Growing a Philanthropy Wisely in a Time of Constraint

by Maxyne Finkelstein

As we begin the New Year in the Jewish philanthropic world, we are once again faced with the challenges of a volatile economy. While the situation is not as troubling as the dark days of 2008 it is clear that the continued slow growth in the economy is going to require ongoing structural changes in the North American philanthropic sector.

Birthright Israel Foundation finds itself in a unique place in this challenging environment. The unprecedented demand from young adults eager to travel on a Taglit Birthright Israel trip coupled with compelling statistics about the positive impact of the program; provide the Foundation with exceptional opportunities to encourage new and growing support. At the same time we have to work with the greatest possible efficiency and creativity to effectively raise funds as resources are both precious and limited.

As a Foundation supporting the Birthright Israel trip, our responsibility is to provide funding so as many young Jewish adults as possible can say the four magic words “It changed my life” rather than “I applied but was waitlisted”. To meet this challenge, the Foundation is attempting to grow its resources at a rate of approximately 25% in 2012, 12% in 2013 and then sustain that level of achievement. We are also determined to increase our number of supporters at a rate of 25% for the next two years  – an aggressive goal.

How does an organization hope to achieve this level of growth in the current economy? Clearly we are blessed with generous supporters, a number of whom have been steadfast and passionate donors since the earliest days of the program. They have been joined by others who also recognized the enormous and long term value of the Birthright Israel program and made it one of their primary philanthropic choices in more recent years. Alongside these individual and Foundation donors, we are blessed with the contribution and leadership of the Government of Israel, the Jewish Agency for Israel, JFNA and the Federations it represents, who together have produced a unique coalition of leveraged support… In fact, Birthright Israel is one of the most broadly supported programs in the Jewish world today. Recently we introduced a planned giving function as part of our growth strategy as we realized that the ability to offer this gift to generations to come will be supported by on our ability to move beyond being fully dependent on an annual campaign. Even with all of these assets in place, the challenge of how to grow this relatively new fundraising enterprise to meet current and future needs is significant.

The Foundation comes to this turning point with a number of advantages: a clearly-focused, easily understood program that can be supported on an incremental basis; an annual demand for the program that exceeds our ability to fund everyone; proven outcomes of the program demonstrated through longitudinal research; exceptional professional and lay leadership involved in the management of the Taglit Birthright Israel program; and a high level Foundation Board committed to supporting its continued growth. In fact, Birthright Israel Foundation Board members have collectively assumed the responsibility of funding the operational costs of the Foundation through their personal donations. These assets, along with the significant professional capacity of the Foundation staff, have made it possible to achieve our annual goals.

We have also invested wisely in a strategic plan to guide our growth. We engaged the services of the Bridgespan Group, a leader in guiding organizational change and growth and benefitted from their expertise and knowledge of best practices. Their emphasis on creating “best practices” and measurable outcome in all areas offers a strong basis for well managed operations and governance.

Clearly, the demand for Taglit Birthright Israel is strong – so strong that we are challenged daily to raise enough funding so that every young Jewish adult who wants to participate can. We are in the process of tapping into a new generation of Jewish adults, ready to engage with their peers in a discovery of their heritage, their community (however they may define it) and of Israel and its people. That is what drives us to achieve an audacious goal  – to help sustain and enrich a generation of Jews ready to engage in change and lead our community.

Maxyne Finkelstein is Chief Operating Officer, Birthright Israel Foundation.