Dispatch from San Francisco: Legacy Giving as a Pathway to Sustainable Jewish Communities

by Pearl Beck, Ph.D.

One doesn’t need a crystal ball or even a Pew study to know that the broader Jewish community is struggling with declining rates of Jewish identification, engagement and affiliation, especially among the younger generations. These issues are raising many tough questions, among them: how do we innovate and strengthen our institutions in order to better meet the shifting needs of a more diverse and less traditional Jewish community?

One hugely effective approach to adapting to these realities and investing in the future success of local Jewish institutions was recently implemented by the San Francisco-based Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund (“the Federation”), and the details are instructive for Jewish communities around the country. The Community Legacy Project (“CLP”), launched in 2010, was designed to boost legacy giving among 16 Jewish organizations within the Federation’s Bay Area catchment region. After merely two years, the organizations have reaped more than $35 million in legacy gifts, typically in the form of bequests. In addition, a related project aimed exclusively at local synagogues achieved a 200% increase in annual fundraising.

The lessons from these targeted efforts are significant for other communities confronting similar demographic changes and fundraising challenges – that is, almost every Jewish community in America.

Why Legacy Campaigns Can Be Particularly Helpful

A legacy campaign differs from traditional fundraising in several significant ways, all of which were critical to the project’s success in San Francisco:

  • First, legacy fundraising engages individuals who have strong and enduring relationships with an organization rather than through blitz emails or form letters to an entire membership list.
  • Second, the process itself is positive. Too often, those who are tasked with asking for donations feel trepidation or awkwardness when approaching a donor. In contrast, conversations about leaving a legacy feel natural and deeply satisfying to both donor and asker.
  • Third, legacy campaigns have taught institutions that paucity of gifts can simply be the result of too few people being asked.
  • Finally, a legacy campaign is a marathon, not a race. It’s all about developing and maintaining relationships with donors over the long-term, rather than getting a person to write a check for immediate use.

Organizations that manage effective legacy campaigns have concluded that the essence of successful fundraising is having conversations with community members and that such conversations ultimately strengthen the entire community.

How to Ensure a Legacy Campaign’s Success

An evaluation of the Federation’s effort reveals that an organization’s “readiness” – especially a robust fundraising history – is a strong barometer of success. But the importance of the skills and commitment of the individuals charged with the campaign cannot be overstated. For a legacy program to be effective, both the organization’s board of directors and professional staff must embrace the project and be able to articulately and passionately communicate the organization’s key mission.

Perhaps most important, there must be one dedicated person who can provide leadership to a team of individuals. These team members function as the campaign’s foot soldiers, willing, capable, and confident in their abilities to engage donors through one-on-one conversations. To be maximally effective, askers were those who had made their own legacy commitments. Because of the long-term nature of the legacy gift, team members engage with legacy donors through a process of “stewardship,” which entails maintaining relationships and properly acknowledging the legacy gift.

The Elements of San Francisco’s Legacy Campaign

With a grant from the Areivim Philanthropic Group matched by resources from the Federation’s Endowment Fund, the Federation was able to provide various types of support and incentives to the 16 participating organizations, which included synagogues, JCCs, schools and cultural institutions. These supports included:

  1. Coaching. Seasoned fundraising professionals were assigned to work with each organization. The coaches helped put together teams of volunteers, then assisted each team with all aspects of its campaign: creating an agenda, identifying donor prospects, training them to approach donors, developing schedules, staying on track and designing a stewardship plan.
  2. Incentive Grants. Each organization that met pre-specified goals in its legacy campaign was awarded a $6,000 incentive payment.
  3. Group Training. The Federation convened group-training sessions several times over the course of the project to assist organizations in a wide variety of fundraising activities, including: recruiting team members, identifying potential donors, cultivating deeper donor relationships, building and maintaining databases, and creating successful events to recognize donors.

The Federation also provided opportunities for organizations to engage in peer-to-peer learning, where they shared best practices and learned from each other.

Positive Outcomes beyond Funds Raised

Without question, the Federation’s Community Legacy Project was a spectacular financial success: 100% of participating institutions reported they had met or surpassed initial expectations. An evaluation showed that, over the project’s two years, nearly 860 conversations were held across the 16 participating organizations, resulting in 526 gifts. This means that fewer than two conversations  per donor were required to elicit a legacy gift – an impressive rate of return in any context.

In an example of how rising tides can lift all boats, the CLP effort also yielded approximately $300,000 in community-wide giving – that is, donations to organizations other than those that solicited the legacy gifts. That amount could go even higher in communities with the capacity to undertake broad marketing campaigns.

But, beyond the funds raised, CLP sparked other desirable outcomes – collateral benefits that should interest any community considering long-term planning. Critically, the effort infused new excitement and momentum about future projects as 150 volunteers were trained to conduct solicitations and connected with one another in substantive ways to realize a common goal. CLP also resulted in a stronger relationship with the Federation itself: the participating schools, synagogues, and communal and arts organizations all expressed appreciation of the Federation’s role in their achievements and in bringing them to the table to learn and share with each other.

Going Forward

Today, as CLP transitions into its next, more streamlined stage, its relationships and strategies continue to offer returns to the Jewish community. The Federation has devised several innovative, low-cost techniques to provide the ongoing legacy training requested by organizations. All are easy to replicate. The most creative tactic involves finding replacements for expensive coaching among local – sometimes retired – fundraising and estate professionals to serve as pro bono mentors to the next cohort of CLP organizations. Another strategy builds on popular peer-to-peer learning opportunities. “Communities of Practice” – which are peer learning groups – will help participating organizations share lessons learned and best practices, with minimal assistance from the Federation.

If there’s one lesson to be learned from the Pew study, it’s that in planning for the Jewish future it’s essential to strengthen the Jewish present. Through its successful Community Legacy Project, the Federation has made great strides in ensuring that its partner institutions can continue to evolve and innovate to meet the needs of a flourishing multi-generational community. This is a vital pathway to a sustainable future that Jewish communities should pursue vigorously. The durability of our institutions may depend upon it.

Pearl Beck, Ph.D. was the Evaluation Director for the San Francisco-based Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund’s Community Legacy Project, and was the Director of Geographic Studies for the UJA-Federation of New York’s Jewish Community Study of New York: 2011.