If I Were A Rich Man

If you’ve followed Culturebot for any period of time you know that I’m not shy about my Jewish identity, though like most American Jews my relationship to established religion is fraught, to say the least. From 2008 – 2010 I worked at the Foundation for Jewish Culture and being immersed in the mainstream institutional Jewish world almost put me off for good. I found myself alienated from the Jewish establishment not because of Judaism itself, which I treasure and value deeply, but because of the stifling institutional culture of mainstream Jewish philanthropy.

Even though giving is a central tenet of Jewish faith, both the meaning and practices of Jewish giving are frequently misunderstood by Jews and non-Jews alike. As one might expect, it has been the subject of much debate, discussion and analysis throughout Jewish history. Charitable giving, as it is popularly called, is known in Judaism as tzedakah, and it is fundamentally different than charity. I found this explanation on MyJewishLearning.com:

Tzedakah is loosely translated as “charity,” but that is a misrepresentation of the concept. The Hebrew has its root in another word, tzedek/justice. In the Torah we are strongly enjoined, “Tzedek, tsedek tirdof/Justice, justice thou shalt pursue.” Rabbinical commentators have said that the repetition of the word justice is designed to underline the importance of the command. Tzedakah is not charity given out of caritas, in the Christian understanding of those words; it is given as an act of redress, as part of the process of seeking a just world.

So in the Jewish worldview charitable giving is not a choice originating from sentiment but an individual’s obligation to the larger community. This does not exclude giving from sentiment, but they are separate acts.

Maimonides, the revered 12th Century Spanish Jewish philosopher, identified eight levels of tzedakah, listed here from highest to lowest:

  1. Giving an interest-free loan to a person in need; forming a partnership with a person in need; giving a grant to a person in need; finding a job for a person in need; so long as that loan, grant, partnership, or job results in the person no longer living by relying upon others.
  2. Giving tzedakah anonymously to an unknown recipient via a person (or public fund) which is trustworthy, wise, and can perform acts of tzedakah with your money in a most impeccable fashion.
  3. Giving tzedakah anonymously to a known recipient.
  4. Giving tzedakah publicly to an unknown recipient.
  5. Giving tzedakah before being asked.
  6. Giving adequately after being asked.
  7. Giving willingly, but inadequately.
  8. Giving “in sadness” (giving out of pity): It is thought that Maimonides was referring to giving because of the sad feelings one might have in seeing people in need (as opposed to giving because it is a religious obligation). Other translations say “Giving unwillingly.”

(I’m particularly fond of #1, since I’m in need of a partnership, grant or loan to help launch Culturebot as a 21st Century arts organization and thus become self-reliant!)

The companion to obligatory tzedakah is Gemilut Hasadim:

Gemilut Hasadim, literally meaning “the giving of loving-kindness,” is a fundamental social value in the everyday lives of Jews. It is a mitzvah that an individual completes gemilut hasadim without the anticipation of receiving something in return.…

The Talmud teaches that gemilut hasadim is more important than tzedakah (charity) for three distinct reasons: charity can be provided only to the poor, while gemilut hasadim can be given to the rich and poor; charity can only be given to the living, while gemilut hasadim can be bestowed upon the living or dead (by attending a funeral service); and, charity can only be offered with money, while gemilut hasadim can be given through money or assistance.

As Jews are wont, even the most seemingly intuitive acts of beneficence demand rigorous examination, interpretation and explanation. But the point here is that from the 1654 arrival in New York of a handful of exiled Brazilian Jews to the formation of Jewish communal charitable organizations in Boston in 1895 to the establishment of the United Jewish Appeal in 1939 (an organization that would eventually become the Jewish Federations of North America) to today when the JFNA and its affiliates raise and distribute more than $3 billion annually for social welfare, social services and educational needs, the Jews have always had a longstanding tradition of organized, obligatory communal giving.

The history of Jewish Philanthropy in America is as much a history of American civic life as it is of the Jewish people and the sheer volume of analysis and study devoted to it, commissioned mostly by the Jewish community itself, would probably be of enormous value to anybody who cared to look at it.

In mid-September I heard that the Foundation for Jewish Culture was going to close up shop. It was founded after WWII as a response to the destruction of European Jewish Culture during the Holocaust, funded primarily by the aforementioned JFNA as one of ten “agencies” devoted to specific issues. An article in The Jewish Daily Forward quoted the JFNA as saying:

… the change represents an overall decrease in the funding pool, as well as a renewed focus on organizations serving Jewish families that have young children, engaging young Jews, and supporting Jewish education.

Jewish arts and culture might fit into those strategic areas, but there are shifting priorities,” Berkofsky said. “The agency is really evaluating organizations and allocating based on their alignment with strategic directions.

As troubling as this sounds, and inasmuch as it represents an underestimation of the meaning and value of culture writ large, it is a significant bellwether of an undeniable and in all likelihood irreversible shift in how American Jews – and Americans generally – engage in civic life. A recent article on ejewishphilanthropy.com proposes:

One of the core features of the new civic Jewish culture is the decline of a centralized system of communal decision-making and shared governance, as the federated and religious systems have ceded power to newly-created boutique institutions and to community-based organizations.

In light of recent history and current events this seems characteristic of American society as a whole and a trend that is a long time in the making. This is particularly true in the philanthropic sector.

In the mid 1990’s a number of wealthy Jews decided they wanted to “bypass established avenues of communal giving in favor of setting up their own foundations and programs” (according to Tablet Magazine), giving birth to the Jewish Funders Network. Since that time the organization has grown and professionalized, using a network model that is less top-down than the federated system, making it more nimble and responsive. On one hand, the JFN is able to move more quickly and address needs as they arise, creating partnerships between independent funders when necessary or acting independently when appropriate. On the other hand, one imagines that the JFN cannot achieve impact on the scale of the federated system, nor do they necessarily have the infrastructure or capacity to deal with some of the larger social service oriented challenges that the JFNA regularly addresses.

I don’t know of any studies that have examined this, I’m merely speculating, but the relevant point here is that JFN does not invest a lot in infrastructure, bricks and mortar or administration. They are a very lean operation that allows its members significant autonomy in their activities with limited oversight. They aggregate to scale when necessary, but ongoing permanent partnerships are not a condition of doing business. The question then arises, is the JFN model going to supplant the Federation model or are they actually both necessary in different ways? An argument can be made that many social conditions such as hunger, poverty and disease, require the kind of scale and stability provided by a large, vertically integrated philanthropic infrastructure, while other conditions are shorter term and situational, better served through temporary alliances and smaller, more nimble and responsive actors. In all likelihood, what is needed is a hybrid model.

One possible factor leading to the creation of the JFN was the Federated system’s increased reliance on “super donors” over the past thirty years that alienated a lot of the rank and file. As a child going to synagogue on the High Holidays, I would always find a card in the pew with incremental donation tabs to be folded. It was a tzedakah card, my father would explain. Everyone was expected to give, everyone had a tzedakah box in the kitchen to collect coins and no amount was too small or too big. The cumulative effect was one of participation, inclusion and common cause. As “super donors” became more prevalent they began more overtly calling the shots and making policy, and the rank and file felt less engaged and, frankly, drifted away.

It is difficult to characterize the JFN. From one perspective it can be seen as a kind of “super donor club” that allows funders to give without the constraints of the federated system and thus exert more control over their giving priorities and implementation strategies. From another perspective it can be seen as much more responsive and accessible because it functions as a network. Each funder operates independently, so grant seekers needn’t laboriously work their way through the bureaucratic thicket of the federated system. And the network is made up of funders of many different sizes, from large, historically significant and well-known foundations to smaller, newer, family foundations. It is a diverse landscape that is sometimes approachable but usually difficult to navigate.

Because of this diversity and the relative newness of the constituent foundations, we have seen a similarly diverse portfolio of funding priorities and a persistent emphasis on innovation, both programmatically in foundations and in attempts to “innovate” Jewish life. While one can (and probably should) question the notion that Jewish life needs “innovation”, the trend towards innovation in philanthropy merits further examination. Of particular interest to me are the Jewish world’s strategies for engaging Next Gen philanthropists.

As Peter Buffett’s recent article in the New York Times illustrates, children of privilege aren’t always well aware of the contradictions and complications of corporate philanthropy. It is probably less of a surprise for those that get MBAs and pursue business, either in the family or outside; they know what to expect and how capital works. But for others, particularly of an artistic bent, it may come as quite a shock. They may choose to get involved or not, depending on their inclination, they may participate on any number of levels, but in any scenario some level of education and awareness building is necessary.

In the early 2000s (?) the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies launched 21/64, a nonprofit consulting practice specializing in next generation and multigenerational strategic philanthropy. One of 21/64’s core programs is Grand Street:

… an ongoing network of next-generation family members (ages 18-28) who are involved or will be involved in their family philanthropy one day. Participants often feel respect for their inherited family legacy but are unsure about finding their own place in the multigenerational family context. Grand Street allows participants to explore questions of their Jewish identity, family responsibility and philanthropic opportunity in a safe space among peers.

And I believe that it was out of a Grand Street retreat (?) in 2004 that Slingshot was born. What is Slingshot? A Zagat Guide to funding innovation in Jewish life:

The idea for Slingshot developed organically following a weekend retreat for a dozen young Jews in 2004, who were preparing to become involved in their family foundations. Participants were hoping to learn how to navigate the alphabet soup of the Jewish community and sort out which organizations resonated for themselves and their peers. They imagined a Zagat-style guidebook and with the help of staff from the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies they worked to produce Slingshot: A Resource Guide to Jewish Innovation to highlight the 50 most innovative nonprofits in North American Jewish life for themselves and their peers.

As these Next Gen philanthropists grew more engaged and sophisticated, their ambitions grew:

In 2007, the next-generation funders responsible for Slingshot took their concept a step further, and created the Slingshot Fund, a peer-giving network, to support Jewish organizations that resonated with their generation. The Slingshot Fund exposes its next generation funders to a professional grant-making process. While many come from family’s involved in philanthropy, most have yet to review grant proposals, conduct site visits, and make allocation decisions. In conjunction with a group of their peers, Slingshot offers them the opportunity to develop those skills and learn from experts in the field while leveraging their small gifts into a significant grant pool.

Slingshot was way ahead of the curve on Next Gen philanthropic engagement. In February of this year the New York Times published an article on family foundations preparing for the next generation, just a few weeks ago Huffington Post published an article about Next Gen wealth called “Young Millionaires Doing The World A Solid” and a series of reports available at NextGenDonors.org  says:

The next generations of major philanthropists, who fit into “Gen X” (born 1964-1980) or “Gen Y/Millennial” (born 1981-2000) generational cohorts, will wield more philanthropic power than any previous generation. With an unprecedented amount of wealth, these donors hold the future of philanthropy in their hands ….

(also see this podcast/blog post on Grantcraft.org, h/t to YCM)

So what does this have to do with the arts? Everything.

While the Innovation Agenda in the Arts is a questionable endeavor unto itself (I’ll be publishing a series of essays on that in short order), the need for systemic change throughout the sector and thoughtful, strategic generational transition planning is indisputable. Maybe the wider philanthropic world, and the arts sector in particular, should look at trends in Jewish philanthropy as a point of reference.

Innovation in the Jewish sector did not originate with, nor was it sustained by, the behemoth Federated system. Rather, a large foundation, The Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies, certainly one of the biggest players in Jewish giving, had the foresight to engage the next generation, provide them with access points and education and turned their attention towards innovation. Thus a constellation of smaller, independent family foundations were deployed to implement strategic innovations that were out of the reach of the Federated system.

Some of the programs that Slingshot have funded have been successful, others less so. But the Slingshot Fund is more than just money, it is a peer-learning community of innovative organizations who are provided with skill-building support, knowledge-sharing support, leadership development and, often, logistical support as they launch what are essentially not-for-profit start-ups. While effectiveness is difficult to measure, from the outside I would say the enterprise, as a whole, has succeeded in fostering a diverse, dynamic, lively and engaged community of Next Gen philanthropists and Next Gen, mission-driven, entrepreneurial not-for-profit leaders who work together, hands-on, for the greater good.

So what might this kind of model look like in the arts sector?

First, I will suggest that innovative, systemic, adaptive change demands nimble, dynamic, responsive arts organizations. Too often not-for-profits in the arts, once they are “established”, exist merely to keep existing; they become “too big to fail” when they could sunset and give way to something new. If the arts sector wants to remain vital and relevant, then we need to support a dynamic, diverse ecology of small organizations and projects with finite ends that provide more access points for all stakeholders – artist, audience, administrators and funders.

This kind of dynamic, diverse ecology requires similarly agile funding organizations led by individuals who are peers of the artists and audiences that we hope to engage and who reflect the diversity we hope to support.

In the for-profit corporate sector prototyping frequently happens through start-ups, with someone else assuming the risk of R&D and the bigger entity swooping in once a product or program has been developed and tested. This is how you get Blogger, which was bought by Google after several years on the market.

The other common scenario is a large corporation creating smaller, more agile and nimble divisions, or hosting incubated entities, to develop new products and programs. These entities work with a significant degree of autonomy, underwritten by the parent corporation, with the expectation of eventual ROI. I’m going to guess this is how one gets the Doritos Locos Taco, which was conceived of in 2009 and didn’t reach the market until 2012.

Maybe the big corporate funders can look to their for-profit brethren and create smaller, more agile and nimble divisions or foster incubated entities that are accountable to the parent foundation but have enough autonomy to be proactive and responsive, who can jumpstart new projects, facilitate rapid prototyping and direct more resources directly to creative development.

If we look to the social capital markets and the social entrepreneurial sectors, we see a lot of small, dynamic, agile organizations on both the funding and program sides. These structures are more conducive to contemporary creative practice in the arts than large institutions, so if the big corporate funders could figure out how to innovate their programmatic structures they could diversify their funding portfolios and facilitate a more vital, dynamic and accessible arts ecosystem.

And this is where the Slingshot model comes in. The arts sector relies far too heavily on the big corporate foundations on one end and individual giving on the other, but what is the status of arts funding in family foundations and how are we bringing the arts into focus for those potential funders? I am not able to do the research, but my hunch is that there are significant untapped resources in family foundations; resources that, in aggregate, rival the wealth of the white shoe foundations.

So what is the strategy for engaging next generation philanthropists in arts funding? Considering the aging audiences and declining subscription bases of most arts institutions, it seems like an appropriate time to bring in new blood at every level, if we hope to attract and engage new audiences we need to attract and engage younger funders, empower younger administrators and learn how to communicate with people in the 21st Century. (If you need some help, watch my video).

And this is where it gets touchy, because the elephant in the room of the arts is the trust fund.

The arts sector is populated by people who are, often, educated, passionate and driven by a relentless creative vision so overwhelming that they work for wages and under conditions that would be intolerable elsewhere. For many people this means extraordinary sacrifice in terms of material wealth, stability, security and quality of life. It also means that many of the people who are able to sustain a life in the arts do so with the support of other resources, sometimes a financially successful spouse or partner, sometimes an inheritance or trust fund.

The culture of scarcity in the arts creates a passive/aggressive oppositional dynamic that makes it nearly impossible to have a constructive conversation in private, much less public. Artists without trust funds feel angry, resentful and beleaguered, ground down by the grueling reality of never having any kind of security or stability, of never feeling fully able to realize their vision. Artists or administrators with trust funds sometimes feel guilty and ashamed, or bashful at least, and frequently try to hide their privilege.

At the last Brooklyn Commune someone in attendance, an accountant for artists, said that his experience was that trust fund artists declared a lot of expenses related to their art practice but rarely had much to show for it. But for every trustafarian dilettante poseur in the arts there is another artist of means who is creative, dedicated and passionate, who is making great work, engaging in the community and trying to effect change.

Our inability to talk about wealth – or the lack of it – cuts both ways.

For me, as I think with many people of moderate (and ever-precarious) means, I hear “trust fund” and my empathy meter shuts down. I assume that people born into privilege never really, fully, completely understand the existential dread that comes from fear of going into unsupportable perpetual debt, or bankrupt, or broke or getting ill and not being able to pay your bills. I am not sure that “risking it all”, has the same resonance to someone with a reliable economic support structure as it does to someone for whom “it all” is, in fact, everything you have.

At the same time, I don’t think most people of modest means have a very nuanced view of what privilege is, at least in NYC.

I managed to corner this hedge fund guy recently, through a friend of a friend, trying to learn about business plans so I could figure out how to present my ideas to non-arts people. Part of his business is managing money for trust funds and he told me that there’s a wide diversity in what most people consider “rich”.

This hedge fund guy told me that he has some clients whose trust is $800 a month to help them cover rent, and he has other clients who will never have to work a day in their lives, ever. But regardless of which category they fall into, many of them feel guilty about it; they don’t want to talk about it with the other people in their band, theater company, dance company, collective or whatever. But what if we could have a meaningful conversation? What would that look like? What would we hope to achieve?

There’s a quote by Paul Klee on the wall of the bathroom at The Invisible Dog that reads:

Art does not reproduce the visible; it makes visible.

In Amy Whitaker’s presentation to The Brooklyn Commune entitled “The Letter and the Envelope” she discussed how one of the challenges of being an artist talking to entrepreneurs is that artists are in the business of imagining and inventing things that don’t exist yet, that nobody sees. Entrepreneurs are in the business of making money out of what is. They don’t want to risk money on something they don’t understand or that the world hasn’t yet seen. And they don’t always make the connection between the need to invest resources in the “unproductive” time required for creativity and the quality of the eventual project or product.

It is increasingly less common that someone possesses both the vision to see as an artist and the resources to realize those visions. But what if the more fortunate artists and administrators among us came out of the trust fund closet and created a Slingshot Fund for the arts? What if they, knowing what it’s like to be an artist, knowing what it’s like from the other side of the fence, to be looking in from the outside, joined together and leveraged their collective influence access to capital and the kinds of people who manage capital, to build a new kind of foundation, (or network of foundations) that was truly transparent, innovative, responsive and new?

Too many times I have listened to people with access to influence or capital bemoan the state of affairs, bemoan shrinking budgets and funding priorities and bad policy decisions made by shortsighted, unimaginative people. “Someone should do something!” they say – we all say – or shrug our shoulders and walk away. But to quote Andrew Simonet from a slightly different context, “No one is coming!”

Being an artist is great, but changing the world is even better, and frankly I don’t see it as an either/or binary situation. If you have access to influence or capital, you can make more change than any single artist can do in their lifetime. You could do for the entire arts sector what Theaster Gates is doing in Dorchester Projects. Or more.

When I first started at the Foundation For Jewish Culture, back in the heady days of 2008, I wrote an essay that I never finished and that never saw the light of day. (You can download it as a PDF here, if you’re so inclined). In it I wrote:

Culture – and art, as a subset of culture – is not merely a sociological or demographic signifier. Culture actually means something. These studies [on Jewish culture and continuity] have explored the surface of culture without moving into meaning. As a result, communal support of arts and culture is predicated entirely on “continuity” – which, frankly, undermines the significance of art itself. By reducing art and culture to a “continuity device” we undervalue the importance of the creative imagination and, too often, we mistake art for entertainment. “New” or “alternative” or “contemporary” Jewish culture is not merely a trick to attract young people into institutional Jewish life. It is an integral and irreplaceable component of envisioning and re-imagining the Jewish future.

So what, then, does this new culture mean and how can we use it to envision the Jewish future? Let’s begin by defining culture:

culture n. The totality of socially transmitted behavior patterns, arts, beliefs, institutions, and all other products of human work and thought.

Culture is not a luxury; it is the totality of human expression, the manifestation of afflatus in the physical world. Culture is the investigation of human imagination, it his how we create hope or despair, it is how we represent ourselves – our lives, our dreams and our values – to ourselves. As such one could posit that the generative, creative act is human modeling of the primary divine behavior, that of bringing forth something from nothing. And in the praxis of culture, Art is “pure research.”

The arts, especially the Live Arts, are an essential ingredient for making a healthy, vibrant, dynamic, culture of informed, inclusive, participatory, democratic society. They are how we practice imagining a more perfect world.

As we can see all around us, the old systems are failing, and it is up to the artists to help us envision a new future, to make visible the unseen. This extraordinary moment in history calls for us to recalibrate the relationship of business, government and philanthropy and redesign our social systems. History calls us to work across the false borders of specialization, to introduce the unfettered imagination of the artist into conversations on science, technology, engineering and mathematics, into economics and urban planning, into ecology, architecture and the environment.

This is the moment for Next Gen Philanthropists who love the arts or are artists themselves to unite and make known their vision, to create something new that the world has yet to see. Amy Whitaker has proposed that we view economics as a collective creative design problem? What if we imagined philanthropy as a creative practice marrying the worlds of art, finance and social innovation to reweave the frayed fabric of our national culture? What if we freed our creative energies from the pursuit of expressing our idiosyncratic and existentially alienating inner life and instead turned outward, liberating our gaze to look at the world itself as our palette, our instrument, our stage?

In February 2009 I gave a lecture at a conference on “Jews, Theatre and Performance in an Intercultural World” at the Jewish Theological Seminary. In it, I talked about the global Jewish Diaspora as a pre-technological networked society and traditional Jewish Learning as a text-based, trans-temporal, intercultural mode of performance. (If you’re curious you can watch it here).

I bring this up because I previously quoted an article on ejewishphilanthropy.com as saying, “One of the core features of the new civic Jewish culture is the decline of a centralized system of communal decision-making and shared governance…” which is misleading in the sense that it suggest this is “new”. The “centralized system of communal decision-making and shared governance” that they refer to is less than 100 years old. The Jewish Diaspora started in 586 BCE and for the next 2600 years or so there was no centralized system of anything in the Jewish world. Even in the Western world at large, the creation of centralized governments in the form of the nation-state only dates back to the 18th century.

What I’m getting at is that the decentralized, networked society in which we live is both radically new and already known, and all the changes that have been wrought over time are the product of human endeavor and imagination. And though technology, commerce and violence have shaped our world, so too has art, literature, history, drama, dance and song. Art is the thread that weaves together the clothes we wear called culture. Let’s take this seriously, let’s change the world.

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