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Adapting to the recession: Mechon Hadar

More evidence that the Jewish nonprofit world is grabbing onto the notion that grassroots fund-raising is necessary as major donors have become harder to tap in the recession: The egalitarian independent yeshiva Mechon Hadar is trying to raise significant dollars in small gifts to fill its end of a $1 million matching grant.

Mechon Hadar, an outgrowth of the New York-based egalitarian independent minyan Hadar, has received a $1 million matching grant from the Jim Joseph Foundation to expand. The grant, which will be paid out over five years, comes with the stipulation that Hadar must come up with another $1 million on its own.

In years past, organizations simply would have reached into their databases and tried to find a handful of mega-donors to help make up that second million. But Mechon Hadar instead has reached out to the masses for small donations ranging from $54 to $3,000 – and this week sent out this fundraising letter asking the more economically common Jew for his financial help.

The yeshiva is doing so for two reasons, according to its executive director, Rabbi Elie Kaunfer. For one, it wants to solidify the base of people who have come into contact with the organization and those who might use it.

“We want to raise the money from all size donations. It’s of value to the organization to really push the donation from the grassroots,” Kaunfer told The Fundermentalist. “The $100-and-under donor in many ways represents a group of young Jews taking ownership of Jewish life, and part of that is supporting the organizations you believe in.”

But the move also is a response to the recession and a recognition that mega-donors cannot carry the weight of the Jewish communal infrastructure on their own. Mechon Hadar wants half of its donors over the next five years to be those who give $250 or less.

“Absolutely the campaign reflects the reality of the new economy,” Kaunfer said. "The only way an organization will move forward is through a diversified donor base. [Smaller donors] are not tapped out. They are engaged in the institutions they believe in. We see this as a cultural shift. Young Jews support the organizations they believe in. I think a lot of organizations got burned by relying on too few high net who donors. We can’t do it without them, but we want to spread the responsibility around.”

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