Wilf family focuses new giving on social justice issues

The Wilf Family Foundations latest grant announcement of $4 million to 27 organizations, such as Black Voters Matter and the Center on Policing at Rutgers University, are part of the foundations’ new focus on issues such as voting rights, entrepreneurship among people of Color and police reform. The family, which owns the Minnesota Vikings, was inspired to make this new commitment after talking with team members in the wake of George Floyd’s death last year, Mark Wilf, chair of the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), told eJewishPhilanthropy.

 This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Helen Chernikoff: Can you speak about why the foundations’ interest in these issues is “expanding,” as the grant announcement put it?

Mark Wilf: My parents and my aunt and uncle founded the Wilf Family Foundations in 1964, and we’ve always supported social justice causes. These new focus areas are based on new realities. Given recent events, those are areas that are important to us, and so we’ve grown our traditional social justice outreach.

HC: How did you learn more about these issues? Did you do any hiring, or consult with outside experts?

MW: There were a variety of inputs. As you know, in our day jobs, we own a sports team, the Minnesota Vikings. Through that, we personally became exposed, of course, to the George Floyd murder and the events of last year. We developed conversations with some of our players and staff to get their feedback on what’s going on, how they’re reacting to it and how best to respond. Also, we interact with other foundations that have been in these spaces for a long time, like the [Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Philanthropies] and others, just to kind of get some feedback, to learn how they approach this work and how they staff it.

HC: Can you tell me a little bit about the interactions with the players?

MW: For many years now, we have had a social justice committee on the team that’s about six to eight players, the general manager, coaches and staff, as well as ourselves. We had conversations — prior to COVID, of course, in person. We shared our own backgrounds, in terms of being the children of Holocaust survivors and immigrants, and how important it is for our family to focus on tolerance and a better society. That’s always been important to us, as a foundation. And then we heard from the players, about the kind of backgrounds they grew up in. The locker room is a great microcosm. Those players come from every walk of American life, and also outside of America — all backgrounds and all ethnicities and religions. That kind of environment is a very close environment, a very bonded environment.

HC: After George Floyd’s death, what were those conversations like?

MW: Those conversations were very visceral and emotional for all of us. Certainly for many of our players, particularly African-American players. It was an eye-opener for me and for others to learn that the players might have played football at a junior high or high school where there might have been gun violence at the games. We learned about the interactions many players and coaches have had with the police. We’re very proud of the fact that the players really were the ones who decided where some of the funds were going. We’re trying to use the platform of professional athletics, which is highly powerful, to do our part for education, voter reform [and] policing reform.

HC: Switching to another area that I know is important to you — the federation system. Federations are not the “shiny new object” people tend to talk about in philanthropy, the thing that’s making headlines and getting everyone excited. What compels you about federation?

MW: Well, to use your words, I think if we’ve learned anything these past two years, it is that it’s not necessarily the shiny new objects that get you through the most challenging times. That’s why you need community. That’s why you need togetherness. And that’s why you need the kind of response that only a large network, like our federation system, can provide. It’s a network that’s really in many communities over a century old. It’s how Jewish life was built in North America.

When my parents came to America, they were sponsored by the Birmingham Jewish community in Alabama, and that’s where they went, in 1950. I grew up in a household where federation was very important to my parents and to our family. In high school, I was involved in the teen division. I went to Super Sunday with my dad. I welcomed Russian immigrants to new apartments in Elizabeth, N.J.

And I know, deep in my heart, that even though like you say, there are always shiny new objects on the scene, and there are wonderful Jewish organizations throughout North America, this is how we became a strong Jewish community, and that’s how we get through the difficult times, whether it be a war, a pandemic or the just day-to-day work of taking care of elderly survivors that are impoverished.

HC: Do you have any thoughts on the question why there are fewer “everyday donors” who contribute smaller amounts to charity?

MW: It’s a complex question. A lot of it is a function of Jewish education — not everyone has been exposed to the wonderful aspects of Jewish life, heritage and traditions. There’s a trend, I would say, throughout our country and not just in the Jewish community of “staying in your lane” versus being part of a community, a neighborhood, a federation. So from that standpoint, yes, we want more donors. And it takes a lot of work and creative thinking to get there.

During the pandemic, so many people in their 20s were a bit stuck in terms of their jobs and careers and studies. So the staff and leadership at JFNA took a shot on a program called “Changemakers” — a virtual fellowship. We had at least a thousand people do a three-week program in which they learned about themselves, and the community, and how they could engage. It’s engagement and activism. That’s the spirit of federation.

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