Are Jewish charities missing the e-boat?

Magen David Adom ambulances are seen lined up and waiting in Sderot as Hamas continued to bombard the town with Kassam rockets fired from Gaza, May 19, 2007. While Chabad is seizing on the growth in e-philanthropy to help Sderot, other Jewish charities ha (Brian Hendler)

Magen David Adom ambulances are seen lined up and waiting in Sderot as Hamas continued to bombard the town with Kassam rockets fired from Gaza, May 19, 2007. While Chabad is seizing on the growth in e-philanthropy to help Sderot, other Jewish charities ha (Brian Hendler)

NEW YORK (JTA) – This is how easy online
philanthropy can be: Yosef Eliezrie received a call last week from the Chabad
emissary in Sderot seeking help for the citizens of the embattled lower-class
town.

Eliezrie, the son of a Los Angeles-area Chabad rabbi, was
lying in a hospital bed at the Children’s Hospital of Orange County, Calif.,
recovering from an infection caused by leukemia.

Still, by Monday Eliezrie,
21, had launched a Web site describing the situation in the
Gaza border town that has been targeted by Palestinian rocket fire and providing
users with the opportunity to make online donations.

He predicted that by the end of this week the site, helpsderot.com, would attract 500,000 to 1 million users through e-mail promotions, as well as plugs on chabad.org
and 850 other individual Chabad-related sites.

It’s the same strategy that the Chasidic movement employed last year
when it collected about $750,000 for Hurricane Katrina relief.

While Chabad has tapped into perhaps the fastest growing
sector in the philanthropic world, many sectors of the Jewish world have been
slow to catch on to the Internet era.

“Some Jewish organizations have been more successful than others,”
said Gary Tobin, the president of the Institute for Jewish and
Community Research, which studies Jewish philanthropy. “But you don’t see
many who are very successful other than the Jewish National Fund.”

The point was hammered home by a report in the June 14 issue of the Chronicle
of Philanthropy based on a survey of the online fundraising efforts of the
country’s 400 largest charities.

Among the 187 charities that responded and
said they accepted online donations, the publication found that online gifts
grew by about 37 percent in 2006. Of those, 85 charities saw an increase above 50 percent.

But only four Jewish charities appeared on the list, and one, the American
Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, saw a 78 percent decrease.

The community’s largest philanthropic network, the United Jewish Communities, raises about $3
billion annually through various revenue streams. But UJC, which is made up of local federations, collected just $9.2
million via the Internet in 2006, according to Barry Swartz, its senior
vice president for federation services.

Most of that money came from
post-Hurricane Katrina efforts, Swartz said, calling the disaster relief drive
a “launching point for using e-philanthropy in a serious way.”

Some Jewish charities are faring well online.
JNF, which claims to be the first Jewish nonprofit to raise $1
million through the Internet in one year, brought in nearly $2.5 million in
online gifts in 2006. That was about 6 percent of its total intake.

And already JNF has raised $2.75 million online since its fiscal
year started in September, according to Linda Wenger, the organization’s director of
marketing and communications.

The American Jewish World Service saw its online donations and number of donors double from 2005 to 2006, according to Riva Silverman, its director of development.

No one has actually polled Jewish groups to see how many of them have
successfully tapped the e-philanthropy world. But observers of the
philanthropic scene, including Robert Evans, the managing director of the Philadelphia-based EHL
Consulting Group, which helps nonprofits devise fundraising strategies, say JNF and AJWS are exceptions to the rule.

These observers said that while Jewish groups could use the Internet to attract new donors
and maintain relationships with current givers, Jewish nonprofits will likely
never have the same success in terms of gross online donations as the United
Way, $240 million last year; the American Red Cross, $496.2 million; or the
American Cancer Society, $58 million.

That’s because online
gifts are generally less than $250, meaning a real financial windfall requires a
significant donor base.

“There just aren’t that many Jews,” Tobin said.
He added that the Jewish community is small yet wealthy, so its nonprofits likely will survive on large donations from a handful of donors.
Synagogues may be the Jewish institutions that see the greatest
benefit from online giving, Tobin said, because they tend to survive on several large gifts
supplemented by a larger number of smaller gifts each year.

But not yet.

Evans, whose firm boasts a large clientele of Jewish nonprofits of all sizes,
says he has essentially found an Internet wasteland in the synagogue
world.

“We have been watching this and following this for quite some
time,” Evans said, “and we are very concerned about the slow pace
synagogues are taking.”

Some synagogues are reluctant to pay credit-card fees, Evans said, while others simply are not
technologically equipped.

“Statistically, the number of synagogues that
have vibrant Web sites is shockingly low,” he said. “We are
working with 15 to 20 synagogues, and none of them has a Web site that we would
say embraces technology adequately.”

The Jewish federation system is in the early stages of a
massive reorganizing that will implement a new operational strategy aimed at
stemming a declining donor base and a shrinking pool of donations. Utilizing
online giving opportunities will play a central role in that plan, the UJC’s Swartz said.

“We are trying to see what activities present the best mix to help donors
feel the most connected and engaged with us,” he said.
“We have seen a huge growth in e-philanthropy in the political arena and
in other nonprofits. We have seen how those have been able to change, and we
want to make sure we are at the cutting edge.”

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