Philanthropy and Nonprofits: One Sector, Not Two

I have had the dual privilege of making my living working in the world of Jewish philanthropy and, previously, putting in substantial time raising funds for and managing Jewish nonprofit organizations. The work -- and the work environment -- can be so incredibly different between philanthropic foundations and charitable organizations.  It seems we often lose sight of the fact that the funders and the funded are flip sides of the very same coin, all pursuing the same public good with private resources and voluntary actions.

The philanthropic and nonprofit sector occupies a unique place in civil society, one that addresses the many unmet human needs that neither government nor commercial activity can adequately fulfill. In pre-American, European societies, these needs were frequently met by state religious institutions. Today’s nonprofit and philanthropic world is characterized by a sometimes uneasy balance of the unbridled passions of volunteerism and the attempted efficacies of institutionalized and professionalized organizations. We can rightly take credit for many great accomplishments even as we plead guilty to recurring charges of inefficiency, waste, amateurism and occasionally out-and-out fraud.

Just what is this odd, imperfect, intermediate sector with which we are engaged? Where did it come from? What are its potentials and limitations? Where is it most effectively deployed for the overall good of nation, society, community and, in the case of American Jewry, a people within a people?

I once attended a workshop led by Aliza Mazur (then with Bikkurim, which is now Upstart) that brought together equal numbers of funders and “fundees,” to explore the potential and pitfalls of philanthropic relationships. Aliza lived up to her reputation for creating open, trusting environments, which led to the revelation of jaded and idealistic perspectives alike, not to mention a few very funny moments. It was good for “both sides of the table” to share their perceptions of the other, something we should do more frequently in this business.

Understanding each other is a good start. The next step is for funders and fundees to take a step back from our particular roles in order to see that we are actually inseparable parts of a singular, united enterprise. Achieving maximum impact requires us not only to work together as peers, but to remember that we are but cogs in a single machine; parts of a unified whole whose synchronization and integration are the only means to our deeply desired, shared noble ends.