by Robert I. Evans
I spent several days last week at NewCAJE, a first-time conference for approximately 350 Jewish educators. Men and women committed to Jewish education gathered in suburban Boston at the Gann Academy, the New Jewish High School of Boston, and talked passionately about diverse subjects all related to the Jewish educational agenda. Given my background and expertise, I was invited to lead two workshops, one on attracting and retaining volunteer leadership and the other focused on basic fund development knowledge, “fundraising 101.”
The participants in both 90 minute sessions were certainly passionate about their respective schools and were clearly hungry for help in strengthening the boards and committees populated by a wide range of volunteers. The session on fundraising techniques and approaches clearly reflected a desire by so many to have better skills and a better understanding of effective ways to reach out for philanthropic support, both for the schools they represented as well as for their congregations and other non-profits.
In reflecting on the discussions in the ultra-modern and high-tech-outfitted classrooms at Gann as well as the dynamic conversations in hallways and parking lots, I walked away with some observations, concerns and questions about where the American Jewish community stands regarding fundraising, especially in regard to fundraising’s role in Jewish education!
Clearly, the several dozen attendees with whom I interacted shared one common attitude: they (and their colleagues) were not frightened to advocate strongly with members of the Jewish community regarding volunteering and being charitable. The energy that I saw was impressive and the men and women with whom I connected represented almost every geographic section of the U.S. But they clearly are lacking direction from Board members of their respective schools and in some instances, staff members are confused about the importance of planning for attracting good, strong volunteers and using them effectively. Along the way, the majority of the schools (and other Jewish organizations that they represented) did not seem prepared properly to conduct successful – and effective – fundraising campaigns.
My question becomes: why are we seemingly so frightened to ask for volunteer time and charitable dollars?
Along with this question is a related topic that captured a lot of attention: how can Jewish organizations use their resources more efficiently and effectively to garner the time, talent, and dollars of American Jews? I felt that my presentations were basic and was somewhat surprised to see so many of those in the sessions taking copious notes as if this was the first time they had heard any of this. Many seemed to wring their hands in frustration because many of the clergy members (and other executives) have been seemingly unwilling or inexperienced to help on the fundraising agendas. Others were both publicly and privately concerned about the lack of strategic planning to facilitate better outcomes for their schools.
My second question: presumably, schools plan their curricula well and have regular conferences with faculty and parents to facilitate good communication so why does planning not become a critical component of fundraising and organizational growth?
In thinking back about the conference as well as my work with hundreds of Jewish non-profits across the globe, my third question focuses on organizational expectations from donors. I made several recommendations regarding financial transparency and sharing of organizational information. Too many of those with whom I talked, themselves, did not have details about how their schools were running. Why is this information secret? Why are non-profit leaders not releasing important details about how their organizations function financially? Donors today expect to have ready access to basic information and when they do not receive it, they raise eyebrows and wonder out loud about how institutions are being run.
Jewish non-profits must acknowledge the “new normal,” which includes outreach to current and potential donors and being inviting regarding their time and financial resources. The dollars exist today to transform our Jewish institutions into well-funded and well-run dynamic places. But all-too-often, the people running the organizations are the gatekeepers and are the ones not willing to be more flexible and welcoming.
Therefore, ask yourself another question: what can I/we do today to be more forthcoming about outreach to donors and volunteers so that they are more involved, generous, and committed?
(For a copy of the PowerPoint Presentations for either or both of the sessions I conducted, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Robert I. Evans is the Managing Director and Founder of The EHL Consulting Group, of suburban Philadelphia, and is a frequent contributors to eJewishphilanthropy.com. EHL Consulting works with dozens of nonprofits on fundraising, strategic planning, and non-profit business practices. Become a fan of The EHL Consulting Group on Facebook.