We’re still fundraising for our shared future

While the Israel-Hamas war continues to rage, Barry Finestone charges us to double down on our philanthropic support for worthy causes both in Israel and the North American Jewish community (“American Jewish philanthropy today needs a ‘yes, and’ approach,” eJewishPhilanthropy, Nov. 6). As the CEO and founder of the Jewish Fertility Foundation (JFF), I appreciate this call to action to strengthen the American Jewish community because of  — not despite  — the emergency in Israel.

At the same time, understanding why it is more critical than ever to support Jewish nonprofits in our own communities doesn’t make the actual work of development professionals responsible for raising these dollars any easier.

JFF’s fall crowdfunding campaign, which represents a significant portion of our annual revenue, was scheduled for just one month after the Oct. 7 massacres. We also had a series of in-person parlor meetings and a major new branch location kickoff event scheduled over the past month. 

My grief-stricken staff was still reeling from the daily horrors in Israel as, professionally, difficult new questions were emerging:

Should we even ask for money during a time of crisis if the work we are doing is not in direct support of the safety of Israel?

How do we engage our board, ambassadors and other stakeholders?

How do we pivot to ensure our messaging is appropriate?

What do our donors need most right now?

How do we continue to serve families struggling with infertility in the Jewish community?

We have been trying to determine how to balance this moment of trauma with the critical work of JFF, and we are thinking about the message that our actions send. After grappling with these questions, we decided to move forward with our crowdfunding campaign, and I am deeply grateful to share that we raised 25% more than last year in support of our mission.

Based on this experience, I would like to offer some key takeaways to help other Jewish nonprofit professionals facing similar challenges as Giving Tuesday and end-of-year appeals fast approach.

Remember your why. Early advice urged us to cancel our upcoming events and crowdfunding campaign. How could we solicit for anything other than clothing for displaced children or equipment for soldiers in Israel? Then a hopeful parent asked us, “Are you still able to fundraise? Because I haven’t stopped my fertility treatments.” The people we serve did not stop needing our essential, life-giving services on Oct. 7 — in some ways, their support needs intensified. Our mission compels us to push forward even if it feels uncomfortable at times.

This is not a zero-sum game. This is a moment when we recognize the remarkable human ability to hold multiple emotions at once. While we have endlessly painful feelings about what is happening in Israel, the continued focus of our clients about their fertility journeys also remains valid. Both can be true at the same time, and donors can be moved to stretch themselves for multiple causes. 

Gain leadership buy-in. Before launching our campaign, we called on our board to engage in open dialogue about the moral and strategic implications of fundraising during this time of war. Effective communication with JFF leadership reinforced the collective commitment to our mission and strengthened our organization’s resilience and impact for the long term.

Adjust expectations. While we believe strongly that now is the time to focus on building future Jewish generations, we didn’t know how this message would resonate with individual donors at this unprecedented time. With this uncertainty, we gained the approval of our board to tap into our reserves in support of our operating budget if we missed our fundraising goals — thankfully it turned out to be unnecessary.

Am Yisrael Chai. In recognition of the fact that, for many of our clients, JFF is their Jewish community, we also decided to move forward with our in-person events with increased security. At one parlor meeting, attendance was 20% higher than expected, when usually the reverse is true. We used this time primarily to listen to our stakeholders and give them space to share and process with each other. Overwhelmingly, the message we heard was: “We are giving to Israel AND we also want more ways to feel connected. Thank you for allowing us to focus our energies on a meaningful program to affirm the continuity of the Jewish people.” 

Refine your message and train your messengers. While we chose to launch our fundraising campaign, we did not want to seem tone deaf to what is happening in our community. We modified the language in our appeals to reflect — but not exploit — our new reality; then we spent time training our crowdfunding volunteers to ensure that everyone was on message. (Here is an example.)

Encourage self-care. A core value of JFF is supporting mental health and work-life balance. This is, of course, the right thing to do, but it is also a smart business model. Through our hard work, we are explicitly offering grace to our team and are reminding them that this is not business as usual. Personally, I have been trying to choose a few key daily tasks and time block my calendar to get them done. We are encouraging self-care and offering mental health resources.

Ultimately, I am motivated by our shared vision of a thriving Jewish future — and by our supporters, one of whom sent me the following message:

At a Torah study class the other day, a quote from the late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks was brought to my attention, and I immediately thought of JFF and you. Rabbi Sacks wrote, “To survive tragedy and trauma, first build the future. Only then, remember the past.” I knew I must immediately make a contribution to JFF and am doing so today. I hope you and your beautiful family are well and that your family in Israel is safe. Thank you for helping to build our future.

Elana Frank is the CEO and founder of the Jewish Fertility Foundation.