Adapting to the recession: The Birthright Israel Foundation

In an effort to become a better resource to nonprofits, The Fundermentalist will keep a running update on what organizations are doing to adapt their fund-raising strategies in the recession. We are putting these strategies out there for you to consider for your own organization. And if your organization has tried something new or is about to try something new. Please let me know and I’d love to help you share your idea. Shoot me an e-mail, or send me a direct message on twitter (twitter.com/fundermentalist).

First up: The Taglit Birthright Israel Foundation, which raises private money for Birthright Israel, the organization behind the 10-day free trips to Israel that is paid for by a partnership of private donors, the North American Jewish Federation system, the Jewish Agency and the Israeli government. It is widely regarded as the most successful — and best funded — Jewish initiative of our time.

Six months into his tenure as the CEO of the Birthright foundation, Bob Aronson has already introduced sweeping changes to the organization’s fund-raising strategy.

Some bullet points:

  • The organization will most likely not hold an annual gala in New York in 2009, Aronson told The Fundermentalist. He will introduce the plan to his board this week, but Aronson believes that the organization should follow what has become a trend in recent months wherein organizations do away with costly, lavish fund-raising dinners. For one, Aronson said, because the dinner is in New York it is not geographically accessible to a large swath of donors who live outside the Northeast. And even though the Birthright gala — which in recent years has become the "it" event in the Jewish philanthropy world (and which last year was held the night the Bernard Madoff story started to break) — raised $1.5 million last year, it is time for at least a one-year hiatus. “It’s not the right thing to do during these economic times,” Aronson said. “We also believe that the same dollars we raised from the gala, we can probably raise just by asking people to contribute.”
  • The foundation is trying hard to create a national fund-raising network. Wherein in years past the organization has focused its attention on the Northeast and West Coast, Aronson is trying to form a development team to canvas the whole country, through parlor meetings and regional offices. “Our alternative plan is to raise as much money as we can in the field. This can’t just be a New York campaign."
  • The foundation is re-jiggering its campaign so that it no longer relies solely on mega donors such as the Bronfmans, Lynn Schusterman, Michael Steinhardt and Jim Joseph Foundation. For the first time, the foundation is asking for smaller donations from the parents of the nearly 200,000 alumni of the free 10-day trips to Israel. Aronson is asking parents if they would sponsor a future trip to Israel, which costs about $3,000. Ideally he would like to get parents to commit to sponsoring three future trips over a three-year period. And the foundation is asking wealthier parents if they could sponsor a whole busload of trips for $130,000. So far this year, he says, the foundation has collected $170,000 in $2,500 gifts from parents of alumni.
  • The foundation for the first time is accepting pledges for future gifts. Until now, Birthright has been a cash-in, cash-out operation that spent every dollar it had on its trips, asking donors to pay up immediately. Now it is asking donors to commit to giving money in the future. So far, Aronson says that the organization has taken in between $43 million and $44 million in pledges in ’09.
  • Birthright is now also using social media such as Facebook to reach out to its alumni to ask them for small donations. But they will not reach out to alumni until a year after they return from their trips.
  • Despite the economic downturn, the foundation has hired a new team of fund-raising staff, increasing its budget from $4 million last year by between $500,000 and $700,000 to add new staff. The organization is looking for someone to oversee fund raising in the Midwest.
  • The foundation is still planning on raising $55 million this year.
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