Is the Economic Meltdown Changing the Fundraising Calculus for Jewish Groups?

by James Besser

Times really must be changing; this week I received a fundraising call from the local Jewish Federation on their “Super Sunday.”

Why the big deal, you ask? In 22 years of reporting for Jewish newspapers – with my name in synagogue directories and bulletins, with public appearances and ties to local community leaders – this is the first fundraising call I’ve ever received from a local Jewish group.

No doubt I fell into that category that fundraising consultants insist just isn’t worth the effort of targeting – people of moderate means, to put a nice gloss on it. But with the economy in free fall and Jewish organizations facing a radically changed fundraising climate, that may be changing – and fast.

The trend in Jewish life has been going on for a long time; federations and other groups, with massive budgets to do good works, have become increasingly dependent on ever-shrinking but ever-richer groups of mega-givers.

With so many very wealthy Jews eager to display their philanthropic impulses and so much excess wealth sloshing around the system, it was far more efficient to go after them that large numbers of small donors whose $100 contributions meant little in the face of multi-million dollar budgets.

That was all well and good – but it also helped distort Jewish organizations by making them ever more dependent on, and therefore more responsive to, small economic elites whose interests don’t always coincide with those of the broader Jewish community. A few $500,000 contributions, and guess what: you become a donor the local group simply can’t afford to lose. Give a million, and too often you get to call the shots.

And what about those with very ordinary incomes who might be able to make extraordinary contributions to local Jewish life – not monetary, but in terms of ideas and activism? Forget it. The Jewish professor at a small college with a deep knowledge of Judaism and Jewish affairs, from a strictly economic point of view, is far less valuable than a million-dollar giver with just a smattering of knowledge. In fact, that lowly professor really isn’t worth the effort of targeting in any more than a cursory way.

But now, with the economy melting down, many groups may be thinking twice about a strategy that is intended to increase fundraising efficiency, but ends up being a strategy of exclusion and ideological distortion.

What happens when many big givers can no longer write $1 million checks without blinking, when some are watching aghast as their net worth shrinks by 80 or 90 percent? These guys aren’t going out with tin cups in their hands, but losses on that scale can’t help but affect giving.

Nobody doubts the economy will eventually recover, but how long will it take? Until it does, what will happen to groups that thrived on a system in which the supply of big-money donations seemed inexhaustible when much of that surplus wealth is exhausted?

Enter here the small giver. Maybe the economic equation has shifted enough that it will become cost efficient to go after those who can only write $100 checks. And just maybe, that will eventually make Jewish organizations a little more reflective of the diverse community they serve, and not just the big givers.

James Besser is the Washington correspondent/new media editor for The New York Jewish Week. This post originally appeared on the JW Political Insider Blog and is reposted with permission.