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Focus on Issues: Report Finds Donors Still Care, but They Aren’t Being Reached

May 17, 1995
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So much for the phrase “Jewish continuity.” Sociologist Gary Tobin is warning that this decade’s Jewish fund-raising catch phrase “carries too much baggage and does not convey the excitement, commitment and passion required to launch fund-raising campaigns in support of this agenda.”

Tabin’s warning comes in a new research report published by Brandeis University, with partial support from the United Jewish Appeal.

The report, titled “American Philanthropy in the 1990s,” brings together the results of focus groups, interviews and population studies. It paints a picture of Jewish donors and prescriptions for the organizations that want their money.

“The landscape of Jewish fund raising has changed more dramatically in the last five years than it has at any other time in American Jewish history,” writes Tobin, who directs Brandeis’ Institute for Community and Religion.

Propelling these changes have been: – the mass migration of Jews to Israel and the United States after the collapse of the Soviet Union; – the 1990 National Jewish Population Study, which brought concern over assimilation to the forefront of the American Jewish agenda; – the rapid acceleration of the Middle East peace process; – and the growth of Jewish family foundations and federation endowment funds, which means general federation campaigns account for a decreasing share of the Jewish philanthropic dollar.

Despite all these changes, Tobin said his message is basically reassuring.

“Donors and non-donors alike still care about rescuing Jews, about supporting synagogues and local services,” he said, summarizing his report’s findings.

Jewish philanthropies, he said, should realize that the problem “is us, not them,” meaning the philanthropies, not the potential donors.

Attracting the new generation of donors is possible, said Tobin, but it will take work.

The report recommends that organizations invest in attracting new donors, recognizing small donors and personalizing solicitations.

This means that organizations which are cutting back their professional staff are headed in the wrong direction, according to the report.

“Given the furious competition for available funds from non-Jewish organizations, the failure to provide adequate staff will result in an ever- decreasing share of those funds going to Jewish organizations,” the report warns.

As evidence that Jews who do not contribute to federation generally share the concerns that spark contributions by those who do, Tobin pointed to a 1994 survey conducted in Pittsburgh.

In the Survey, both federation donors and non-donors were asked how likely they would be to increase their giving in the wake of 18 different community needs.

Two-thirds of the non-donors said the need to rescue Jews and bring them to Israel would likely prompt them to give.

“This is a huge statement about the fact that Jewish fund-raising organizations aren’t reaching these people,” said Tobin.

The non-donors in the Pittsburgh survey tended to be more concerned with local needs than the donors were. Donors rated a military threat to Israel as the highest of factors likely to influence them to increase their gift. The non- donors rated that only eighth, well behind increasing services for the elderly and families in crisis.

Tobin said this does not justify an abandonment of Israel by campaign planners, noting that a military threat to Israel would still motivate more than half of the non-donors to give.

“There’s no single reason that people give. So slogans, looking for hot buttons and trying to psych the donor out — none of that is going to work,” said Tobin.

“Organizations will have to clearly communicate how they support Israel, what kind of local services they provide, how they build Jewish identity. A lot of receptivity is still there, but it requires more attention, more specificity,” he said.

Specificity in describing what programs do and where money goes is particularly important when raising money for Jewish continuity, said Tobin.

“It is difficult for many donors to reconcile the amounts of money which they have donated over the years with their assessment that Jewish organizations have failed to nurture Jewish continuity,” the report says.

“Some donors feel `burned’ over having placed a great deal of faith in their annual gift to Jewish organizations, particularly federation, which they feel has not `paid off’ in the form of a stronger Jewish community,” the report continues.

“They also feel that the Jewish education system has failed by not providing a strong enough Jewish identity,” it says.

Some donors also believe, according to Tobin’s report, that the continuity issue is “only the latest in a long series of crises generated by the fund- raising system.”

Even those who have faith in the UJA-federation system do not necessarily support a fund for Jewish continuity.

“Almost no one will make a major contribution to a fund devoted to Jewish continuity without being able to exercise some control over that fund and without a thorough knowledge of the projects to be funded by their gifts,” according to the report.

That conclusion was disputed by Rabbi Brian Lurie, executive vice president of UJA.

“If he’s saying you can’t raise money for Jewish continuity — I think he’s wrong,” said Lurie, a strong advocate of Jewish continuity programs.

He pointed to the recent fund-raising successes of Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life as evidence that continuity is a cause donors can relate to.

And Lurie predicted that five years from now, the community will be seeing some very large gifts to finance Jewish high schools, boarding schools and summer camps, as well as the increasingly established Israel Experience programs.

Similarly, Martin Kraar, executive vice president of the Council of Jewish Federations, said he doesn’t believe that donors lack confidence in the federation system.

“I believe they’re saying that want to see what the federation system is doing that empirically has changed the course of a person’s Jewish identity, and I think the federations right now are being very responsive in providing that,” said Kraar.

Tobin agrees that donors are willing to give, when provided with proof their contributions would indeed advance the goal of Jewish continuity.

The same donors who might not be willing to write a blank check for continuity would, however, “support specific programs that achieve commonly understood goals of the continuity agenda, building Jewish identity and participation,” the report says.

The report found that the continuity issue engages donors personally. In discussions, donors grow “excited, animated and engaged as they discuss such issues as building Jewish community, exploring Jewish identity and the meaning of religion in individuals’ lives,” the report says.

Additionally, “many major donors have a special interest in outreach programs for the marginally affiliated, college students, intermarried couples or other groups that seem to the on the fringe of the community,” the report says.

Interestingly, the Pittsburgh survey showed that non-donors may be even more interested in the continuity agneda than donors are.

Half of the Pittsburgh non-donors said an increase in federation support to synagogues would prompt them to give more, and 45 percent said the same about federation support for Jewish day school education.

Only a third of the donors, however, said either of those causes would prompt them to increase their federation gift.

Tobin does seem some silver linings for the UJA-federation fund-raising system.

“One thing I want to emphasize,” he said, is that “despite all the ways Jewish fund-raising organizations can improve themselves, they still are the most successful fund-raising organizations in the country.

“Despite all the changes that need to be made, they have done remarkably well and continue to do so. The question is how do they adjust.”

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