Ben-Gurion University SOS Campaign Rescues Students from Pandemic Hardship

By Doug Seserman

Israel’s universities began their academic year in the midst of the country’s second COVID-19 lockdown. Like most universities in the U.S., the pandemic forced classes in Israel to be taught remotely.

Some don’t realize that Israeli university students attend college following a minimum of two compulsory years of army service after high school. As a result, students are older than their U.S. counterparts. Many are married and have to work to fund their education and support their families. Unfortunately, the pandemic caused many students to lose their jobs. This put their ongoing studies and potential career trajectory in jeopardy.

Recognizing the sobering reality that students might have to postpone their education or even drop out, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU) in Beer-Sheva, Israel launched a unique campaign to respond to this “Mayday.”

BGU’s American-born president, Prof. Daniel Chamovitz, remembered vividly from his youth growing up in Aliquippa, Pennsylvania when the United Negro College Fund launched the famed campaign in the 1970s: “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.” He noted the similarity to BGU students’ situation and instinctively knew that something needed to be done. As a result, the SOS: Support Our Students campaign was launched to Save the Class of COVID-19, the only Israeli university to establish a call to help its students.

Israeli philanthropic causes, especially universities, are dependent on generous supporters from abroad. And, American Associates, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (AABGU) was privileged to help. In just three months, AABGU raised more than $3.8 million from 437 donors – nearly two-thirds of the $5.9 million raised worldwide to help Israeli students.

Under normal circumstances, this wouldn’t be easy. Working remotely and keeping the organization running via Zoom, while reaching out to donors – all of whom were preoccupied with their own health as well as the well-being of their extended families – was a significant challenge. But, as it turned out, our efforts and resultant success can serve as a roadmap for nonprofits on how to successfully pivot in order to raise money during uncertain times. Some of the keys to our success included:

Communicating a Tangible Need

In our case, it was obvious students really needed our help. Whether pursuing education in engineering, medicine, computer science, or political science, many of BGU’s 20,000 students faced both economic and emotional hardships. The University predicted that one of five BGU students was at risk of dropping out, while 70% faced an increased need for financial aid. We had the key data in place to justify the campaign and communicate it well.

Developing a Clear Campaign Strategy

In order to be successful, we needed a solid campaign plan. We developed a giving pyramid strategy that showed lead gifts were necessary in order to be successful. One unique approach we deployed was to create a “minyan” (Hebrew for a quorum of 10 people for prayer), 10 donors of $100,000+. The idea was that this generous group of donors would serve as a collective leadership gift. And, that is exactly how it played out.  In the end, we ended up raising $2.7 million of the $3.8 million from 12 extremely generous donors – all of whom wanted to be a part of this very special group.

Enlisting Volunteer Help

Like universities in the U.S, the majority of our dollars are raised from a small set of donors. Our professional staff handles the bulk of solicitations. In this campaign, however, we were able to recruit and partner with our volunteer lay leadership like never before. AABGU created an “SOS Campaign Cabinet” that had the responsibility to not only help get the word out, but also to solicit funds.

Expanding the Donor Base

While the majority of dollars came from a small set of donors, the focus on smaller donations fueled the campaign’s soul and gave it momentum. This required reaching out to our existing donor base as well as using the opportunity to attract new donors. We developed a multifaceted marketing approach that included email blasts, which featured a series of video interviews with students in need. Several students even participated in a webinar on the subject. The AABGU marketing team  developed a dedicated campaign website to highlight the urgency of the situation and track its progress via a campaign thermometer. Social media played a key role in virally spreading the message, and prospective donors were also contacted via a direct mail appeal.

Finally, the Campaign Ends and the Semester Begins

Since the fall semester opened in Israel in mid-October, the campaign has now drawn to a close. As a result of the steps taken, AABGU surpassed its original $3 million campaign goal and more than doubled our goal for the number of donors. Importantly, lay leadership took an active role in engaging friends and family to make donations. This newfound partnership between the professional staff and volunteer leadership is going to serve us very well into the future.

The most important success metric, beyond the dollars raised, is how the campaign was able to greatly benefit BGU students. Financial aid packages were provided to nearly 4,000 students – 20% of the student body. We were able to ensure that not one student dropped out or had to postpone their studies due to financial concerns. In fact, BGU actually saw a 12% increase in new student enrollment due in part to the SOS campaign effort success.

Throughout Israel’s turbulent 72-year history, American donors have come to Israel’s aid. They were called to respond during every time of need – through missile attacks and terrorism. However, the COVID-19 pandemic was and still is a special situation. It is one of the few times in Israel’s history when the philanthropic supporters abroad were undergoing some of the same issues as the recipients. Our ability at AABGU to navigate, perform and succeed during this pandemic was a true noteworthy accomplishment for our team. I’m personally very proud of our professionals and so grateful to our generous supporters.

 May the coming new year in 2021 bring a vaccine and return to the normalcy we all miss.  Until then, stay safe and healthy.

Doug Seserman is chief executive officer of American Associates, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and is based in New York City.