As someone who relied on charitable help as a child refugee from Russia, Alla Pasternack always knew she would give back when she was able. She doled out donations here and there to her kids' schools, medical research, the arts and the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, which handled her own family's resettlement.
But she'd never committed strongly to any particular cause until she heard firsthand from a woman who came to Jewish Family and Children's Service after her seemingly normal, middle-class life just fell apart.
"Everybody who heard her story said, 'Wow, could that happen to me?' " said Pasternack, stay-at-home mom.
Touched, the 39-year-old decided to join "The Bridge," a newly formed giving circle in which members collectively decide how to divvy their pooled grant money among JFCS clients.
In a year-and-a-half, the Bridge has raised $98,300 and grown to include 33 donor families -- almost all of them in the 45-and-under demographic that Jewish agencies have found harder and harder to attract in recent years.
The Bridge approach of empowering donors to decide the fate of their funds is just one of several tactics that Philadelphia-area organizations have been exploring lately in hopes of reaching that elusive next generation. The strategies themselves -- giving circles, social-networking events, hands-on projects -- aren't necessarily groundbreaking. What's new is the fact that local nonprofits are taking the time to test them out.
It's become pretty clear that young people don't just want to write a check like the older generation, said Sarah Bernstein, development officer for the youngest subset -- or "Renaissance" donors -- at the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.
"Everyone wants to see, touch and feel where their money is going," said Bernstein.
They want to understand what they're supporting or have a personal connection to it, she continued. And it's not just about giving; they're looking for a social and professional outlet, too.
"Everyone says it's a bad economy, young people don't have money, young people don't want to give," added Bernstein. "If you cater to a person, you won't have as hard of a time getting money as you think."
'A Direct Impact on Somebody's Life'
For a social-service agency like JFCS, it hasn't been easy to allow donors to "experience their giving" because much of their work is confidential, and clients in crisis don't necessarily want to interact with volunteers, said Pia Eisenberg, vice president of development and communications.
Occasionally, willing clients would share their stories to prospective donors at private luncheons. Encouraged by the reaction to those events, four board members came up with The Bridge, modeled after an existing giving circle called Chesed. That group of nine donors seemed to be working well, but the minimum $14,000 donation was just too high for younger families or those who wanted to support multiple agencies, said board member Jessica Solomon. To make The Bridge more accessible, they set the giving level at $1,800 a year.
Instead of a live meeting, every month social workers e-mail the members with a case summary of a client who had maxed out the agency's funding limits but needed extra to "bridge" a gap until she or he could become self-sufficient.
"You can't believe the way people respond to it," said Solomon, 44, a paper merchant from Penn Valley. "They offer suggestions, and really want to know about the person and their life."
Even though the e-mails use pseudonyms to protect the clients' identity, donors still get to see where their money is going locally and exactly how it's going to be spent.
"Who doesn't want to help somebody not get evicted?" Eisenberg asked rhetorically. "Who doesn't want to make sure that kids who are not going to eat dinner are going to get fed?"
It's even more gratifying months later when the agency passes along an update or a thank-you note from the client, said Pasternack, who recently took on her first board role with JFCS.
"It makes you feel like you really made a direct impact on somebody's life at the exact time that they needed it," said Pasternack.
For Ina, a 49-year-old Northeast Philadelphia resident who asked that her real name not be used, the three months of rent The Bridge covered was just enough to allow her to complete the unpaid practicum she needed to earn a teaching degree. After struggling for years to provide for her three children in the aftermath of an oppressive marriage, Ina said she's finally on her way to securing a stable job.
"I didn't really think I was going to finish this," she said. "That grant just psychologically says, 'Oh wow, there's a little help out there.' "
Because of the success of The Bridge, the agency started three other circles six months ago, likewise all targeted at young donors. Two of them are still in the works, the other -- Circle of Hands -- has mobilized a group of volunteers interested in hands-on projects such as planting flowers for seniors.
The Attraction: Short-Term Projects
Another philanthropic nonprofit, the Bala Cynwyd-based Golden Slipper Club & Charities, this week approved a program that will provide funding for members to lead their own, short-term projects.
Grants will be available for one-time initiatives that affect the Jewish community -- anything from building a playground at a hospital that serves Jewish children to subsidizing a forest-fire relief trip to Israel, said Paul Geller, the group's executive director.
The goal is to attract new members who have the drive to do something for the community but not necessarily the resources, experience or interest in sitting on a board or overseeing a large ongoing effort like Slipper's senior center or camp, said Geller.
Having the chance to actually do philanthropy should also make more of a lasting impression than the organization's previous, mostly social events that drew hundreds of young people out for a good time, but didn't give them "any reason to say, 'Hey, I really want to be a part of Slipper,' " said Geller.
Brian Gilberg, a 31-year-old commercial insurance broker who serves on Slipper's executive committee, was an exception. He became involved in the group at age 24, following in the footsteps of his mother and father.
"I sort of grew up inheriting parts of that passion directly from them and getting involved in little bits and pieces," said Gilberg, also an active volunteer for the Jewish Business Network and Jewish Relief Agency. "You get to experience someone changing their life."
Tweaking an Old Model
Federation, which is sometimes criticized for only cultivating young donors who have the means to write large checks, has been working to change that notion.
Fundraising staff say they've always done some kind of outreach, including organizing a local group of about 30 people in their 30s and 40s to participate in the National Young Leadership Cabinet. Donors must commit at least $5,000 a year over six years to take part in the annual retreats and international missions.
On a similar, but less intensive vein, for the past 15 years, staff have been running a yearlong leadership development program to teach young professionals firsthand about the agency's work. Participants must donate at least $1,000. In return, they get access to top professionals in the area, as well as travel and other networking opportunities, said Bernstein.
Though the program only reaches 20 to 30 people each year, federation officials say almost all of them have gone on to continue supporting the organization. In addition, Bernstein said, her Renaissance division hosts happy hours and other events that don't require financial pledges in hopes of reaching young people who want to be active but aren't able or interested in committing to the leadership program.
Federation has to do even more of that kind of outreach if it hopes to create advocates among those who feel intimidated by the fact that they can't contribute financially to the agency's fundraising mission, said Rachel Steinberg, a leadership program graduate.
This generation doesn't give "for the sake of giving," she said, or just "because our parents gave or our grandparents gave. It has to be something more -- experiences, sharing stories, whatever it is.
"If we do a better job educating about the work we're doing, we'd get more people involved," she continued. "Once you make that commitment to give, you are likely to continue to give."
Supporting Federation was never a question for Steinberg, but she also grew up watching her grandmother and father serve as presidents of their local federations. The institution was one of the first places she called after moving here from Goshen, N.Y., for college.
"We cannot take being Jewish for granted," said Steinberg, 35, now director of community relations for the Jewish Community High School of Gratz College. "Until I moved to Philadelphia, I had to work hard to be Jewish, and it felt good. It wasn't a burden. It was just so much a part of who I was and who my family was."
Among the benefits she got out of her investment with Federation was a husband, who she met in 2000 during a phone-a-thon. Together, they co-chaired a young couples group inspired by the leadership program; it died after three years.
A more recent offshoot, started by Women's Philanthropy five years ago, targets younger moms who have time to meet during the day, said co-chair Sara Laver.
"What makes it successful is that it's more of a commitment," said Laver, a 39-year-old mother of two. "It's a whole program that we've thought out and developed a little curriculum for."
So far, however, Federation numbers haven't bucked national trends. Of the more than $20 million raised last year, only $1.2 million came from donors aged 45 and under, according to officials. The 2009 "Jewish Population Study of Greater Philadelphia" echoed that data, reporting that younger Jews were less likely to give to Federation compared with other age groups.
For 28-year-old Ari Kushner, reaching young donors starts with getting them together, and then raising "their awareness while they're there."
Earlier this month, Kushner did just that through a concert fundraiser, advertised largely through social media. It drew more than 300 attendees. The proceeds went to a nonprofit he directs called Friends of Ofanim, the fundraising arm of a mobile education program in Israel.
The next step, Kushner said, is helping young adults tap into what they can actually do for the causes they support.
"Sometimes, we focus almost 100 percent on getting contributions from young people," said Kushner. "There is a way to get the contributions while also giving them a hands-on experience."
He and fellow philanthropy advocate Tamar Silberberg Shiffman are putting together a program to teach young professionals what it takes to get involved with their first committee or board. Though the project is not targeted exclusively at Jews, they're aiming to pilot the semester-long slate of "board prep" workshops on accounting, finance, fundraising, ethics, governance and other aspects of nonprofit management this fall.
Shiffman, a 28-year-old marketing director from Center City, will talk about those efforts and the Spruce Foundation, a "next-generation philanthropy collective" she and seven other Jewish friends established to support at-risk youth in Philadelphia, during a conference of the Jewish Funders Network taking place in Philadelphia next week. While invested in Jewish causes on a personal level, she said she didn't want to limit the foundation in that way.
Explained Kushner, who also serves on the Spruce Foundation board, it's not enough today for Jews to take care of themselves. "I want the world to see," he said, "that Jews can be effective ambassadors toward the greater globe."