Links in the Chainby Natalie Jacobs April 26, 2017
Three weeks into her role as CEO of San Diego’s Jewish Community Foundation, Beth Sirull sat down with the San Diego Jewish Journal to talk about where she came from, what she’s looking forward to accomplishing here, and the Jewish values that underline her passion for the new job. This conversation has been edited for space.
SDJJ: What attracted you to this position at JCF?
Beth Sirull: A couple things. On a personal level I was really at a place in life where I wanted a new challenge and a new adventure. I wanted to lead one more organization to a new great place. And I have a really strong Jewish identity. I’ve never worked in the Jewish community before but I was very attracted to that.
The Foundation has a 50-year history that is remarkable, not just in the numbers. We have facilitated over a billion dollars in grants, most of which have stayed in San Diego and a good chunk of which have stayed in the San Diego Jewish community. And that’s a remarkable foundation on which to have the opportunity to build new and to take to the next level. That was really attractive.
Again also on a personal level, I think my own expression of Jewish identity is evolving and this is a new way for me to express my commitment to the Jewish community.
One of the other things that attracted me is that because our donors are interested in every cause imaginable, I get to be engaged in hunger, education, Jewish things, issues in the developing world, social justice. There’s no social issue that we don’t touch and that’s very appealing. You feel like you’re making a difference in a big fat way in the world.
SDJJ: What were you up to in the year between heading Pacific Community Ventures and coming
SIRULL: The plan was intentionally to take some time off. I had been at PCV for 10 years and I had been the CEO for six of them and I just needed a break. So I hired my successor and on-boarded her. I was planning to take six months off and then I figured it would take me six months to figure out what I was going to do next, and then my father-in-law and my mom died pretty close together so I did some family stuff. Then last summer I was like ok, I’m ready, it’s time. So I really started looking July or August in 2016 and it took a little under six months because I had this offer end of December, early January.
SDJJ: Was there any concern about reentry?
SIRULL: Not really. I was really ready. It was 18 months and it was time. I’m an active, engaged, busy, get-a-lot-done kind of person. I did need a break. Six of those months I really did nothing. I baked challah – I perfected my challah. I was home for my son’s junior year of high school and it was really perfect.
SDJJ: So your son is a senior now? Did he stay in the Bay Area?
SIRULL: He’s in Oakland with my husband and he graduates June 11. So I’m going back and forth right now for most weekends. Then he’ll graduate and go do his thing. Then my husband and I will get serious about figuring out where we’re going to live. It will settle down into a more normal existence over the summer.
SDJJ: So how have your first three weeks been?
SIRULL: Awesome. I’m really happy to be here. I feel like it’s a good fit – every member of the staff is vibrant and lovely and dedicated, fun, warm. Our donors, our Board and some other people in the community that I’ve met so far are very welcoming. I’m mostly meeting people and listening, hearing from the staff what’s working, what they’d like to do and what their hopes and dreams are, hearing from the board about where they’d like to see the Foundation in the next few years.
SDJJ: What do you consider your main responsibility at JCF?
SIRULL: I’ve been joking with people that my job, as any CEO’s job, is to hire the right people, set a direction and some goals and a vision and then to get out of their way so they can do their job. The core objective over the next few years is to engage with the next generation, which is true of Jewish Community Foundations around the country – donors are getting older and younger donors are not tending to come to Jewish Community Foundations, so we’re looking to be innovative in the kinds of products and services that we offer to engage younger philanthropists. Some of that has to do with impact investing, social enterprise and what’s called venture philanthropy – capitalizing on some of the trends in philanthropy and social change that would appeal to the 20s, 30s, 40s and early 50s.
SDJJ: Is that a change in how you talk about what you do or is that an actual change in what you offer?
SIRULL: It’s a little bit of both. We’re introducing this summer a Jewish values investment pool. It has the same financial risk-return characteristics as a mainstream portfolio but it has a little more of Israel in it, it takes into account environmental issues. So it has mutual funds and equity stocks of companies that are particularly socially responsible. It’s a values-aligned way to invest your money. That’s a change, it’s a shift in what we’ve done.
Increasingly with younger donors, they’re interested in values-aligned investing, they’re interested in putting money into a company whose business plan does good in the world, so we’re looking at innovative ways to do that.
SDJJ: Is that something that you’re bringing to JCF or has that been in the works?
SIRULL: The Jewish values pool has been in the works for a while, but I do think that part of why I was hired was my knowledge of impact investing and socially responsible investing and ways to engage people in social enterprise.
We’re trying to give our donors more ways to be impactful because in the end, our mission is to engage people and inspire people to be as impactful with their giving as they possibly can be on the causes that they care about.
SDJJ: I know JCF is marking a big anniversary this year. Do you all know how you’re celebrating it?
SIRULL: We’ll be having an event in November. This is a 50th anniversary year and we’ll be having lots of programs throughout the year, culminating and highlighting a signature event of appreciation and honoring our past presidents. The entire community will be invited and included and we look forward to everybody joining us – celebrating our past, inspiring our future.
SDJJ: You mentioned a focus on engaging the next generation. What’s the target age for that?
SIRULL: It’s actually a couple generations. We have the teen foundation. Then there are Gen X-ers 35-50. Then there are Millennials who may not have made their fortunes yet, but everybody can give and everybody can be impactful with their giving.
The other piece of that is that over the next 10 years in the United States there are $4 trillion of wealth that will be inherited from one generation to the next. That’s a lot of philanthropic capacity. The parents have been very philanthropic and if we don’t engage the younger generation that’s inheriting this money, we will not have the vibrant San Diego that we have now.
One of the main opportunities that we have too is to engage with the generation of donors who are going to be involved in that wealth transfer to ensure that they include charitable planning as part of their transfer. Not only considering their heirs which is super important but to consider adding some charitable enterprises locally, internationally, Jewishly, wherever they choose.
SDJJ: What do you think has been the biggest shift in philanthropy in the last 50 years?
SIRULL: Statistically, the trends in philanthropy are that people want to be more involved in the organizations where they make donations. They want to see the impact of what they give. And increasingly in younger generations they want to see new ideas – a new approach to solving hunger or engaging young Jews with Judaism, or domestic violence. You’re talking about people who have grown up in an incredibly innovative time.
SDJJ: What do you see as society’s most pressing problem today?
SIRULL: If we go beyond the obvious things like hunger and global poverty, for me, the biggest issue facing American society is civic divisiveness and the lack of dialogue across communities – civically, economically and socially there is a certain segregation and isolation that has occurred in the United States in the last generation. We’re very isolated and we only talk to people we agree with. In my mind, there is a lack of civic discourse and a lack of a commitment to consensus.
The most pressing issue Jewishly, we see a declining rate of identifying as Jewish. Not just synagogue affiliation. For me, part of the appeal of being in this Jewish community and in this position, I want every Jew on the planet to identify Jewishly and to care about being Jewish. How they express that Jewish identity, as far as I’m concerned, it’s completely up to them. But it pains me when I see people who don’t care.
When my son was born 17 and a half years ago, my husband and I made a commitment that the links in the chain of Jewish life that were six thousand years old would not break on our watch. G-d willing we achieved that.
Taking this job for me was enlarging and making that commitment to that chain, to the links in that chain that they would not break on my watch, not just with my kid but globally. This is my opportunity to really work to insure that the links don’t break.