Aaron Saxe

When I was a young teenager, my grandparents set up a donor advised fund (like a personal philanthropic bank account) for each of their six grandchildren. This approach to engaging the next generation in family philanthropy served a dual purpose for my grandparents.

Location: San Francisco, California

Profession: Program Officer, Jim Joseph Foundation

What was the first charitable gift you ever gave?

My earliest memory of giving back was taking a quarter to Sunday School each week to put in the tzedakah (Hebrew word meaning righteousness or justice but commonly used to mean charity) box. It’s a small gift and I was way too young to really appreciate what it meant but I believe that it set a very early foundation for me on the importance of philanthropy. The tzedakah box was an important part of my family’s life as well – at Rosh Hashanah dinner at my grandparent’s house, each member of the extended family would contribute to the tzedakah box and we would then have a conversation about where the money should be sent that year. This practice opened my eyes to a number of causes and organizations worthy of support.

Your deeper introduction to philanthropy came about in an interesting way. Tell us how: 

When I was a young teenager, my grandparents set up a donor advised fund (like a personal philanthropic bank account) for each of their six grandchildren. This approach to engaging the next generation in family philanthropy served a dual purpose for my grandparents. First, it was a way to introduce their grandchildren to philanthropy in a meaningful way. They were 100% hands off, allowing us the opportunity to identify causes of importance to us, conduct our due diligence on potential recipients, and then eventually make our gifts. Second, it was a way to deepen the connection between my brothers and cousins. Half of the money we allocated each year was to be pooled among the six of us and sent to a charity we mutually agreed upon. This brought us together each year to share what we were interested in, debate different perspectives, learn from each other’s unique life experiences, and eventually decide on a recipient. Over the years we have supported causes in education, hunger, Judaism, global crises, social issues, Israel, and more. This practice continues today. I credit this innovative approach by my grandparents as one of the main reasons that I have made philanthropy a meaningful part of my adult life, both personally and professionally.

You currently work in the philanthropic sector. Tell us how you made that decision:

Most people who give back their time or money do so in their private lives while holding “regular” jobs. I started that way too. I quickly learned that some of the jobs I had were not personally fulfilling. This can work for many but I realized not for me. I felt the need to marry my personal passions with my career. Two of these passions are Judaism and philanthropy. So, a few years ago I took a Philanthropic Advisor position at the San Francisco Jewish Community Federation and recently joined the Jim Joseph Foundation as Program Officer. I have been fortunate to have had a number of great jobs in my career but I have never been as genuinely excited to come to work each day as I am now.

What does the Jim Joseph Foundation do?

The mission of the Jim Joseph Foundation is to foster compelling, effective Jewish learning experiences for young Jews with a vision of more young Jews engaging in ongoing Jewish learning and choosing to live vibrant Jewish lives. Jewish learning can occur in many ways and in a variety of settings. Therefore, the Jim Joseph Foundation invests in initiatives that support Jewish camps, Israel trips, educator training, college programs, Jewish day schools, programs for families with young children, and much more. My portfolio covers a broad spectrum of our work, including a number of our Jewish camping grants. I am particularly excited to work on these projects as I credit my own summers at Jewish sleepaway camp as the primary reason for making Judaism an important part of my life.

What’s your day like?

I would simplify the job into three categories. First, is my own education on what is happening in the field of Jewish education. What are the new, exciting projects? What organizations are leading them? How is the field changing and evolving? Becoming an expert in the field enables a program officer to better identify and recommend grants. Next is shepherding prospective grantees through the proposal process to ensure that they are making a strong case for funding. Last is monitoring grants once they have been awarded. This plays out in many ways but includes check-in calls, reviewing of reports, site visits, and more.

Can you share a personal story about your work?

One of the best parts of the job is the opportunity to meet the people who benefit from the support of the Foundation. From afar, it’s easy to understand the strong outcomes the Foundation helps to achieve, but seeing it firsthand brings it to life in a way that cannot be done through reports or phone conversations. I was fortunate to experience this over the summer when I visited three camps that were launched as part of the Foundation’s Specialty Camp Incubator grant made to the Foundation for Jewish Camp. Nine new Jewish specialty camps have been launched as part of this initiative, blending specialties like sports, entrepreneurship, outdoor adventure, environmental responsibility, and more with Jewish learning experiences. Each camp has seen a year over year increase in enrollment, bringing new campers to Jewish camping when they otherwise would have chosen other summer programs. The outcomes are clear. But nothing confirms the outcomes like seeing campers enthusiastically building robots or designing video games, dancing in the dining hall as they sing their camp song, eagerly introducing me to their cooking instructor, or just watching campers laughing together in their cabins. Seeing for myself how the Jim Joseph Foundation grant impacts the lives and Jewish identifies of so many is irreplaceable.

Who inspires you to give?

Without question, my family, specifically my grandparents and parents, are directly responsible for me making philanthropy an important part of my life. Not only did they provide the initial motivation (and funding) to engage in philanthropy in a meaningful way but the real inspiration really just stems from seeing the way they lead their lives. My family took a “show don’t tell” approach. I can’t recall any major conversation where I was told why giving back is important. Instead, I observed my dad giving back his time in significant ways by serving on many local boards and as president of our synagogue. I saw my grandparents make major gifts and provide community leadership and service. It would have been impossible to grow up in my family and not take away a significant commitment to giving back.

How has becoming a father impacted your thoughts on philanthropy?

Until recently, my philanthropy was influenced by my family upbringing and my personal interests. Now that I have a family of my own, I have adjusted my approach where my wife and I determine what our mutual interests are and how we as a family want to approach philanthropy. My wife brought her own background and interests, which allows us to have impact in new ways. Of course, it will be important to teach my son the importance of giving back. I hope to show him the way as much as much parents and grandparents did for me.


Julia Levy, Founder, has a decade of development experience, including working for a philanthropist, a small nonprofit and now a large nonprofit. She has raised significant dollars for numerous causes, from education to religion and from donors of all ages. Julia holds a Certificate in Fundraising from NYU’s Heyman Center for Philanthropy and an undergraduate degree from Cornell University. Julia has taught fundraising workshops, most recently at Brooklyn Brainery and coached development professionals.

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Why We Give tells stories of ordinary philanthropists, making a difference, dollar by dollar and hour by hour.  

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