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Missing the E-boat: Jewish Charities Seemingly Slow to Adapt to Web

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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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