An Innovative Approach to a Funding Challenge: Engaging Young Donors through a Unique Giving Circle

Sixth&IBy Libi Baehr

Sixth & I was recently selected to receive matching funds from the Jewish Funders Network’s Avenues to Jewish Engagement for Intermarried Couples and their Families Initiative. Our Jewish education classes, including our popular Interfaith Couples Workshop, are among the 28 projects from seven countries that will receive funds from this matching grant program.

When the Jewish Funders Network announced the opportunity, Sixth & I knew that we were uniquely poised to leverage these funds. Due to the guidelines of the grant application, however, we initially struggled to identify a new, single donor to ask for the $25,000 funds to be matched. Our staff, in collaboration with a Sixth & I class alumnus, designed an innovative solution to this challenge by harnessing the collective giving power of those most impacted by Sixth & I programs: other community members and class alumni.

Sixth & I’s suite of Jewish education programs provides participants with unique and deeply meaningful experiences. We empower young Jews, many of whom are just beginning their Jewish journey or are in interfaith relationships, to take ownership over their Jewish identities while helping develop them into the Jewish community leaders of tomorrow. From our signature Interfaith Couples Workshop, now in its 17th cohort, to our intensive, 31-week Jewish Welcome Workshop course, and our two-night skills-based class series What it Takes, all of our offerings are highly personalized, substantive, and inclusive.

When David Adelman and his wife, Melissa, completed Sixth & I’s Interfaith Couples Workshop, they knew they wanted to find a way to give back. “Having the chance to connect with and learn from similar couples was priceless,” David shared. He knew that his enthusiasm for Sixth & I was shared by so many; he would eventually channel that excitement into an organized campaign, raising tens of thousands of dollars.

As an alumnus of our interfaith programs, David understood the impact additional funding would have on allowing us to provide new couples with the same meaningful experiences he and his wife had enjoyed years before. He proposed a unique solution to the challenge of getting the initial $25,000 secured: create a giving circle comprised of alumni and community members whose lives had been changed by Sixth & I’s programs, but whom had never been asked to participate philanthropically in our community’s future. If enough people participated, we would be able to collectively raise amount required to apply for matching funds. “I was optimistic the circle was going to succeed,” David said. “I knew others in the community were touched by Sixth & I like I was and that they would donate or raise whatever they could.”

In collaboration with Sixth & I staff, David helped develop a flexible giving circle program where participants could make meaningful gifts that worked for them – donors could choose to pledge a gift that was fulfilled in monthly or bi-monthly donations, or could participate by crowd-funding their pledge from family and friends. The results of this initiative have been inspiring. 30 couples and individuals pledged their support, collectively raising $27,000 in support of our Jewish education programs. Of the 30 giving circle members, 80% are in their 20s and 30s, and most are alumni of our classes for interfaith couples. Some participants requested that in lieu of wedding gifts, friends and family donate towards their pledge. Another community member crowd-funded her giving circle contribution, raising over $1,000 from friends and family through an online page she created and managed herself.

Though many giving circle members have participated in Sixth & I course offerings, Shabbat services, and holiday celebrations, the overwhelming majority had never before given a gift to Sixth & I. We learned that without guiding principles or objectives, giving can feel haphazard, random, and insignificant. Having a connection that guides philanthropic participation is one aspect of how giving circles answer the challenges of reactive giving, as outlined in the Amplifier and eJewish Philanthropy giving circle’s series.  Giving circles empower members to give in a way that is intentional and amplified. In our giving circle, for example, while some members gave only $500, they were contributing towards an eventual pool of over $25,000 – funds that will have a profound impact on our programs and the communities we serve. The giving circle also provides a platform for continued engagement – as it brings together alumni from different Sixth & I courses, the circle also provides opportunities for participants to create a community of new and existing peers, as well as a way to meaningfully engage with the program after “graduation.”

In addition to raising needed funds for our education programs, this initiative taught us the importance of engaging our young community philanthropically. A recent Millennial Impact Report  of more than 6,500 people aged 20-35 shows that, while 75% of them donated to a nonprofit in the year prior, almost 60% reported that their largest contribution was $100 or less. Our giving circle donors all gave well over this – with a minimum gift of $500 – positioning them to grow as true philanthropic leaders of the next generation.

When fundraising, it’s easy to fall into the habit of focusing on high-capacity donors who can underwrite entire programs on their own. However, through our Giving Circle, we have affirmed the value of including those whose heart is closest to our work – and whose gifts are rich in meaning and value, and whose engagement continues to grow. Guided by the Jewish values of tzedakah and chesed, Sixth & I’s giving circle offers a small glimpse into what the future of Jewish philanthropic giving can be: intentional, community-driven, and proactive. As David shared: “tapping into the enthusiasm and common bonds of people who have been impacted by an organization is absolutely a model that can be replicated anywhere.”

Libi Baehr is the Development Associate at Sixth & I Historic Synagogue, an inclusive, non-denominational, and non-membership Jewish community in downtown Washington, DC.