favorite causes.

How can family foundations and nonprofit organizations engage JGNDs? For starters, it's critical that they embrace change. We need to understand and accept that JNGDs have their own way of looking at philanthropy and new approaches to giving. They share with their non-Jewish peers a desire to revolutionize the art of giving. They embrace funding mechanisms that are more peer- and network-based. They value impact giving and hands-on involvement. They are eager to experiment, to leverage their peers' ideas and resources in giving collaboratives and matching funds. Most of all, they seek opportunities to learn and grow through meaningful personal experiences -- not just writing checks but becoming involved with nonprofit leaders, making site visits to learn about an issue first-hand, and understanding how their support will have a direct impact on the problem that support is meant to address.

The report offers many such insights and is part of a very positive trend that seeks to better understand the values and behaviors of donors through rigorous data analysis. Later this year, a comprehensive national study of Jewish giving that goes beyond the high-net-worth families surveyed in the Next Gen Donor report will provide a broader context for the transformations under way in Jewish giving.

In the meantime, if there's only one idea you take away from the study, let it be this: foundations and organizations must not treat Jewish next-gen donors as if they are the same as their parents and grandparents. They have different needs, they speak a different language, and they demand to be engaged in different ways. Yes, their interest in Jewish causes is strong, but owing to a lack of adequate venues in which to express that interest, we cannot assume that will always be the case.

And that is something we simply can't afford.

-- Andrés Spokoiny

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