By Rabbi Todd Berman
This post is a follow up to my article this past summer relating to running a successful online crowdfunding campaign. As I wrote then, I hope that some will find elements of our experience helpful in planning their own campaigns and follow-ups to those campaigns. As the crowdfunding space becomes more and more crowded and the struggle for each fundraising dollar becomes more intense, I feel that utilizing the best practices and avoiding pitfalls can help all of us working in the Jewish communal field.
HaKarat HaTov (Acknowledging Those Who Help) holds a vital role in Jewish Tradition
Early in his pioneering work on Jewish Philosophy, Rav Saadia Gaon lists saying “thank you” as a primary and logically human act that even if God had not commanded, would be necessary.
Indeed, the creation of the world may have been contingent on humankind’s ability to say thanks.
At the beginning of the second chapter of Genesis, the Torah relates, “when no shrub of the field was yet on earth, and no grasses of the field had yet sprouted, because the Lord-God had not sent rain upon the earth and there was no man to till the soil.” Rashi comments, “what is the reason that God had not caused it to rain? Because ‘there was no man to till the soil,’ and, therefore, no one to recognize the utility of rain. When Adam came (was created), however, and he realized that it was necessary for the world, he prayed for rain, and it fell, so that trees and plants sprang forth.” Maharal, in his super-commentary to Rashi, explains, “‘[what Rashi] means to say is that it is forbidden to do good for those who do not acknowledge the act.” In other words, the need to recognize the generosity of others was woven into the very fabric of creation and is central to our entire tradition.
As journaled in my previous article, we at Yeshivat Eretz HaTzvi and our partner organizations ran a successful crowdfunding campaign in the summer of 2018. Our success depended upon the tremendous amount of planning and work done by faculty, alumni, friends, and on the thoughtful guidance of Rachel Cyrulnik, Michal Frankel, and the entire team of RAISE Nonprofit Advisors. However, as I discovered, investing in post-event follow up is also critical to capitalize on past success, to move forward, and to keep the excitement going.
I want to focus both on what we did wrong and what we did right.
What We Could Have Done Better
A generic email went out immediately after the event. One of the keys to our success was the use of individualized “mini” or “sub” campaigns dedicated to individuals or where individuals were responsible for contacting donors. In many cases, those individuals sent personal thank you emails to the donors. To be perfectly honest, in the aftermath of the deluge of 500 donors, individual follow-ups even for modest gifts, did not receive the follow-up it deserved. At least one donor commented that he would have appreciated a more personal touch in the follow up beyond the general generic one. I added this comment to my notes for future reference.
Thanking Others Is a Lot of Work – But It Can Be Fun
I want to spend the lion’s share of this post focusing on the “what we did right.” That begins with a modest investment in a program I hadn’t thought of before now. RAISE advisors suggested that we hold off on major solicitations and instead concentrate on a Thank You follow up. The goal was simple yet, I believe, meaningful. This consisted of the following.
In a similar manner to the preparation for the crowdfunding or even our dinners, we planned a modest and relaxed event to thank many of our patrons. We first analyzed our lists carefully choosing who had been significant supporters or who could be major supporters in the future. Hoping to attract between 20 and 40 people, we invited around 90 of our top or early stage donors.
Part of the difficulty for a relatively small organization such as ours stems from the wide geographic spread of our major givers. We are an educational institution with a modest annual budget of which around 20%, give or take, must be raised beyond tuition. Our students come from over eight countries, and we need to raise funds in all those places. So we focused our list primarily on those we thought could potentially attend the event.
Preparation Was Key
Like the crowdfunding program itself, getting support from our board of yeshiva alumni played a critical role. Several attended the event and even participated. Knowing that these key players were already on board gave a needed boost of confidence.
We spent approximately four months in preparation. The primary goals dictated the shape of the event and subsequently the planning. We were trying to create a cohort of supporters – kind of what happens at a dinner or other such event but much smaller. So the venue had to be intimate. We searched for an appropriate host in an area which was reasonably accessible to a large group of donors. We followed all the steps of a dinner from appropriate invitations – both email and print, run time, etc. but we emphasized that the goal was just to say “thank you” and no money would be solicited. I was a bit skeptical that this would work, but my advisors believed in the program.
While we kept costs down, we did not skimp on elegance. We hired a party planner, Party Girls Events of Lawrence, to organize the catering and set up. The coffee, cakes, even logo cookies were top notch: modest yet tasteful at the same time. We wanted people to walk away with the sense that they had a good time, were treated nicely, but that we did not waste valuable scholarship donations on the party.
We kept the program short and sweet: three brief speakers, a few new unseen videos designed both for recruitment and fundraising. We used Serio Films – a company we found by reading articles in eJewish Philanthropy!
The speakers and videos stuck to one specific theme – how support is affecting the past, present, and future success of our program and thanking everyone for that support. Attendees learned more about what we were doing with their money and how together we are impacting Jewish leadership both on college campuses as well as later in life. The theme struck a chord and the 30 minute program with a mix of video, and very brief speakers gave breathing room to those in attendance. Before and after the program we gave time for schmoozing. Also, we made sure that everyone walked away with a modest yet meaningful gift bag including a book of poetry written by one of our Roshei Yeshiva and our impact report graphically reiterating the themes of the evening.
Post–event – did it work?
While it is early to see how the warm reception will impact our future endeavors, what is clear is that those in attendance walked away feeling great about our institution and their giving. Unfortunately, our largest donors did not attend. Either due to poor timing, geographic issues, or most probably, this event didn’t speak to them. However, those who were not able to attend in person received a post-event email with pictures, the graphics, and links to the videos. I think the overall feel was a good one. Many of the attendees left telling me how much they love our program and how they plan to support us in the future.
A further benefit to such a program lies in the impact on the “worker” bees both lay and professional. The feeling of goodwill is contagious. I believe that several of our alumni board members left feeling more engaged. Hopefully, we broadened the net not just regarding funding but also increased support for our educational message which is the ultimate goal.
As Rav Saadia pointed out so long ago, saying thank you is not only nice, but it is the logical thing to do.
Rabbi Todd Berman is the Associate Director at Yeshivat Eretz HaTzvi. In addition, he has held numerous posts in education from the high school level through adult education. He founded the Jewish Learning Initiative (JLIC) at Brandeis University and served as rabbinic advisory to the Orthodox community there for several years. Previously, he was a RaM at Midreshet Lindenbaum.