Developing a Next Generation of Donors Means Building a Community of DIYers
By Erik Levis
To get a sense of how big Jewish fundraising organizations can better galvanize the next generation of Jewish leaders and donors, try looking at what’s happening in – of all places – the cosmetics industry.
Cosmetics? Hold on, I’ll get to that in a moment.
First, when we talk about the “next generation” in the Jewish community, we have to frame the conversation within the context of larger cultural trends. And that means, for example, marrying research from the 2013 Pew report on Jewish Americans and the 2014 Millennial Impact Report.
What we discover is that American Jews aren’t living in a vacuum in the U.S. Those born after the late 70s are continuing to trend away from traditional labels about their religion and identity – just like non-Jewish Americans. And, like other Americans, they’re among the flagbearers shifting our culture toward a place where people demand more transparency from, and more personal engagement with, institutions they interact with. The “top-down” model is dying quickly, replaced by a new system where people, in various ways, are taking the reigns themselves (think how customers or activists use Twitter). And young people are the gold standard for how to leverage that model into success, both in philanthropy and business.
So, with that said, let’s get back to eyeliner and lip gloss.
Certainly, you know the Lauder family and the invaluable contributions it has made to cosmetics and fashion, and the worldwide Jewish community. But do you know who Michelle Phan is? If you don’t, find a teenage girl to ask. You’ll be blown away.
Michelle is the face of a new movement in cosmetics and business. She’s a digital pioneer who has revolutionized the way young people interact with fashion and makeup brands by creating a community where millions of loyal followers (she calls them “dreamers”) watch and learn from her simple and unpretentious YouTube makeup tutorials. Michelle doesn’t rely on brands to tell her how to best create a “look;” she does it herself. And the response to that approachable authenticity has been massive. Her YouTube channel, alone, has more than 7.6 million subscribers.
But what’s most impressive is the way she’s monetized this model to create a mini empire. For example, Ipsy, Michelle’s beauty sampling service – which relies on a steady stream of feedback and data from her community to improve products – will generate $200 million this year. That’s off a $3 million investment.
Michelle represents the Do-It-Yourself (DIY) business revolution that major Jewish organizations should pay attention to if they want to stay relevant, speak the language of prospective young Jewish donors, and eventually get them to donate.
This trendy DIY model is not new in our world; the explosion of Jewish DIYers has changed how we look at organizational structures, funding, and innovation. You only need to ask the folks at ROI, and specifically Justin Korda, who recently had great insights on this issue.
But these new Jewish communal entrepreneurs are still operating, mostly, at a boutique level where there is more flexibility and less entrenched thinking. Incorporating that DIY spirit into “the big boys” is a legitimate challenge; major fundraising organizations tend not to expend resources seeding initiatives that don’t generate immediate revenue, like young leadership. And while young leadership/NextGen programs might build great brand ambassadors (which, to a marketer like me, is gold), they’re not strategic priorities for the short-term.
But the DIY culture opens up a backdoor; it activates people while raising immediate funds and, when done correctly, doesn’t require constant professional oversight or large budgets.
At my organization, American Friends of Magen David Adom (AFMDA), we’ve engineered a mechanism that emboldens DIYers and leverages their inherent drive, motivation to affect change, and need to create. AFMDA’s Heartbeat community gives people (of any age) the freedom to develop their own events and campaigns to benefit Magen David Adom and its mission of saving lives in Israel. And just as Michelle Phan offers her followers a platform for interaction, Heartbeat offers its innovators opportunities to learn from each other’s events and experiences; a blend of DIY and communal exchange. It’s, essentially, open-source philanthropy.
Our system, which contemporizes Americans’ legacy of grass-roots support for MDA, works. Lior Tamir, chair of San Francisco’s Heartbeat committee, saw his first event raise $30,000. Our Heartbeat group in Los Angeles raised more than $65,000 from an event following our annual LA gala, and members, led by Miriam Eshaghian, are now revving up an online campaign – matched 2-to-1 by an anonymous donor who wants to see NextGen types step up – to raise $100,000 for a new MDA ambulance. New York’s Alexander Gruenstein led a Run/Walk that raised nearly $8,000. Other events such as art gallery tours and bar outings have raised smaller, but not insignificant, amounts. And all of these people are talking to each other in an effort to collaborate on ideas and raise the bar (and funds).
Heartbeat succeeds by embracing the intersection where support for Israel meets the ambitions of today’s young people. The model starts with a “bottom-up” approach, but we take it a step further. As “co-creators” in Heartbeat, AFMDA and DIYers are partners in building something communal, self-sustaining, and organically-grown. And we emphasize transparency, acknowledging each other’s strengths and limitations and working around those confines (e.g. Heartbeat has virtually no budget to offer, and its volunteer members have careers and obligations). Honesty, something young people are looking for from the brands and organizations they associate with, has helped drive Heartbeat forward.
So while the future of some young leadership and alumni initiatives may seem tenuous, let’s look to another way. Big fundraising organizations have an opportunity to activate young donors by welcoming the concept of a DIY community and by embracing the wider social trends that young American Jews are increasingly part of. But, these days, following through on that kind of facelift means looking a lot more like Michelle Phan.
Erik Levis is AFMDA’s director of public relations and Heartbeat’s national director. A former network news and TV producer, he has worked and/or volunteered in New York’s Jewish young professional community for the last 12 years.