A Millenial Looks at Fundraising and the Jewish Community

by Ben Goldberg

When I considered my plans six months ago for the summer of 2011, I knew that I wanted to experience something new, to expand my knowledge of the nonprofit sector, and to develop core capabilities for my professional future. I had worked as a volunteer in nonprofits before, so I thought I knew how community organizations operated. Working for The EHL Consulting Group, the firm run by frequent eJewish Philanthropy contributors Robert Evans and Avrum Lapin that has broadly served the (primarily Jewish) nonprofit community for more than 20 years, I gained new and invaluable perspectives, hand-on experience, and exposure not accessible elsewhere. They invited me to share some reflections on what I learned from this experience and to offer some insights into where things stand from the viewpoint of a Millenial entering his senior year in college.

Most of all, I was struck by the size and scope of the Jewish charitable world. A study I conducted this summer found that only 80 Israel-focused organizations raised more than $700 million a year even at the height of the “Great Recession.” The combined budgets of every synagogue, Federation, and Jewish organization easily run into the billions of dollars, and I suspect that organized Jewish community’s share of American philanthropy exceeds the Jewish share of the population. Furthermore, there are still thousands of major donors who care about Jewish causes and, with proper messaging and motivation, will support worthy Jewish causes. So, I have come to ignore the alarmists who predict the imminent demise of the Jewish nonprofit sector. There is plenty of money out there, and sophisticated and thoughtful fundraising methods can enable Jewish organizations to successfully compete for their piece of the pie.

Nonetheless, I do worry about the long-term sustainability of the Jewish communal enterprise because of generational shifts happening before our eyes. My generation will not necessary prioritize Jewish and Israeli causes as did our parents and grandparents. These causes will have to get in line with the environmental, medical, social justice and political causes my peers care about, making sophisticated and compelling fundraising techniques all the more important. Despite this challenge, I am confident that many, if not most, Jewish organizations will be able to hold their own in the future.

Likewise, I was inspired by the generosity of the dedicated volunteer leaders and workers in countless organizations who invest wealth, wisdom and work to make the sector run. I have learned that the most important and most challenging part of any successful campaign is securing energetic, dedicated and competent volunteer leadership that can confidently inspire others to give or themselves and their resources. As the fundraising mantra goes, “people give to people.” I was especially struck by the individuals with major business and personal obligations who nonetheless spend significant valuable time, even during the workday, helping their favorite nonprofit organizations.

I also experienced how advancements in technology have impacted fundraising. Today, with nothing more than a name and address, a fundraiser can access all sorts of public information about a donor. With the Internet and databases like WealthEngine and the Foundation Directory Online, there is no excuse for not investing in donor research that will help assess a donor’s charitable priorities and capacity. Likewise, Internet-based donor management software helps organizations record and analyze giving and manage its relationship with every donor. Information technology has revolutionized fundraising, and these software packages are a worthwhile investment for any organization.

I also learned two important ways of thinking about fundraising. The first is that fundraising does not exist independently of the organization’s program. Especially for community-based Jewish organizations like synagogues, Hillels and Federations, the more value the organization adds to the lives of its participant-donors, the easier it will be for that organization to appeal to that community for support. Fundraising should be not treated as a necessary evil that goes on in the background, but rather as a core part of an organization’s strategy and relationship with its extended “family.” All professionals and volunteers should realize that to some extent fundraising is part of their job, just as sales is to some extent everyone’s job in a business. Conversely, fundraisers should realize that even the most sophisticated fundraising techniques will not work if the organization does not actually effect change and accomplish its mission.

The other important concept is that fundraising is an opportunity, not a request. Organizations that approach donors hat-in-hand, begging for support with desperation or alarmist rhetoric, will not succeed. Donors will respond more favorably to an opportunity to accomplish something they find important in the world. This implies that the organization should appreciate the values and priorities of donors, and be interested, not interesting, when engaging with them. In other words, the focus – within your organization’s mission – should be on the donor’s wants, not the organization’s needs.

Overall, this summer has been an eye-opening experience in the world of professional fundraising and Jewish institutional life. I am left with the impression of a vibrant and diverse Jewish philanthropic scene, and I look forward to staying involved as a lay leader and professional.

(As college students return to campuses across the globe, we, at EHL Consulting, said farewell to our summer intern, Ben Goldberg. For ten weeks, Ben joined our team and interacted with a variety of nonprofit agencies and tackled a number of assignments for our clients and our firm. As the preceding commentary reflects, this was an eye-opening ten weeks. Robert Evans and Avrum Lapin)

Ben Goldberg was the Summer Intern at EHL Consulting. He is a senior studying History and Jewish Studies at Northwestern University, and is the president of Northwestern Hillel.