From the Field: The Current Reality of Fundraising in the United States

by Danielle Keats Berkowitz

Upon returning to the US after five years living and working in Israel, I am shocked and dismayed by the state of affairs within the Jewish community. We all know that the economic situation here has hit the community hard. Its effects are both far reaching and frighteningly close to home.

As a fundraiser in the Jewish communal world for almost 15 years I have never previously encountered the challenges that now plague the non-profit world. Every phone call I make, every community I approach, the response is always the same “Now is not a good time. We are struggling to support our school and synagogue.” Across the board I find that while people believe strongly in the organizations they have always supported in the past, they are struggling to keep their children in Jewish schools, participating in the scholarship programs of their schools to keep their friends and neighbors children in school, and participating in their community assistance programs.

Therefore when a non-profit organization from Israel comes knocking on the door of the very same family which gave substantially in the past – the response is an unfortunate and reluctant “I’m sorry.”

So what are we to do? Families still need to be fed, seniors still need to be cared for, children still need to be educated, the disabled still need their therapies, and so forth.

We continue. We keep doing as we have but in a smarter, more sensitive, way. We must be innovative and experimental. We must still educate and engage past and present donors. We must reach out to potential donors. But do so in a manner respectful of their current realities. The American Jewish community has a long and proud history of giving. While the purse strings have been tightened substantially, it does not mean that they will be this way forever. We must use this time to both keep and create relationships with the donor base, to be present so that when ready and able, the American Jewish community will give.

To keep relevant, nonprofits would do well to keep the following in mind.

Barrages of mail and pamphlets are a waste of resources. They are most often just thrown in the trash and people get annoyed. Then they feel guilty for being annoyed. Keep on their radar screen, but do it subtly. Make sure your Internet presence is updated and user friendly. Send out e-newsletters four times a year. Hint at opportunities for involvement, and at the same time be ready for action.

In today’s world there is no excuse for a website that is too wordy, difficult to navigate, or poorly presented. While cost may be a factor, there are many wonderful prefab templates – it takes time to upload the information yourself, but it is worth it. It is very embarrassing once you are able to get people excited about your cause and once they go to your site loose interest in the organization because you have failed to create a space for them to connect with you. They cannot all fly to Israel to see and touch what you do, a website helps them connect virtually.

E-news letters serve as a platform of information about your organization and at the same time gently remind the donor/ prospective donor about the importance of your work and the need for funds. Sending it out quarterly means that it is not a large amount of work for you to put together, and it will not frustrate the donor by overloading his or her inbox.

Always be ready to seize opportunities to engage current and prospective donors, but do not hound them. Be attentive to them – are they being stretched too thin, are they unable to host a parlor meeting at this time due to other commitments? If so, gently thank them for their interest in the organization and help them stay connected in a way that is not demanding more of their time or resources until a time they are better able to commit. Keep tabs on them, without asking of them, so when they are ready and willing to give of themselves and their funds, you have a way for them to do so.

It is a hard market right now. But as our work must continue, we to must look for ways to fund it.

Danielle Keats Berkowitz is Cofounder of REACH3K producers of AMUTA21C an annual summit focused on bringing together Israel’s non- profit and business professionals in an effort to create connections, showcase opportunities and raise operational standards across the third sector.