Report Card: Is Jewish Philanthropy In a Seismic Shift, Too?

Do you make the grade? Have you adjusted to a new world yet?

by Robert I. Evans & Avrum D. Lapin

As college students across the country prepare for finals and graduation, we, at EHL Consulting, feel it is only fitting to take a step back and evaluate the advice and trends that have been discussed so far in 2009. Let us remind ourselves what some of the recommendations have been in the previous months that could (hopefully) help non-profits chart these difficult times.

Over the last few months we have had passionate deliberations and discussions about the many shifts within the Jewish philanthropic community and the need to modify long standing business practices. So we ask you to self-assess your efforts and to determine if, in fact, you have changed your ways or are you doing things under the old paradigms?

Let’s start with financial oversight, a major topic of discussion that we focused on months ago. Since the financial crisis first started we have seen in the news an increased focus on the sources of charitable donations. Have you reviewed your formal gift acceptance policies and updated them yet? Have you reviewed and updated your plans to issue annual/periodic financial reports to your constituents? Does your web site contain access to your agency’s IRS Form 990?

In early 2009, we posed some other strategic (and important) recommendations which we hope that contemporary nonprofits will keep in mind. We emphasized the importance of reviewing and changing your Case for Giving, keeping it simple, relevant and impactful. As this year has unfolded, the organizations that we have seen generate the most success have stuck to this formula, stayed on message and true to their mission, and they have been able to be seen as more relevant and appealing to donors.

The public backlash to perceived corporate extravagance has trickled down to the philanthropic community. In this new era, substance, not style, is what drives the success or failure of Jewish and all nonprofits. But donors also expect all types of agencies to be tightening their belts and to be good stewards of scarce resources. Be direct and frequent in your communication with stakeholders and constituents to let them know the measures you are taking to be prudent and to ensure that their needs, and those of the agency’s “end users,” will continue to be met.

Our suggested strategies have focused, too, on encouraging staff and volunteer leadership to interact with and work with the media to tell good, positive stories. Perhaps we could attribute some pro-activity in this area to a small, but important, success.

The U.S. philanthropic world worked well together to convince members of Congress not to endorse any changes in the U.S. tax laws relating to the tax benefits for charitable donations. After all the hoopla and hysterics, prompted by significant media attention, a Senate subcommittee very quietly removed it from the budget talks. We encourage you to continue to reach out to a variety of media sources and tell your story – but offer encouraging anecdotes and constructive advice. Be supportive where you can, but critical if and when necessary.

We have offered nine important steps for non-profits to consider in 2009. We repeated several of those here as a reminder that dynamic and successful agencies cannot remain stagnant. We have seen a renewed sense of determination and a “can-do attitude” from many in the Jewish philanthropic community. From Executive Directors burning the midnight oil to volunteers staying on the phone for an extra call, the Jewish nonprofit world has no shortage of dedicated, committed people who are willing to put in the extra effort for the greater good.

But we would like to hear from you . . . the folks on the front lines of the Jewish philanthropic world. How have you adapted to a new world? What pressures are you facing today that you did not anticipate last year? More important, what successes have you experienced based on changes that have been made, or on special efforts of professional or volunteer colleagues? How are your donors behaving differently in 2009? How are you responding in 2009 that would be different from 2008 (or earlier)?

Robert I. Evans, Managing Director, and Avrum D. Lapin, Director, are principals of The EHL Consulting Group, of suburban Philadelphia, and are frequent contributors to eJewishphilanthropy.  EHL Consulting works with dozens of non-profits on fundraising, strategic planning, and non-profit business practices.