Thursday, October 4

Living wisely and well in the new world of philanthropic giving

by the Rev. Dr. William G. Enright

The late Jewish philanthropist Alan Slifka, co-founder of the Abraham Fund, described “doing philanthropy” as the reason for his existence. 

He once mused, “Why work if not to make money to help other people? I believe in tikkun olam … that we are put on this Earth to repair the Earth.”  

Jewish philanthropy is most impressive. Consider these facts: 
  • The Jewish community consists of about 2.5% of the overall population on the United States, yet 22% of all mega gifts and 18% of all mega gift monies come from Jews, according to Mega-Gifts in American Philanthropy.
  • A study in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion reports that of all religious groups, Jewish families were both more likely to give and to give larger amounts.
  • When charitable giving is measured by household income and religious affiliation, Jews are second only to Mormons both in terms of the percent of households who give to charity (88%) and the mean value of their charitable donations ($3,822). On average, 76% of all religiously affiliated households make charitable contributions of $1,912 per household, according to the book Religious Giving. 

Amidst the good news, the landscape of religious giving is experiencing a glacial shift.

In part, the change is generational. Those “born after 1945 do not prioritize giving to Jewish causes as highly as their parents and grandparents,” according to the 2012 National Survey of Jewish American Giving.

The change is also philosophical, reflecting a more secular and entrepreneurial approach to giving.

How then are we to live, and live wisely and well, in this new world of philanthropic giving? The answer is to be who you are and claim your heritage. 

As I look at Jewish philanthropy via the lens of history, I am struck by the unique spiritual heritage birthing Jewish generosity. 

Rabbi Elliot Dorff describes tikkkun olam – to fix the world – as “the essence of what it means to be a Jew.” He writes, “Jewish tradition provides a rationale for helping the poor that speaks to our own character … We should aspire to be not only decent and even noble human beings, but also Godlike … and part of the way to do that is to provide for the poor.” 

Guest Blogger Rev. Dr. William G. Enright is the Director of the Lake Institute on Faith and Giving at the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.

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