Paul Kane: The gift of a crisis


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, Paul Kane, the long time head of fund raising at the UJA Federation of New York who will soon become the fund raising guru for the Jewish Federations of North America, asks if the financial downturn can become a fundraising bonanza just as have crisis that have threatened Jews in the past.


A few years ago, in an effort to use donor questions as a springboard for self-correction, UJA-Federation launched a staff-education program called “A Complaint is a Gift.” After listening closely to donor concerns, we improved, and continue to improve, our systems and operations.

The economic downturn, which has profoundly changed the environment for Jewish philanthropy over the past two years, gives rise to a related idea: A crisis can also be a gift.

When I was a younger fundraiser, first in Chicago and then in New York, I saw this principle in action in its most simplistic form. Every war in which Israel was involved produced a flood of dollars from Jews motivated by the existential threat. “Freedom Flights” for Soviet Jews and airlifts of Jewish Ethiopians produced similar outpourings. But in those crises, all we had to do was describe the needs and open the phone lines. We didn’t have to change the way we did business.

Can the economic shockwave, which continues to create pain for all but the most fortunate in our communities, become the kind of crisis that is truly a gift to federations and other Jewish philanthropic efforts? Can it push us to change the way we ask members of our communities to partner with us?

At UJA-Federation of New York, the economic climate has already pushed us to expand and intensify techniques and formats for engagement and solicitation that we began experimenting with a few years ago. These experiments are now the basis for an organization-wide approach to resource development in which the donor’s interests, life stage, family transitions and philanthropic objectives factor into the conversation about communal needs and the hoped-for gift.

One driving force in this new approach is the creation of a new professional role — the Principal Relationship Officer, or PRO. Our PROs build personal, ongoing relationships with New York’s top donor families. Each donor is the subject of a long-term development strategy that ranges across all modalities of giving: annual, capital, program endowment and planned giving, as well as engagement of the donor’s family.

This total financial-resource development orientation recognizes that while annual gifts are critical, our major donors’ relationships with UJA-Federation represent a lifelong opportunity to realize diverse philanthropic goals. In its first year, the PRO initiative trained and deployed twelve skilled senior fundraisers, who were assigned to work with 100 donors of $100,000 and more. In the second year, we expanded to eighteen PROs working with 250 major donors. Next year, we will apply the PRO model to most donors of $25,000 and over.

In these challenging times, with donors watching the rise and fall of their investments and with tremendous competition for finite philanthropic dollars, we no longer rest comfortably on the assumption that being blessed with a cadre of dedicated, influential volunteers is sufficient for campaign success. We still work with these volunteers, and many are great solicitors. But we are supplementing their roles as door-openers by bringing in our key executives and our PROs — professionals who are able to discuss the needs of the community to the full extent of a donor’s interest and who are ready to coordinate multiple “asks” for annual, capital, endowment and planned giving. Donors today are less likely to make quick decisions about their gifts and are more likely to be generous to organizations that sustain contact and recognition of their level of commitment during the course of the year.

The second driving force in our new approach to engagement and solicitation is relentless creativity in the shaping of new venues for social connection and giving. Philanthropy is motivated by both individual values and interests and by a sense of professional and other kinds of community. Peer groups matter — they stimulate and encourage participation and reinforce generosity. In the past few years, we’ve reshaped our Lawyers’ Division into a constellation that encompasses groups for Corporate Counsel, Bankruptcy and Reorganization, and Trusts and Estates. Our Wall Street Dvision has generated new groups for Investment Management and Private Equity.

In 2005, we created a Division for Emerging Leaders and Philanthropists — 25 to 45 year olds seeking to add an extra measure of meaning to their busy lives. Nationally recognized, the Generosity subdivision draws 20 to 30 year olds, many from legacy families, into hands-on volunteering, missions to Israel and world Jewish communities, and fund-raising events designed for a sophisticated young demographic.

We’ve supplemented our traditional Women’s Campaign based on the volunteer dedication of home-centered mothers and wives, with groups for top female executives and young professional women. Our office of Women’s Philanthropy is now a dynamic generator of ways that women can network to benefit the entire community.

In addition to social and educational activities for singles and families with young children, we initiated Give a Mitzvah~Do a Mitzvah, which invites children approaching their b’nai mitzvah to volunteer and to give a portion of their bar and bat mitzvah gifts to a community project they care about. This program continues to inspire young leaders in every division to pass their philanthropic values on to their children, and it will soon be the seed for other life-cycle-based fundraising.

We’re also intensifying and enhancing all donor recognition programs to make sure, in multiple ways, that our donors know how much we value their participation and commitments. If complaints and crises can be gifts, then gifts are blessings which provide sustenance for the community and a source of satisfaction and meaning for our donors. We can’t say thank you too often.

What does the future hold in our quest to meet our donors where they are? We’re considering Affinity fundraising with young retirees, new bridges to the Sephardic, Orthodox and Israeli communities in Greater New York, and Affinity groups for people interested in Jewish education, sports and athletic participation, the arts and more. In our Community Division for gifts under $1,000, we are exploring the potential of technology and online communities to complement redesigned telemarketing and direct mail.

We don’t know whether this economic downturn, which is forcing us to innovate, will reverse itself to replay the flush years of 2000 to 2008. What we do know is that UJA-Federation is becoming more resilient, responsive, donor-centered, imaginative and ready to keep changing and growing to sustain a caring community.

Paul Kane is Senior Vice President of UJA-Federation of New York’s Financial Resources Division. Reprinted with permission.

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