JFNA sees broader need for its Investment Institute

The cancellation of Jewish Federations of North America’s (JFNA) 2020 Investment Institute might ultimately lead to an expanded role for the program between its official biennial meetings, Steve Gross, JFNA’s senior director of institutional advancement, planned giving and endowments, told eJewishPhilanthropy

Held since 2001, the institute gathers 150-250 federation professionals, investment committee chairs and members, financial services providers, high-net-worth donors, private foundation trustees and academics for sessions on how best to grow charitable donations to federations. “How do you invest Jewish philanthropic dollars? How do you steward them? That’s what the institute tries to focus on, in a number of different ways,” Gross said.

Scheduled for March 2020, the last meeting of the institute was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic, then in its infancy. In the interim, JFNA began offering quarterly webinars on topics useful to the chief financial officers, endowment and pension fund administrators and other financial experts working to manage the $21 billion assets under management in the 146-member federation system. The most recent such program focused on special purpose acquisition companies (SPACs), non-fungible tokens (NFTs) and cryptocurrency, the encrypted, unregulated asset class nonprofits are increasingly accepting as donations.

Now, JFNA is also looking to become more of a resource center for the federations it serves, Gross said. It might advise federations on how to best bring on new members of their investment committees, which are comprised of lay people who work in investing or related fields and volunteer their time to help their local federations manage their endowments and other assets. In some situations, JFNA might provide more guidance on investment decisions.

“We are hoping that there will be more ongoing programs to talk about different issues related to the economy, investments, governance,” Gross said.

Gross, who first joined JFNA in 2011 as its senior director of planned giving and endowment management, has worked in both the nonprofit and the private sector, with jobs at Save the Children; Pinetum Partners, an executive search firm and Prudential Financial.

Jewish donor-advised funds (DAFs) are especially open to helping donors apply ESG (environmental, social and governance) criteria to their investments because they need to compete with secular charitable trusts, such as the DAFs administered by Fidelity, Vanguard and Schwab, and because younger donors tend to be more interested in ESG, Gross said.

JFNA hasn’t yet set a date for the 2022 institute, but Gross said it will likely feature more information about “impact investing” than it has in the past.

He is also involved in the Global Impact Investing Network (GINN), which last October started a group that meets monthly to discuss interfaith-based social impact investing.

When he first began working at JFNA, Gross said, the investing philosophy at federations was more “traditional” in that it was focused on the classic definition of fiduciary responsibility — generating the best possible financial returns. Federations’ investment committees must still fulfill those responsibilities, but some are now using a broader definition of “return” that includes social impact in addition to financial return.

“We’re finding that there is more of a conversation about Jewish values, and how they relate to our investing,” he said.

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