Can a Start Up’s Fundraising Model Work for a Legacy Organization?

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By Daniel S. Horwitz

One of the core questions often asked of successful Jewish innovation sector start-ups is whether their methods are adaptable to, or might be able to serve as a meaningful template for, our community’s legacy organizations. And yet, as a result of these two segments of our Jewish ecosystem largely being siloed, it seems all-too-infrequent that opportunities present themselves to test out various approaches. Thankfully, in our case, one of the major reasons the Alper JCC in Miami chose to hire someone from the start-up / innovation sector as its new CEO was to do just that.

You may recall an article published in eJewishPhilanthropy almost 2 years ago, highlighting The Well’s success in fundraising from young adults in Metro Detroit. In each of the past two years, The Well, Metro Detroit’s inclusive Jewish community building, education and spirituality initiative tailored to the needs of young adults and young families, has run a 3-day crowdfunding campaign called #BuildTheWell, ending up with north of 350 donations from young adults and young couples each time, and raising over $100,000 each time as well. 

The Alper JCC, despite having an over 30-year history, has had no meaningful and intentional invitation to those that love and have benefited from the organization to invest in it. With a staff of more than 70 and an annual budget north of $7 million, the agency did not have an annual campaign, instead relying on a number of smaller fundraising events throughout the year, and functioning overwhelmingly as a fee-for-service institution.  

Could a 30-year-old legacy institution in Miami that serves an intergenerational population adopt the best multi-day crowdfunding campaign practices from a young adult focused start-up in a mid-sized rustbelt community and find similar success?

Fortunately, the Alper JCC was primed to experiment, as already in past years, for one day each November, The Miami Foundation has hosted a daylong event known as “Give Miami Day.” On that day, organizations receive a 6% match for every donation that comes in, along with additional potential cash prizes for most overall donations and the like. This year, courtesy of COVID, The Miami Foundation decided to allow for 3 days of “early giving” – meaning that the opportunity now existed to craft a 4-day campaign.

On Give Miami Day last year, the Alper JCC received 72 donations, totaling $37,000.

This year, knowing the campaign would last for four days, and knowing that a culture of donating annually to our largely fee-for-service agency had not yet been meaningfully established, an ambitious goal of 360 unique donors was set, which we hoped would also total at least $50,000 – both of which felt like Big Hairy Audacious Goals given the current COVID moment.

It’s worth noting that despite very real COVID financial challenges, our organizational focus was on running a breadth campaign of securing as many donations as possible, rather than a depth campaign focusing on securing the largest dollar amount possible, with the goal of establishing a foundation from which we’ll be able to build relationships with and grow the investment of those who donate this year in the years to come.

Some of the Alper JCC campaign practices adopted from The Well included:

·      Crafting a 2-month deadlines calendar leading up to the campaign;

·      Having the 4 days mapped out, in terms of scheduled social media posts across platforms, emails, volunteer times, language to easily have board members copy and paste into email, text, Facebook and phone messages, etc.;

·      Lining up social media ambassadors who received texts inviting them to Like, Comment, and Share select posts during the 4 days in order to help give them a “boost” across social media platforms;

·      Recording and editing video testimonials from participants to be shared during the campaign; 

·      Posting personalized messages of gratitude to Facebook for each donation that came in and a personal relationship existed with one of our staff, volunteers or board members (a different kind of donor wall, if you will); 

·      Utilizing a sophisticated Google Docs spreadsheet to track donations as they came in; and

·      Preparing personalized, handwritten Thank You notes for every single donor.

In addition, four tactics were utilized in this campaign specifically that were well-suited to a legacy organization serving an intergenerational population (some of whom on the more seasoned end generationally are less comfortable with social media), and that would not have been possible at The Well:

·      We spent weeks compiling spreadsheets of former members, campers, nursery schoolers and the like, data mining as best we could, ultimately coming up with a list of thousands of potential donors to reach out to;

·      We signed up with a “text to give” company, in order to make giving as easy as possible, because unlike The Well, the Alper JCC keeps records of cellphone numbers;

·      We invited staff and ambassadors who had grown up at the J to post photos of themselves with the individuals they were thanking on social media whenever possible, brightening up newsfeeds and playing hard on the nostalgia factor; and

·      We made sure to have volunteers and staff make a significant number of phone calls to potential donors who may not have been users of social media or email, inviting them to invest as well.

Also important was finding ways to have fun with it! As we hit 270 donations on Day 3, I took a camp-style whipped cream pie in the face for all to see. Once we (spoiler alert) hit our target of 360 on the afternoon of Day 4, a number of staff (and the president of the board!) jumped into the pool with our clothes on. 

In the end, over four days, utilizing The Well’s crowdfunding approach and adapting it modestly to meet the needs of our legacy institution, the Alper JCC secured 463 donations, totaling over $62,000 – well surpassing our initial goals.

After months of managing crises, furloughs and layoffs, Miami becoming the COVID center of the country and more, this was an incredible chance to bring our team together (which we did literally – outdoors, masked, and socially distant – to write 463 handwritten, personalized thank you notes), and as a result, staff morale is at an incredible high.

Key takeaways:

·      Models that work in start-up settings not only can work in legacy settings, but have the ability to be enhanced courtesy of nostalgia, databases, and long-term relationships;

·      Some of the tech-savvy techniques used to connect with young adults in the innovation space will likely need to be modified to connect with more seasoned populations;

·      Personal relationships are key! A core part of getting people excited about donating to an agency that historically has been viewed as transactional / fee-for-service was reminding them of the personal connections and ties they’ve forged and continue to have here; and

·      Sometimes organizational goals, such as building a meaningful and substantive annual campaign, need a couple of years to take root and grow, and in an initial approach, breadth can indeed be just as, if not more important, than depth. 

On a personal note, it was incredibly humbling, just six months into this new role and with very few personal relationships in the area myself courtesy of COVID, to be able to witness my team dive in and take ownership of the relationship-first pieces of the campaign. In Detroit, I was the primary face of The Well and was thus responsible for much of the outreach and invitations to invest. In Miami, I’m still relatively unknown – but my team is on the front lines day in and day out building community during COVID, and I couldn’t be prouder of them.

If we can be at all helpful to any of eJP’s readers as you look to build similar style campaigns for your organizations, please don’t hesitate to reach out to us – we want to help!

Wishing all a healthy, festive and illuminating Chanukah!

Rabbi Dan Horwitz is the CEO of Alper JCC Miami, and was the founding director of The Well, a nationally recognized Jewish community-building, education, and spirituality outreach initiative in Metro Detroit geared to the needs of young adults and young families. Designated one of America’s Most Inspiring Rabbis by The Forward, Dan is a graduate of the Clergy Leadership Incubator housed at Hazon, the Open Dor Project fellowship for spiritual entrepreneurs, the ELI Talks Fellowship, is part of ROI Community, and is a hummus enthusiast. He can be reached at