Advocacy ventures: the best-laid plans

LOS ANGELES, May 13 (JTA) — When it comes to boutique advocacy efforts for Israel, there may be something of a Darwinian process at play. “It’s a lot like the free market with venture capital,” says Stephen Hoffman, president and CEO of the United Jewish Communities, the umbrella organization of North American Jewish federations. “Not every program can get enough capital to stay alive long enough to show a profit.” Some significant pro-Israel boutique operations have solidified their position among the campaigns and efforts under way across the country. Others have been developed by well-meaning individuals — and then abandoned. Three years ago, former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with a group of Jewish entertainment executives in Hollywood and challenged them to do something about Israel’s image problem. A group of people rose to the challenge and formed Project Communicate. They developed an innovative advertising campaign designed to raise awareness about Israel on college campuses and to encourage Jewish students to get involved. The participants put up some seed money and the Los Angeles Jewish federation provided additional funding. A pilot program was rolled out on four Southern California campuses. Brent Cohen, one of the participants, says the results showed the group had found an effective way to reach one of the most elusive targets: unaffiliated young Jews. If Project Communicate had been an undertaking of an established organization, its initial success might have been parlayed into a national rollout, and the “go cards” — posters, ads and focus groups that engendered so much interest in Southern California — might be staples on dozens of campuses nationwide today. But Project Communicate was an underfunded effort by a bunch of well-meaning, busy people. “It was never designed to be an organization with infrastructure,” says Dan Adler, a venture capitalist who was a key member of the team. Many of those involved in the effort have remained active in pro-Israel causes, but the pilot program’s promising results haven’t led to any further use of Project Communicate’s model. Cohen, 41, who now is chief operating officer of Access/Middle East, speculates that the reason no established organization has adopted Project Communicate’s model may have to do with the “Not Invented Here” syndrome common in the high-tech world: Companies often are loathe to use technologies they didn’t develop themselves. Whatever the reason for the effort’s crash-landing, he made no effort to hide his disappointment. “The people who should know about the program do,” he says. “It boggles my mind. Maybe they think they have better ways to spend their money, but this campaign worked.” “We reached unaffiliated Jewish students. We found them, motivated them — and dropped them,” he says. “How pathetic is that?”