Candy, Content and Competition – Why the UJA-Federation of New York Keeps Breaking Fundraising Records

The New York federation just broke another fundraising record, announcing Tuesday that its Wall Street division had raised $23 million in 2012. How does it do it? eJewish Philanthropy asked the federation’s head of financial resource development Mark Medin.

by Haviv Rettig Gur

Poker chips stacked neatly on green felt, a line at the open bar that never shrinks, a colorful candy buffet and gourmet corn dogs served by tuxedoed waiters.

It’s how the UJA-Federation of New York does business.

The federation, North America’s largest Jewish communal philanthropy, held its annual Wall Street fundraiser at the Midtown Manhattan Hilton on Monday night, a show of prestige that had The New York Times gushing: “Wall Street Titans Toast Philanthropy at UJA-Federation Dinner.”

Mayor and preeminent Wall Streeter Michael Bloomberg, billionaire hedge fund manager (who recently gave $100 million to the Central Park Conservancy) John Paulson, outgoing Morgan Stanley investment head Paul Taubman, former Bear Stearns chief executive Alan “Ace” Greenberg, billionaire founder of Och-Ziff Capital Management Daniel Och, and on and on; 1,500 attendees in all, with a few dozen “titans” seated on the dais and hundreds of aspiring young finance professionals ogling their honoree bosses from the back tables.

The dinner wasn’t just about raising the money needed for today. It was equally – and perhaps even more so – about making sure Wall Street’s commitment to philanthropy, particularly among Jews, continues unabated for another generation.

One of the evening’s two honorees, Robert Kapito of the BlackRock asset management firm (the other was Saba Capital Management founder Boaz Weinstein), recalled vividly the very first UJA-Federation dinner he had attended decades before. He was an ambitious young banker sitting at the back tables but yearning to be up on the dais, a spot he felt was reserved for only the most respected business leaders and philanthropists.

At that dinner long ago, he remembered, a microphone was passed around so each attendee could publicly announce their gift to the federation. First came “Ace” Greenberg, famed former chairman of Bear Stearns, who announced a gift of $1 million – “back when a million dollars was real money,” Kapito quipped. “You could cut the tension with a knife as the microphone got closer and closer to your table,” he said to laughter from the older members of the audience and a nervous quiet from the young.

After the elegant dinner, the young professionals were invited to an “after-party” in a Hilton ballroom. The theme: a night at the casino. The attraction: burgers and corn dogs, free whiskey and wine, and each other. It was, said one young banker at a card table, one of the better singles events on his social calendar.

At the conclusion of Monday’s event, it was not surprising to learn the Wall Street campaign had raised $23 million for UJA-Federation’s work, a new record. The last Wall Street record was last year’s $22 million, and before that 2007’s $21.6 million. Record-breaking fundraising has become something of a habit for the federation, which often posts year-on-year records, and not just on Wall Street.

And that begs the question: When it comes to fundraising, particularly at a time when many charities and even fellow federations are struggling in a difficult economy, what is UJA-Federation doing right?

To try to answer that question, eJewish Philanthropy spoke with Mark Medin, the federation’s senior vice president for financial resource development, about what it takes to raise philanthropic dollars on Wall Street. (UJA-Federation works in many sectors of the Jewish and New York community, but an examination of the entire spectrum of the organization’s fundraising would be very long indeed.)

Before any other factor, Medin says, “the underlying and fundamental product that UJA-Federation represents resonates very deeply with the Jewish community.” That product: “a sense of collective responsibility for those Jews we know and those Jews we don’t know, helping Jews in poverty, helping Holocaust survivors, inspiring kids to go to Israel, helping kids go to camp in the former Soviet Union.”

But clearly a good product isn’t everything, eJP insisted. Many nonprofits support worthy causes or needy populations and are doing rather less well in fundraising.

He won’t speak about other organizations, Medin says, but offers a glimpse into what the federation seems to do better than most: the donor experience. That experience has become the obsession of federation fundraisers.

“We’re moving from transaction-based fundraising – fill a table or sell a journal ad – to transformational fundraising – engaging the donor in something that is transformational for the donor,” Medin begins.

How? First, by “working in a strategic way to imbue content in what we do.”

Thus, for example, the last meeting of the “Wall Street strategic council,” a group of lay leaders that oversees the federation’s Wall Street fundraising, heard from board member Eric Goldstein about his visit two days earlier to the Gaza periphery region in southern Israel.

Goldstein gave “a firsthand report of what he experienced in Israel and what our federation is doing.”

“Every single meeting we have with lay leaders, every committee meeting, has some aspect of that. Instead of a committee meeting where you’re talking about the color of napkins and food on the menu and number of journal pages you’ve sold, which are all important for fundraising,” federation fundraisers focus on “having them understand the return on investment, the impact of philanthropy.”

Another example: Monday night’s two honorees Weinstein and Kapito, and in fact “every single person we honor at a dinner,” have to commit “to going out and visiting at least one [federation beneficiary] agency so they can see the impact of the dollars.”

While content is king, federation staff are also keenly aware of donors’ and lay leaders’ time constraints.

It’s critical to “use their time appropriately, particularly in today’s high-intensity world, and utilize them in an effective manner,” insists Medin.

For example, the federation’s Wall Street division is chaired by Larry Robbins, founder and chief executive of “one of the major hedge funds in New York,” Glenview Capital Management. “We have four meetings a year of the Wall Street strategic council,” says Medin. “It’s much more convenient for Larry to run the meeting if we do it at his office. He doesn’t have to waste time commuting to our building.” The federation sends out a schedule at the beginning of the year of all four meetings to make sure they’re on the lay leaders’ schedules many months in advance.

“Meetings are focused, with a real agenda, impactful. We’re asking for real advice, so people feel the meeting is useful and a productive use of their time. If the meeting is nareshkeit [foolishness] and fluff, they won’t come back to the next meeting. If they don’t come to the next meeting, they’re less likely to come to the dinner and bring young associates. And then you don’t have young leadership.”

Engaging lay leaders can be “very challenging,” Medin notes. It requires a level of professionalism and seriousness that could make the difference between a strong board and rising income, and detached lay leaders and declining fundraising.

Beyond engaging donors with the organization, it is crucial to engage donors with each other. The federation knows – and displayed that knowledge vividly at the Wall Street dinner – that philanthropy is a social activity. People feel connected to causes and organizations that become part of their social or professional circles.

“A strong leadership inspires and encourages others to give,” Medin explains, “so we’re really focusing and engaging leadership in an intense way.”

The deeper one delves into UJA-Federation fundraising, the clearer that social element becomes. For example, Dan Och, the famous hedge fund manager, announced a $1.3 million challenge grant this year, an increase from last year’s $1 million grant, to match increases in gifts by other major donors, particularly donors under 45.

“When one of the most respected people in the Wall Street community says that, and we put that out to our donors, it inspires our donors to say, ‘If Dan is putting that out, we have an obligation too.’ Hundreds and hundreds of young people want to give partly because Dan Och is such an icon, and that leadership is an inspiring thing to see,” says Medin.

The Och challenge was filled a month ago, leading fellow hedge fund manager John Paulson to announce an additional $500,000 to continue the match. “And we’re close to fulfilling that match, too,” says Medin.

Success, like failure, is often a spiral. UJA-Federation does not see the gift as the end of the process, but as its beginning. Each gift inspires the next, and the seeds for today’s gifts were sown long before.

To turn that understanding into real-world policies means having the right staff with the right set of skills and knowledge. Focus on content, understand the social nature of philanthropy, and train your staff – Medin’s three pillars of philanthropic success.

The list of initiatives paints a clear picture that staff training is crucial to fundraising. “In this business so much revolves around the knowledge base that this staff has. Once a month we have training sessions for the entire fundraising staff,” Medin explains, “from the fundraiser who’s been here for one week to those who’ve been for 25 years. They all get together in a room, learn about fundraising strategy and the work we’re doing. We bring outside speakers [from agencies and organizations that receive UJA-Federation funding] to brief them. We’ve got targeted seminars. We send staff to outside seminars and sessions. Managers get priority training. Major gifts fundraisers get major gift solicitation training. We take staff on site visits to see [the federation’s work] first-hand. We take staff on missions to Israel and the FSU.”

Medin pointed especially to the federation’s policy of breaking down “the old Chinese wall that divided fundraising on the one hand from planning and allocation on the other.”

First, fundraisers have to understand and feel committed to the cause. But perhaps equally significant was the realization “that every person working on the allocations side is also communicating with donors.”

Today, “each of our [four planning and allocations] commissions has a dedicated fundraiser who comes to every one of their meetings and missions. We’re trying to integrate and break down [the wall] so there’s a greater understanding of the importance of raising the money, and on the other side greater understanding of where the money’s going.”

The work, Medin seems to suggest, is never complete.

When it comes to staff training, “we’ve never done enough.”

When it comes to donors, it is crucial that they constantly encounter new opportunities to make a difference. “Because we are so broad-based in what we do, everything from the work of the Jewish Agency to JDC to Hillel to human service agencies to Birthright, there’s an opportunity to support those things people care deeply about, as well as Jewish causes that they wouldn’t even think about. Our strategy is to project that in a sustained, thoughtful way to our donors.”

Success, Medin believes, depends on people. His staff, he concludes, “helps people bring new people into UJA.” And it’s hard to argue with the results.