The Implications of Expressive Philanthropy in Times of Crisis

The Jewish community has experienced two major crises within the last several weeks. One is the devastating results of hurricane “Sandy” and the other is the military conflict in Israel. Both of these events required a response from the Jewish community in terms of both political and financial solidarity with the people who have had to deal with the psychological pain and physical destruction of their homes, communities and communal institutions.

One of the results of such heart wrenching situations is the way we express our understanding and identification with the struggle to deal with the crises as people struggle to maintain their lives. Communal institutions are making valiant efforts and working tirelessly to provide the services to those in need. We are witnessing this on the East Coast of the United States and in the Israeli areas that are being bombarded with rockets from the Gaza Strip.

Those of us watching the television reports and reading the newspapers cannot but identify with those whose lives have been turn upside down and inside out. Of course the causes of the wonton destruction are different. The impact of people’s lives whose have been destroyed by a storm caused fire or tsunami on Long Island or by rockets turning homes in rubble are the same.

When we see people suffering as a result of these events we are moved to provide assistance within the means that we have available to us. The desire to immediately write a check or to donate household items, e.g. furniture, is referred to as “expressive philanthropy”. The decision is generally impulsive and is an immediate response to the crisis we witness before our eyes. We often say, “our heart goes out to these people”. When this happens we not only think about what they are experiencing but also what will be the response to their situation.

Simultaneously with our wanting to support those suffering a myriad of social, health and welfare organizations are gearing up to provide the needed services. In the United States the Jewish agencies from the JCC’s to the family services to the synagogues, coordinate their efforts to meet the needs of the Jewish community. In Israel the network of voluntary non-government agencies work to complement and supplement the publicly supported government services.

Fundraising efforts moved into full gear and there were additional allocations to local communities in the United States and to the overseas agencies through the Jewish Federations of North America. Of course, it emphasized the importance of collective responsibility in the Jewish community. If there was not a willingness to coordinate efforts and to work together as a community then it would not be possible to either raise the necessary funds or to provide the crucial services to people in need.

However, at the same time people who give impulsively challenge our philanthropic system. How do they become ongoing donors and supporters of the Jewish community? How does the committed and competent team of professional and volunteer leaders create a vehicle for reaching out to those who are making contributions at a time of crisis? It is often said that these donors are not interested in an ongoing involvement with an organization and they are only interested supporting those in need during a crisis.

I would like to question this assumption. If a donor has contributed in response to a crisis then how do we reach out to them to utilize their expression to bring them closer to our philanthropic system? Yes, there are those people who will say, “Don’t bother me. I am not interested. I sent the money because there is a need.”

At the same time, it is important to connect with expressive contributors and to cultivate their relationship with either the organization raising the funds or the agency providing the services. It is essential a plan be developed to reach out when donations are received. Whether it is an internet contribution or personal check there is an opportunity to reach to those supporters in a number of different ways.

In addition to sending an automatic internet response thanking someone there are a number of possible responses including a personal letter recognizing the contribution; an offer for them to be placed on a mailing list; an invitation to a follow-up meeting with contributors, etc. It is also appropriate to reach out to those who contributed major gifts and explore meeting with them to find out more about them and their interests. These efforts require a willingness to creatively reach out to donors who have taken the first step by making an expressive gift. If we are not willing to extend ourselves then we are missing out on a very important opportunity to transform the one time giver into an ongoing supporter of our communities’ efforts to continue to strengthen its physical being and social fabric.

Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Nonprofit Management and Leadership Program and has a consulting firm focused on strengthening nonprofit organizations and their leadership for tomorrow. Stephen is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy.