Ben Crowne

Small can be beautiful for charities

Plans to streamline Jewish charities could be misguided, argues Ben Crowne of Limmud

May 15, 2017 17:24

One of the things the UK Jewish community can be proudest of is our commitment and generosity towards charitable causes. An ethos of support for these causes permeates the entire community, and distinguishes us — Jews are 50% more likely to donate to charity than the UK average. Charitable donating and volunteering, according to JPR’s 2013 survey, are more central to our Jewish identity than supporting Israel, marrying Jewish, or believing in God.

So it was surprising, and a little alarming, to read that Jonathan Goldstein the prospective head of the Jewish Leadership Council considers that our community has “far too many” charities, that they are “working in silos”; and that he will task a leading business figure to find £10 million by eliminating “wasteful duplication” (JC April 29)

In fact, the number of Jewish charities is in line with the UK as a whole, taking into account our greater propensity to donate. Leaving aside charities whose sole focus is the strictly Orthodox community, there are about 1,250 Jewish charities — one for every 200 Jews who made a charitable donation in the last year — compared to one charity for every 210 Britons.

Small charities give autonomy and control to their founders and supporters, allowing the development of personal visions to which larger organisations are less receptive. They empower new voices, and encourage innovation. It’s striking how many of the most exciting and innovative projects of the last decades — like Mitzvah Day, March of the Living, the Bike Project, or Limmud — have been the initiatives of individuals or small groups, rather than centrally-planned accomplishments.

Israel advocacy — highlighted by the JLC — is a case in point: dissatisfaction with the status quo from both right and left has led to dozens of passionate and committed individuals setting up their own projects, with transformative impact. The JLC themselves gave £600,000 divided between at least a dozen such organisations in 2015. This overlap (not duplication) is the price we pay for diversity and vibrancy.

And is this price so high? Actually, our small charities seem to be more efficient than larger ones. They are more likely to have volunteers in key support roles, rely on ad hoc assistance rather than full-time employees, and be more financially accountable to trustees. Last year, Jewish charities with income over £1 million spent an average of 14% on support costs and governance, compared with only 6% for those with income between £100,000 and £1,000,000.

Of course, Jewish charities could doubtless benefit from external advice on costs and overheads — we probably don’t need a dozen separate charities running eruvs in North-West London. But painting the sector as wasteful, over-stuffed and in need of top-down, centralised management seems misguided. There are other, far more challenging problems facing our charities — empowering lay leadership, inspiring a younger generation of activists and donors, securing our long-term future with legacies and endowments. Solving these will need innovative, energetic leadership — and tomorrow’s solutions may rest with those leading our small charities today.


Ben Crowne chaired Limmud Conference 2016 and is the treasurer of the Rainmaker Foundation, a startup accelerator for small charities and social enterprises

May 15, 2017 17:24

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