Wednesday, November 24, 2010
DONORS NEEDED -- FUTILITY OR A LACK OF WILL?
As several of you have noted in Anonymous Comments and in personal e-mail to me, an undisputed horrific decline in the number of donors to the federation annual campaigns is the primary contributor to the crisis (I think that's the right word) confronting the federation system and, to some, hard evidence of federations waning communal leadership. Let's reflect on just how bad things are, what JFNA is (or more to the point, is not) doing about it, and then try to answer the question: "what can be done?"
Let's start with one stark comparison. We are celebrating the 20th Anniversary of Operation Exodus this year and next. In the peak years of that incredible campaign UJA and, in the main, the federations, delivered gifts from 1,250,000 donors; today the best estimates are that as a system the federations have in the aggregate 450,000 donors (some have concluded that the number is really as low as 350,000 donors to the Annual Campaign). In other words, twenty years post-Exodus our donor base has shrunk to at most 36% of what it was twenty years ago. This is nothing less than a tsunami, overwhelming the system we once had.
For many years, first UJA and then JFNA promised to deliver a donor acquisition plan that might help to reverse the flood of donors leaving us for elsewhere or nowhere. UJA at least tried. At JFNA, just a few years ago, it was claimed that the national organization "held in its hands" the plan; then the responsible FRD professional (who was totally commited to the effort) was terminated and...no plan -- not then, not since. Today, under Jerry Silverman, it seems clear that JFNA is engaged in a series of failed alleged "donor acquisition experiments" -- Heroes, #ish -- which were "sold" as Next/Now Generation attractions to bring hundreds of thousands, if not more, of new prospects to the federations. These "experiments" have attracted almost none to the federations.
Some federations, already deep in a hole, are hoping against hope that new, more attractive, interesting and accessible websites will drive the donor numbers (or, at the least, engage those who are disengaged today) up. JFNA and the Los Angeles Federation have engaged those who claimed to be the cutting edge of Obama's e-donor efforts to lead this one -- all they have proved to date is that raising money for a political candidate and raising donors for our Jewish philanthropy just aren't the same thing. (And just how many $10 online contributions will it take to make up for the loss of one $100,000 donor? 10,000 by my count.)
One insightful Commentator to my November Post -- DO THEY NOT KNOW OR DO THEY NOT CARE? -- observed: "Federations haven't changed much in decades, besides raising less money from fewer donors now. This is not because federations are less relevant in the needs that they are addressing, in fact the economic crisis has shown that federations have the opportunity to address community issues at the macro level. The quality with which federations are communicating what they do, what the communal needs are, and creating the opportunities for meaningful engagement of younger community members is the problem."
Let me repeat -- The quality with which federations are communicating what they do, what the communal needs are, and creating the opportunities for meaningful engagement of younger community members is the problem. But JFNA's attention is elsewhere. Where on the GA Program was this crisis publicly discussed? Even those federations which presented on getting through the recession focused on "cost-saving measures" as JFNA couldn't seem to even identify the federation focus issues let alone suggest best practices or, heaven forbid, any answers.
So, what can be done? As LA's CEO, Jay Sanderson, no longer new to the position, commented to JTA's Jacob Berkman: The GA "..was a missed opportunity" to help the federations come to terms with defining "[W]hat do we stand for as a system" as federations in 2011? Let's start there -- there are many examples of federations which have come to grips with this question and could offer guidance -- but they weren't called upon because the subject wasn't up for discussion at the GA.
Yes, we have to redefine what federation is by building on those elements that brought us to federation and understanding the changes that have to take place to reestablish or establish federation's roles as the central address in and for the community. Once we have that "elevator story" of what we are, and how we articulate the needs as the Commentator above suggested, we can develop a compelling Case for Giving (some federations already have) and take the case and the cause to our donors -- face to face. If in my community we identify 5,000 "skips" at the major gift level, or in yours 1000 or in yours 100, that's where we start -- not where we finish. I know, this sounds like the dinosaur in me writing once again but visiting directly with our once best customers must be one point of entry.
Another must be to invest in young men and women with high yet unrealized potential. Their peers must reach out to them with a simple message -- "join me for a 5 day trip to Israel that will open your eyes and change your life as it changed mine." We have seen how this dynamic has worked miracles in Chicago; you will experience the same thing in your communities if you strive to make it happen. Build a new base of significant donors from those 45 and younger. Stop kvetching about how we can't reach them and make the effort. And let's stop the party planning (e.g., Tribefest -- "we're going to Las Vegas") and get serious.
E-philanthropy and telemarketing and direct mail have critical roles at the prospect and small gift levels but no one should expect that they will take the place, as our friend Steve Selig has put it so well and so directly, of one Jew reaching out to another Jew to help a third Jew. For while the federation world has grown more complex and challenging, it's about tikkun olam, about building community and Jewish identity. But it's also about hard work and the joy of doing mitzvot.
There are those who have articulated in Comments on these pages that the federations are dead, they just don't know it yet. Gary Rosenblatt, the brilliant editor of The Jewish Week, summed up his time at the GA with this: "...it appears (that JFNA)...regained some good will and relevancy (that) can resonate for a year." That optimistic I'm not but I am reminded of the story about two youngsters brought to a closed room. They open the door and find the room filled with manure. The boy screams "I'm not going in there, it's manure everywhere." The girl dives into the manure and starts shoveling it out smiling: "I know there's a pony in here somewhere."
Optimists believe with me that we'll find the pony when we rediscover ourselves; the pessimists believe that federations can no longer compete so they do Heroes and #ish and believe that a Day of Service in New Orleans is somehow an example of our "collective strength" and ignore what is right in front of them: Torah, our real strengths, our great history and present and potential for the future and our incredible capacity for good.