Richard Joel and Daniel Forman: Faith in a changing economic environment


The spring issue of Contact: The Journal of the Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life enlists a dozen of the foremost thinkers on Jewish philanthropy to talk about the state of fund raising. With the Steinhardt Foundation’s permission, The Fundermentalist will republish over the next two weeks pieces from the likes of the foundation’s president, Bob Aronson, the president of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies, Jeffrey Solomon, philanthropy guru Phyllis Cook and academic Amy Sales.

In this piece, Richard Joel, the president of Yeshiva University, and his top fund raiser, Daniel Forman, talk about how the economy has affected faith and money raising. (When last we spoke with Forman, he was leading YU as it embarked on a $1 billion fund raising campaign in July 2008.)


The Jewish story lives on. Through thick and thin, through years of Jewish prosperity and depression, through periods of peace and war, our people march forward, empowered by timeless Jewish values and a mission to be a light unto nations. Helping to fuel that march has been and continues to be a key responsibility of the community.


Fundraising has always been a challenge, but this is especially the case today. After the boom years of the last decade, we find ourselves in a serious and stubborn economic downturn. This one is different from past recessions because it has affected several sectors of the economy simultaneously. 

The impact has been wide and deep. At Yeshiva University, and at practically every other university in the country, hardly a week goes by when we don’t receive special requests from students and their parents for increased financial support.

Most of our parents have been paying day-school tuition for years, often for multiple children. But the situation is exacerbated now by the loss of jobs and income. Some parents avoid private universities, fearing that even with partial scholarships, the burdens of tuition will be too great. More subtly, these times have provoked a recession of the spirit, where even benefactors who haven’t been brought low feel low, and a sense of limit overshadows a sense of possibility. 

The current economic climate has accentuated certain philanthropic trends that have been evident for some time. These include a heightened sense of accountability; rising expectations of donors, trustees, alumni and parents; the desire to be engaged in a meaningful way; and the shaping of gifts to include evidence of impact and success. Together, these trends put Jewish institutions in un-chartered waters, with few precedents to draw upon and few models from past experience. How should we respond to achieve fundraising and overall institutional success?

We believe the answer lies in an approach that combines working smarter and more creatively, being fully attuned to the latest developments in communications and technology, all the while remaining faithful to our core mission and sharing the passion of that mission with our community.


Working smarter and more creatively covers a lot of ground. We must be crystal clear about our priorities. The times call for us to distinguish between what we must do now to sustain recent advances and to remain academically and financially strong, and what we can aspire to do when finances permit. With respect to fundraising, it is imperative to differentiate between what we must have and what we can have. Yeshiva’s fundraisers know that scholarships are the number one priority in order to make a Yeshiva University education available to all qualified students regardless of their financial circumstances. Toward that end, we have tailored special scholarship drives to our varied constituencies, including matching gifts and online scholarship giving.

We have given more thought to structuring gifts that meet both immediate and long-term needs. For example, in large commitments for scholarships, professorships and programs, we have sought to secure “blended” gifts that include current-use funds along with an endowment component to ensure permanent support. Blended gifts are a win-win for the institution and for the donor, who gets to see the immediate benefit of the gift while perpetuating his or her benefaction. 

Working smarter and more creatively involves understanding the entrepreneurial mindset of younger donors who, having made their fortunes by age 40, are more likely to make focused decisions. Also, the traditional model of engagement primarily through board membership needs to be modified. Some donors will respond more favorably to projects that will enable them to have a relationship with a professor or a program. Impact is crucial.

We have also been successful in grooming many of our younger alumni for more significant involvement by elevating them to positions of leadership on our boards and committees. Another important trend is to recognize the power of social networking to build and broaden the base of volunteers and supporters. This is a new world for us, and we have only begun to explore it. Younger donors, in particular, require that we use the latest technologies — peer-to-peer online giving, LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter — to create new opportunities for involvement and for enhancing the ties between Yeshiva and this growing constituency.  The process of engaging many people to assume responsibility for a project in order to achieve a fundraising goal is very appealing to our students, younger alumni and other volunteers.


Especially in times of uncertainty, institutions must remain true to their visions, ideals, philosophical foundations, messages and distinctiveness. The mission of Jewish institutions is too important to deviate from this cardinal rule of fundraising. Besides, the competition for the philanthropic dollar from the same donors and, in some instances, for the same purposes is too keen to do otherwise.

Fortunately, our institutions are grounded in Jewish values such as the primacy of Jewish education, which gives our young people the tools to achieve meaningful lives and to make a commitment to lifelong learning, building strong Jewish communities and improving the world around us. When our top donor families share our values, partnership results and fundraising assume their natural course. These families are our partners not only in shaping their lifetime gifts, but also in shaping the vision and future of our institutions.

We must keep our top families close to us and stay in touch with them, particularly during difficult times, when they may be unable to contribute at optimum levels. Patience and understanding are key. We must keep them informed, on a regular basis, about developments at our institutions, including the tough measures we have taken to weather the current economic storm. Effective stewardship is a necessity, not a luxury.

Being patient does not mean not asking for support. On the contrary, we double our efforts to make the case of why, why now and why us — why now is the perfect time to give, to affirm confidence and commitment to our mission, and why failure to do so will set back the institution, with perhaps serious consequences. An institution that does not change and adapt will fall behind. All of us need to show our supporters a vision of what can be, not what is or what used to be.

Philanthropy is, increasingly, a family enterprise involving both spouses and, at times, their grown children and extended families. Institutional reports increasingly show more donors listed as family members. Family solicitations can be tricky, since family members may have different interests and some may have allegiances to other causes — but, at the same time, they afford opportunities to present to a wider audience the grand vision of our institutions and the role of such families in that vision.

The fundamentals of successful fundraising are constant, but they assume greater importance in today’s environment. We must develop boards that give, receive and strongly advocate for our institutions. We must create strong relationships with potential givers. We must know our customers and their interests. And we mustn’t forget that the messenger is sometimes as important as the message. Finally, we must be good listeners, personalize our appeals and pay attention to details.

The most important point is to project optimism about the Jewish future. It is vibrant and it is bright, and no recession — of the spirit or of the economy — will cause it to dim.

Richard Joel is the president of Yeshiva University. Dan Forman is the university’s vice president for institutional advancement. Reprinted with permission.

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