Chart courtesy of Jumpstart
Shawn Landres, Ph.D, is co-founder of Jumpstart, an LA-based philanthropic research and design lab, which over this last year has released “Connected to Give,” the first comprehensive study of the giving habits and motivations of American Jews. It can be downloaded free of charge at connectedtogive.org.
Does your research dispel any long-held perceptions within the Jewish community about who gives to the Jewish community, who does not, and why?
Yes. Two commonly held perceptions we dispelled are that most Jewish household giving goes to non-Jewish causes and that younger Jews are less likely to give to Jewish causes across the board. Connected to Give found that 76% of American Jews make religious and charitable contributions. Of these, 75% donate to both Jewish and non-Jewish organizations and 4% give only to Jewish organizations. All together, four out of five Jews who make charitable gifts give to Jewish causes.
Sixty percent of American Jews give to Jewish organizations. And of all American Jewish household charitable dollars, 23% go to congregations (including membership dues), 39% to Jewish nonprofits, and the remainder to non-Jewish nonprofits.
And your research also counters the claim that young Jews are giving less to Jewish causes?
It’s complicated. HUC-JIR Professor Steven M. Cohen, a senior researcher and analyst for Connected to Give, has been warning of this since the late 1970s, when he first cautioned that rising Baby Boomers might not be on track to give to Jewish federations at the same rates or in the same amounts as their parents.
In Connected to Give, we were able to test the “younger=less giving” hypothesis across more than a dozen specific religious and charitable purposes, from basic needs to civic and social advocacy. It turns out that younger non-Orthodox Jews are less likely to give to Jewish federations: 28% of them under 40 give to Jewish federations, whereas 45% of those 65 and over do the same. But there are areas in which Jewish organizations have increasing appeal for younger donors. The four charitable purposes where younger Jews are more likely to give to Jewish organizations are education (15% of non-Orthodox Jews under 40 vs. 11% of those 65 and over), local or neighborhood-based causes (11% of those under 40 vs. 4% of those 65 and over), international humanitarian aid separate from Israel-related causes (9% of those under 40 vs. 6% of those 65 and over), and the environment (9% of those under 40 vs. 3% of those 65 and over).
What have you learned about synagogues and giving?
Synagogues remain powerful engines for charitable giving. Nearly four out of every five charitable dollars given by American Jewish households to Jewish organizations—79%—come from the 38% of American Jews who are synagogue members. Attendance at religious services also strongly correlates with giving: 80% of Americans (Jews and non-Jews alike) who attend services once per month or more make religious or charitable contributions, compared with 55% of those who attend less frequently or not at all.
However, there are certain cautions to consider. The days of giving because “you owe it to the Jewish community” are over. And I believe it is time for us to redefine “Jewish giving.” If Jewish giving solely refers to the traditional model of donating to certain Jewish organizations or for specific religious purposes, Jewish appeals are likely to resonate with ever smaller audiences. However, if Jewish giving is reframed as giving to any cause for Jewish reasons, then the resulting broader and more dynamic charitable giving conversation will engage many more Jews.
Philanthropically, the most successful Jewish organizations listen closely to their stakeholders—current and potential—and find creative ways to transform their stakeholders’ passion into impact. I believe Reform congregations, especially those that already are looking beyond their own institutional walls, can lead the way here. What if synagogues were the places where donors could learn not only how to be generous, but also how to be strategic in their philanthropy? What if every synagogue had a giving circle that pooled congregants’ resources and collectively allocated them to Jewish and non-Jewish beneficiaries alike, all through a Jewishly informed process of learning and reflection? What if every bar or bat mitzvah participated in a Jewish teen philanthropy fund? In short, what if congregations were platforms where Jewish giving became a synonym for smarter giving—where people who wanted to get better at doing good were set on the road to do so?
In effect you are reframing the synagogue as a philanthropic community builder and connector, rather than a recipient of philanthropy per se.
Yes, exactly. Professor Cohen used our data to construct an index of Jewish social engagement based on four non-financial measures of Jewish connectedness: marital status (married to another Jew, not married, or intermarried), proportion of Jewish friends, religious service attendance, and volunteering for religious and charitable organizations. The index maps American Jewry into four roughly equally-sized segments, corresponding to very low, low, moderate, and high levels of Jewish social engagement. American Jews with high levels of Jewish social engagement are more than five times as likely as those with low levels to have given to a synagogue (81% vs. 15%) and more than twice as likely to have given to a Jewish nonprofit (82% vs. 37%). When it comes to Jewish household giving, Jewish social engagement is a stronger predictor than even income or age. As I see it, the single most important lesson from our research is that effective resource development—whether by synagogues or Jewish nonprofits—depends on Jewish connections.
Congregations—even ones that are living hand-to-mouth—need to move away from focusing on fundraising transactions (e.g., “What have you given us lately?”) to building Jewish relationships (e.g., “How can we connect you to your community?”). For some, to be sure, making a donation can be a gateway to Jewish engagement, but our data demonstrates that, for most, it is Jewish social engagement that leads to Jewish charitable giving.
This is especially important for those who move from low levels of Jewish social engagement to more moderate levels. We live in an era of multiple choices and multiple identities. It simply is not realistic to expect every Jew to become a “super Jew” with the highest levels of Jewish social engagement. But we can follow the example of the mission of Limmud, the global Jewish learning movement: “Wherever you find yourself, Limmud will take you one step further along your Jewish journey.”
What other factors do congregational leaders need to consider?
Today’s Jewish charitable givers of all ages—existing and prospective donors alike—are very concerned about need and impact, and generally prefer to frame their motivations in broader moral or altruistic terms than in explicitly Jewish ways.
For most Jewish donors in the Connected to Give sample, explicitly Jewish motivations to give, such as a commitment to being Jewish (45% overall) or the belief that their giving will help improve Jewish life and the Jewish community (43% overall) aren’t nearly as important as broader altruistic motivations, such as feeling that those who have more should help those with less (58%), seeing themselves as fortunate and wanting to give back to society (57%), believing that their charitable giving will help make the world a better place (58%) or that it can achieve change or bring about a desired impact (56%), or wanting to meet critical needs and support worthwhile causes in the community (54%). Among self-described Reform Jews, being Jewish (43%) or wishing to strengthen Jewish life (39%) are cited by fewer people than meeting needs (50%) or making a difference (53%).
Ultimately, to be successful in fundraising, synagogues must articulate the needs they meet and the impact of their accomplishments to prospective donors who feel connected to the congregation. Every gift tells a story, and donors want to know and feel part of the stories their support makes possible.