Jewish Donors Don’t Always Get Young Jews: Overcoming “The Donor-Demographic Disconnect”

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Published in eJewish PhilanthropyFebruary 26, 2013

One of the greatest challenges facing the Jewish world is to inspire the younger generation of Jews to care about and act upon being Jewish. Numerous organizations and initiatives have been created with this goal in mind.

If this younger generation was just like their parents’ generation or their grandparents’ generation, this would be a cake walk. We’d just do what we’ve always done and expect the same results. But this generation is very different than their parents’ generation, requiring that we take a very different approach. My own 16-year-old son, for example, has a radically different notion of courtship with the opposite sex – one that doesn’t necessarily involve dating – than I did in my teenage years. If I failed to pick up on this, it would be difficult to maintain open lines of communication and provide support. If the professionals running youth groups fail to recognize this reality, they won’t be able to construct appealing social experiences for this population.

Raised in an age of rapidly proliferating technology and a post-modern milieu, the millennial generation views the world very differently than their elders, and is likely to engage in Jewish life and support for Israel in radically different ways than previous generations. What’s more, their worldview is generally entirely of a piece with that of their non-Jewish peers – they reflect the trends of the larger youth culture – so it’s impossible to “convert” them into their parents’ mentality. For example, most young Jews who have been to Israel and care about the country are not willing to engage in campus debates about Israel’s right to self-defense. This aversion to conflict is entirely consonant with the negative reaction that the larger campus community has toward debates between antagonists. Organizations like The David Project need to find new and creative ways to inspire action and engagement consistent with this generation’s attitudes.

The challenge is that the older generation of Jewish leadership – the people who write the checks for, and sit on the boards of, organizations that engage young Jews – often don’t understand the young generation and the forces that shape their culture and worldview. And, committed though they are, they sometimes impose their own values on these organizations and, in so doing, render their organizations less effective in their mission.

Moreover, the types of approaches that are more likely to resonate with young Jews may seem downright uninspiring, weird, or dangerously edgy to the donors of an older generation. Unfortunately, the organizations most in synch with young Jews may find themselves out of synch with donors and face the greatest funding challenges.

I know from my conversations with other professional leaders that they too face a disconnect between their primary target audience – young Jews – and their funders and potential funders. Some organizations, regrettably, err on the side of deferring to the sentiments of their funders. These organizations tell a resonant story to their donors and raise lots of money but, ultimately, make themselves less relevant and desirable in young peoples’ eyes. In today’s transparent media environment, it’s simply no longer possible to address your young population in one way and your donors in another. If you tell your donors that “dark clouds are coming,” playing on their fears, rest assured that someone from your primary audience will hear about it and become turned off to your message.

As the leader of an organization that inspires young Jews into engaging in thoughtful pro-Israel advocacy, I face this dilemma in some way, shape or form every day. For example, our campus staff is running an edgy “Give a Shirt about Israel” campaign (see article image for an example), in which various world leaders and celebrities appear wearing a Photoshopped t-shirt with the words “Let’s Talk Israel.” It’s a campaign meant to associate the “Let’s Talk Israel” theme with the organization’s brand. I know from my experience with this population that such an irreverent photo will appeal to our primary target audience – young Jews – and be shared widely, but may confuse or anger older adults.

In another recent example, during Israel’s Operation Pillar of Defense, The David Project issued a backgrounder and discussion guide for college and high school-aged Jewish students. In the discussion section, we posed several open-ended questions designed to get students thinking about the tough moral choices facing Israeli leaders. Our experience is that if you present a fully developed viewpoint absent any room for discussion, you’re likely to turn students off. That evening, a key donor came up to me at an event, briefing paper in hand, aghast at our failure to provide a clear view on the moral questions.

How do we overcome this donor-demographic disconnect?

  • First, the larger Jewish foundations can help. These foundations are often led by people who read and even commission studies on trends with young Jews, and have insight into the mindset of this target population. They can and should articulate their views of the challenge to the larger donor community.
  • Second, professional leaders can challenge their lay leaders to reconsider their views. When confronted by the donor about The David Project discussion guide, I didn’t simply give in. I provided the insight of professional experience.
  • Third, we need to find new and compelling ways to tell our stories to donors that shed light on the experience of young Jews. It’s much harder to tell a story that’s out of synch with someone’s personal experience (e.g. we need to allow students to struggle with tough questions about Israel) than it is to tell a story that supports their worldview (e.g. We need to get young Jews to stop the bad guys on campus now, or Israel will be de- legitimized). We are going to have to work harder and be more creative.
  • Fourth, we need to bring in younger donors and board members who are more in touch with the millennial mentality to help elucidate this reality to their older colleagues.

With a concerted effort and a little courage, we can help the donor population better understand their kids’ generation and, with their support, fully energize this ascending and very different generation of American Jews.