NEW YORK — When a Jewish studies scholar-turned-museum director was selected a year ago to head a brand-new foundation connected to the federation system, not many understood just what the new entity would be.
Today, the foundation, called the Trust for Jewish Philanthropy, is starting to take shape.
But with just one project announced so far — and that not yet up and running — it is still unclear what role the trust will play.
Questions concern the sorts of projects it will fund, what relationship it has with the federations, and whether it will succeed– as many are hoping — in attracting a sizeable amount of new wealth to Jewish causes.
The trust aims to forge partnerships among individual donors and foundations to take on large national and international Jewish projects that no one player or federation could address on its own.
The first project, announced in October, is an effort to recruit and groom more women for top posts in Jewish organizations, where the overwhelming majority of executive positions are held by men.
Launched with a $1 million gift from philanthropist Barbara Dobkin, the project is still seeking additional funds.
It is also considering "at least a dozen areas" for additional projects, said David Altshuler, head of the trust.
Such projects could involve Jewish summer camps, Jews in the former Soviet Union, personnel needs in Jewish education, ecology in the Middle East, an international Jewish service corps for young adults, Jewish journalism, and partnerships with Israeli philanthropists.
The trust is also expected to help fund projects of the UJC's newly formed "pillars," or agenda-setting committees.
Altshuler, who founded New York's Museum of Jewish Heritage — A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, describes the work as "matchmaking between the funders and doers."
Besides launching new projects, the trust aims to assist small federations in creating endowments and foundations for donors.
While federations have benefited from a thriving economy, they are not growing as rapidly as other philanthropies. An increasing number of wealthy Jews are focusing their attention on secular, rather than Jewish, causes.
With federation campaigns funneling gifts into a collective pot, they are spurned by many donors seeking more control over how their money is spent. In response, some federations have created their own foundation offshoots that allow donors programmatic control. Others are helping donors manage large foundations that support largely secular causes.
The trust was envisioned, in part, as a way of creating a national counterpart to these local foundations.
Many in the federation world initially worried that the trust would simply siphon donors away.
In recent months, federation leaders say that concern has been alleviated as a result of visits from Altshuler and by formation of the trust's board of directors. Of the 17 trustees, 14 are either on the boards of federations, the UJC or the federation system's overseas partners — the Jewish Agency for Israel and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.
A 15th is on the board of the Jewish Venture Philanthropy Fund, an offshoot of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington.
Now, some wonder whether the board, because of its large federation representation, will have difficulty attracting newcomers.
Dobkin, the trust's first donor and a philanthropist who makes the majority of her contributions outside the federation system, said she is concerned about the heavy representation of federation people on the board.
"If they're looking to think outside the box and to show that it's autonomous and to attract donors who are not giving to federations, then I don't think their board reflects what they say they want to get," she said.
Evan Mendelson, executive director of the San Francisco-based Jewish Funders Network, an association of family foundations and independent philanthropists, said she would have liked to see a board with "a broader range of funders," and a "higher percentage of board members who are independent funders."
While some potential donors may be turned off by the federation-dominated board, Mendelson does not expect many to turn away completely.
"What really counts is if people want to do something with their money — if funders see issues of concern to them — they are going to want to come to the table."
Altshuler believes the board is diverse enough.
"There's not one person on the board who wears only a federation hat," he said. "Virtually all have other commitments to Jewish and non-Jewish organizations."
For now, most observers are saying the trust is simply too new to be judged.
"This kind of fund-raising generally speaking doesn't have instant results," said Stephen Hoffman, executive vice president of the Jewish Community Federation of Cleveland. "I believe people are still sitting back to give Altshuler room to produce."