philanthrooy notebook

What the past year has taught us

As conversations now shift to “reopening” we know that the acceleration of innovation will continue

While the overwhelming health impact of COVID-19 has rightfully been the focus of the Jewish communities’ attention over the past year, an equally deserving new trend may be how our world has accelerated innovative change. Telemedicine, for example, which had previously been inaccessible for most, opened a new frontier for patients and our Jewish service providers within months, and remote learning, despite its challenges, has also sparked new pathways for Jewish education and community building. 

We are just beginning to understand the significance of the dramatic changes catalyzed by the global shutdown — and the field of fundraising is also brimming with transformation and opportunity resulting from the last fourteen months. That is what prompted The Jewish Federations of North America to create a space for generative thinking, a laboratory focused on fundraising. 

It is not a secret that philanthropy by households has taken a nosedive over the years. However, over this past year, we noticed new trends which indicate that we are also experiencing significant change. 

  • Participation was at an all-time high. From virtual summer “campfires,” to swag-filled high donor online gala’s, we saw a 20 to 40 percent increase in program engagement. 
  • Professionals’ jobs have changed. Live event and program staff focused on utilizing data to analyze behavior and our volunteers emphasized check-in’s to engage constituents. 
  • Teamwork across departments flourished creating internal partnerships among various departments. Senior staff enforced the breaking down of silos, creating opportunities for colleagues to interact that otherwise would not exist.
  • Digital dominated. Finding new ways to create intimate and personal interactions online provoked a creative process that invigorated community planners and participants. 

It became clear that we needed to deepen the conversation and find a way to pool institutional knowhow in order to build on what we were observing. So, utilizing our FedLab model that was launched in 2019, we convened a one-day set of workshops and inspirational keynote speakers, allowing nearly 1,000 Jewish professionals and volunteers to think broadly as a group and generate just the kind of thinking the Federation system needs. 

Here are some highlights from the design and learnings from the experience:

  • The majority of new participation came from what we call “middle tier donors.” These are donors we identify as giving between ~$1K and ~$10 annually. Typically, it is this group that offers the ripest opportunity for upgrades, meaningful new gifts, and legacy gifts. 
  • In programmatic tracks, this first-ever Fundraising-focused FedLab delivered a virtual program that enabled us the space to explain the across-the-board trends, detail our internal research and highlight the work of our communities. Case studies played a pivotal role in this work.
  • In Cincinnati, for example, they began to double down on their mid-level donor areas, receiving significant increases in endowments. The Jewish Federation of Cincinnati realized that having conversations about the annual campaign and planned giving together are crucial to the engagement of donors and the success of the campaign. This created a space for donors to recognize and embrace the full potential of their gift, both in the short and long term. And a “peer driven” approach yielded increases in gifts and endowments from donors in this giving level. 
  • Another example came from UJA Federation – Greater Toronto, where the COVID pandemic served as a catalyst for new approaches to development planning and engagement. A phone tree that lasted weeks enabled staff and volunteers to communicate with community members in deeper and more meaningful ways. Some community members that were once donors became aid recipients and others, that could give, were eager to give more. Each engagement became “a hook” to connect people to the organization’s mission in new ways. This inspired more giving of time and money to address the tidal wave of need resulting from the pandemic. 

As conversations now shift to “reopening” we know that the acceleration of innovation will continue — and we are ready to continue to embrace these new learnings, while also benefiting from the lessons learned through this past year. 

Irit Gross is Associate Vice President, Fundraising Initiatives, JFNA.