It is no secret that American Jewry could stand for some good news. During the past decade, our communities have been confronted with a string of unremitting challenges for Jewish organizations – from reports of declining affiliation rates to fundraising difficulties to scandals involving reputable institutions.

Well, here is some good news: 2014 was a banner year for American philanthropy, with nearly all nonprofit sectors experiencing a healthy increase in contributions. Charitable giving has not only recovered from the recession, it has surpassed pre-recession levels. Donors are once again eager to support causes that inspire them. Does that mean Jewish donors will necessarily support Jewish causes, or that the litany of structural and demographic challenges confronting American Jewry will simply melt away? Of course not, but the dramatic uptick in general philanthropy should serve as a source of encouragement and optimism for the Jewish community.

Here’s a look at the numbers: Americans gave $358 billion to charity in 2014, an 8.8 percent increase over 2013, according to Giving USA, the annual survey of philanthropy. A joint project of the Chicago-based Giving Institute and the Indiana University Lilly School of Philanthropy, Giving USA published its 60th annual report on June 16. While the report doesn’t break out giving by religious communities, there is much that the Jewish world can glean from this in-depth statistical analysis of charitable activity.

Giving to religious organizations, including synagogues increased by 2.5 percent from 2013 and experienced a healthy two-year jump of 8.6 percent. Over the same period, overall giving experienced a 7.1 percent increase over 2013 and a two-year climb of 8.8 percent.

Here are some additional statistics and observations from the report especially relevant to Jewish donors and communal leaders:
Contributions to the human services subsector grew 3.2 percent from 2013, totaling $42.10 billion and comprising 12 percent of all charitable giving in 2014. This is a notable uptick.

Contributions to the public-society benefit subsector increased 5.1 percent from 2013, totaling $26.29 billion and comprised 7 percent of all charitable giving in 2014. This sector includes Jewish federations and United Way, which has been struggling. It also includes giving to donor advised funds, the game-changing and innovative philanthropic vehicle that is increasingly being embraced by strategic-minded donors.  

Americans gave $54.2 billion to education in 2014, including many mega-gifts.

The only nonprofit subsector that saw an overall decrease in 2014 was international affairs. That sector saw its contributions decline by 2.0 percent, totaling $15.10 billion and accounting for 4 percent of all giving.

Jewish organizations seem poised to reap tremendous benefits from the growth in giving; some already have, but what about the rest? Many Jewish organizations, synagogues in particular, lack sophisticated fundraising operations. The largest universities and hospitals devote whole teams to advanced donor research, while many Jewish organizations have no research program and have failed to adopt basic gift acceptance and donor recognition policies. And, at a time when donors are demanding greater financial transparency, most synagogues remain opaque about their spending and budgets. These practices must change if our congregations are to ride this cresting wave of generosity.

Another obstacle is the trend – which dates back to the 1980s – of major Jewish donors supporting venerable non-Jewish causes. I sifted through the Chronicle of Philanthropy’s 2014 list of $1million gifts and found that, of the 846 gifts, 115 were made by donors I could reasonably identify as Jewish, but just 13 were made to Jewish organizations. While not a scientific study, it illustrates the challenge of inspiring our wealthiest donors to support Jewish ideas, causes, and institutions.

Of course, there is a wellspring of creativity within the Jewish world, especially in the Greater Washington, D.C., area. The most energized organizations are positioning themselves at the forefront of creative philanthropy. But the $358 billion question remains: how can we entice an increasingly diffuse community to care about the Jewish present and the Jewish future? The answer may be blowing in the wind or it may represent the sum total of our collective efforts. The economic recovery and continued propensity of Americans to give has presented the Jewish world with an opportunity to fund ideas that meet the needs of our evolving community. This is an opportunity we cannot afford to miss.