Jonathan Schilit, 37, loves the creativity of building things. Combine that with his passion for philanthropy, and it is no wonder the financial adviser from Bethesda dreamed up a network, cleverly infused with Jewish themes, to help people engage in the mitzvah of charitable giving in an affordable and convenient way.
Righteous Crowd is a “micro-giving” platform. Members sign up to donate as little as $1 per day, and each week the funds are distributed to a different organization. Launched in 2019, its 200 members have donated about $140,000 so far, according to Schilit. “In a perfect world,” Schilit says, “we’re targeting people ages 24 to 45, the younger people who are like, ‘Hey, I might be able afford a dollar a day, and I care about tzedakah and about small organizations that are doing cool things, but I really don’t want to spend the time researching them.’”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You and your wife, Jenna, are raising three children under the age of 7, and you have a day job to boot. How do you have time to create and run a charity as, to use your expression, a side hustle?
I always wanted to do this, but I didn’t think that I was going to have the capacity to do all of this — researching multiple organizations every week to get to an ultimate winner of the week, reaching out and doing the interviews with the reps from the organizations, facilitating getting them the donations. I have three little kids right now and my job, and I couldn’t carve out enough time to do it right.
I have two younger sisters, and my youngest sister Amy [Benarroch] is into this kind of stuff with me. Home since the birth of her own baby, she deals with the day to day heavy lifting of researching the organizations, facilitating the donations, putting the weekly email together, et cetera. My mom [Diane Schilit] and I do most of the marketing, growth and reaching out to people for partnerships. But it’s a side hustle for all of us.
Even when Righteous Crowd chooses a non-Jewish organization to support, you say “we always draw the Jewish out of it.” What does that mean?
We choose among Jewish and non-Jewish organizations focused on helping people in need. So if it’s around Sukkot, we’re going to fund an organization that works around homelessness; if it’s Passover, we’re going to give to a modern anti-slavery organization. We always try to connect it Jewishly somehow. Every Friday we send out an email to our members saying: Here’s what’s going on Jewishly this week, whether it’s from the Torah portion or an upcoming holiday. Here’s a social justice theme from that Jewish story. And here’s an organization that’s relevant to that theme that you supported.
There are deeply established institutions engaged in philanthropy on a massive scale. What is the significance of small platforms, like yours and others, for engaging in charity?
I like building things, starting things. On my “To Start” list, I wrote down years ago “Federation competitor.” I’m from a Federation family, I’m involved in Federation, I’m not
anti-Federation; but I think there are other ways to connect to young people, beyond big donors or big events. Righteous Crowd is intentionally easy and passive; you sign up once, and you get the emails but you could never do anything again and still be a really big user. You can be a little bit lazy, a little bit apathetic, and still care enough to participate in supporting these organizations.
Tzedakah doesn’t need to be hard, and it doesn’t need to be scary.
But Righteous Crowd does engage in partnerships with local institutions. What do those look like?
We did something with Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville [Schilit’s alma mater] when the eighth-graders had a unit on tzedakah. I went in and talked to them, and then they had the assignment over a couple weeks to research organizations and ultimately choose the organization we were going to support and write up the blurb about it. At B’nai Israel Congregation [in Rockville], the students undergoing confirmation classes are receiving free six-month subscriptions to Righteous Crowd.
We’re doing different things to get young people into tzedakah.
What advice do you have for any budding philanthropreneurs reading this?
It can be very sexy sometimes to start things, but don’t want to start things just for the sake of starting things. You want to start something to solve a problem, and in an area that has something to do with you, that you are passionate about.
First see if there are other people working in that arena that are being really successful, and if there are ways to partner there or volunteer there or work there. If you really can’t find the exact solution you’re looking for, don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty and don’t be afraid to start small. You don’t need to start a huge organization to create meaningful impact.