Super Sunday … Again?

by Sherri W. Morr

With many federations gearing up for Super Sunday planning, it’s interesting to note that Super Sunday is close to being 40 years old. It was a terrific idea back in the late 70s but perhaps its run its course, time to move on, or to reshape it in such a way that it is not recognizable and therefore recruits volunteers without having to beg or bribe them, and of course returns to being the event that brings in dollars from donors other than those over $5000. Given Federations are trying to redefine themselves to becoming more relevant, perhaps Super Sunday could be an ambassadorial program that raises money, and creates good will and relevancy. In spite of the technology of social networking, here is a time for people to speak to people. The point, now in 2012 is to make it personal, and show the impact of federation dollars.

When Super Sunday began it was a huge, intricately planned phonathan for Jewish Federations all over the country. They were overwhelming successful, raising more and more money each year. And they were fun, creatively designed, and a Jewish place to see and be seen. These phonathans were an extravaganza with balloons, bell ringers for closing a large gift, and good food. In some cities there were movie star and sports figures impersonators: look a likes for Frank Sinatra, Elvis, Johnny Unitas, Joe Namath, and even Marilyn Monroe. Volunteers came in shifts, were trained, solicited, fed lox & bagels, and then hit the phones to call contributors. These phonathans were unique to the Jewish world in that they were not emergency or crisis campaign events; they were the federation’s way to induce giving, and to say thank you.

Jerry Lewis (Muscular Dystrophy Association) had successful phonathans that were perhaps the granddaddy of all phonathons; public television & public radio ran phonathans televised and were unique in their giveaway prizes to challenge donors in order for them to “win” gifts like record albums, tote bags, or a gift certificate.

Sometimes Super Sundays were held in auditoriums, or very large conference rooms, or social halls. In some cities they were held in public spaces like a design center, a theater hall or performance space, or a hotel banquet room … anywhere where at least 100 people (per shift) could sit comfortably at tables dialing the phones. Not every such space was wired for 100 phones, so organizations usually consulted with the phone companies to install wiring, rent phones, and use all of these technical accoutrements only for one day. It was not inexpensive, nor easy, but the kindly engineers at most phone companies saw it as a challenge and acquiesced to put it together. One hitch of course was the wiring … where would it go, so it was not a physical hazard to volunteers. One clever facilities manager created 2 by 4 wood planks; each phone was connected to a plank (sometimes a few dozen to each plank), the wires nailed down underneath. Not one volunteer tripped!

As time went on the idea became a copycat for schools, politics, universities and arts organizations. With more non profits using the gala type phonathans they became bigger with the obvious results … more money was raised, donors were able to speak to a real live person who could even tell them how their donation would be used.

The volunteers loved having the mayor or elected officials stopping by to say hello and motivate callers. At a symphony the maestro stopped by and kibitzed with volunteers, while they schmoozed at the Super Sundae ice cream bar, adding toppings to their ice cream cups; at schools and churches the choir might come for a brief performance to provide a respite and entertainment for callers. People dressed in holiday costumes roamed around, magicians did tricks, and arts and crafts people tended to the children (of callers) in the babysitting lounge. One federation held their Super Sunday close to Purim; Mordechai and Esther were in full view, all day. Even Haman and Vashti made an appearance. One school had an alumnus who owned automobile showrooms, so the phonathan was held in one of them. The callers sat at desks using car salesmen phones and made their calls amongst the newest model Cadillac.

Super Sunday advertising addressed that not all donors would be home to receive the call: “Be there to take the call”. “We’ll be calling you”. “Answer the ring that will help hundreds of elderly right here in Oshkosh”. Speaking to those who were playing golf, the ads said, “Save us the call, send your annual contribution now, or call 800 123 4567 to make your gift”. Evening sessions were set as follow up for 2 or 3 nights after the actual Super Sunday. These volunteers came to an office or conference room, trying to reach all the ‘no answers’. These evening shifts were usually manned by YAD and high school seniors, and students from Hillel.

Perhaps it might be worthwhile to go back in history and try to recreate the original Super Sunday which was instrumental in creating community. Encourage agency board participation; challenge synagogues to bring callers. Use and reuse the word impact. Show a jazzy video of services in Israel and abroad, accompanied by rock musicians; show a video of a recent Israel mission, or a tapped Passover Seder at the Old Age Home. Plan the day as thought it’s a mini mission of watching where the federation allocates its dollars. Acquire sponsors for the day, or phone sponsors; by now most federation volunteers are using their own cell phones, so arrange for sponsorship of charging batteries.

The key message is to be creative, use lay leadership, and engage youth and future leadership as a means of education and awareness.

Somewhere there must be a ‘Best Practices’ for Super Sunday. Read it, it’s always good to know our history, even for a Super Sunday.

Sherri W. Morr has spent the last several decades working and consulting in the Jewish community as a fundraiser, a teacher, and trainer, most recently as Director of the Western U.S. at the Jewish National Fund for 12 years. She has completed an MA and received an honorary doctorate from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. Her work outside of the Jewish world at independent schools, the Baltimore Symphony and Tufts University have given her an awareness beyond practice in the Jewish community. Sherri has 3 grown sons and lives in Rancho Mirage, California.

image: Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey