2011 fundraising was mixed picture, say local Jewish groups

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

A brief sampling of local non-profit organizations reveals a mixed picture of fundraising efforts as Jewish agencies around St. Louis negotiate a difficult philanthropic environment.

At the local Jewish Family & Children’s Service, executive director Louis Albert said demand on social services continues but fundraising remains tough. The agency’s annual figures shrank by more than $100,000 in 2011 falling to around $766,000.

MERS Goodwill ad

“My sense is that it’s dropped consistently over the last few years but it’s not in free fall,” he said.

He doesn’t expect any more falloff in 2012, however, and believes the situation may have stabilized.

“What we are finding is that the amount of individual gifts has declined at the same time as the number of individual donors is holding pretty steady,” he said.

Albert said the environment is clearly changing as people move towards more targeted giving.

“People like to give to particular needs,” he said. “That trend has continued. People have their interests and that’s what they want their money to go to as opposed to broad, unrestricted giving.”

They also want to hear more about results, something Albert thinks is a good thing.

“People are very interested in knowing how their dollars are used so there is a lot more information that people receive about the use of the funds and the outcome of the dollars,” he said. “There is a lot stronger, better communication going on about what the dollars do. We see that as a positive change.”

At the local Anti-Defamation League budgets also remain tight.

“It’s down clearly. I think it’s become harder for a variety of reasons,” said Karen Aroesty, the organization’s regional director for Missouri and southern Illinois. “You could argue that the market is up again and some people’s savings, which are market-based, are back up to where they were but people are more careful. Even if they would see a tax benefit from making charitable contributions, they are doing less than in the past.”

Aroesty said her group, which laid off two staff members since the downturn, has yet to see its fundraising recover from the recession. But she added that it has at least stabilized without seeing further decline.

She said that since the economic crisis, ADL, which is not a federation agency, has maintained donors who are passionate about what they do but it’s still tough going to push the numbers upward.

“The people who are genuinely committed to our mission, never left,” she said. “The challenge is to better explain to people who are sort of on the fence how much more work we are doing in the community with less staff and how much more work we need to do.”

Aroesty said there has been a significant drop off in corporate support. She also notes that the anti-bias education and work on cyberbullying the agency does requires financial support from schools that are also being forced to tighten their belts during a tough time.

The mission as a whole can also present challenges.

“Our specific piece of the pie is harder because we come at issues from a difficult place,” she said. “We are essentially a watchdog agency. We’re not always talking about hearts and flowers. We’re discussing issues of anti-Semitism and de-legitimization of Israel, potential violations of religious freedom. It takes a special group of people who want to be able to help us do what we do.”

Not everyone is feeling the pinch to the same degree, however. At the Jewish Community Center, President and CEO Lynn Wittels said her agency, which doesn’t release exact fundraising figures, is probably a bit up overall since last year and was relatively fortunate not to have suffered as much during the crisis.

“It’s sort of good news/bad news,” she said. “The good news is that the agency is doing well. The bad news is that there are so many more people out in the community who need services that we continue to find new ways of supporting their needs.”

Still, Wittels said it was hard to compare the JCC’s funding stream now to that found before the crisis given the massive transformation of the organization over the past few years. That transformation has included extensive rebranding and large-scale upgrades to facilities, most notably the construction of the Staenberg Family Complex.

Wittels said that the JCC’s varied nature may account for some of its durability. The agency provides a wide range of services from cultural arts to camps to early childhood education making it easier for donors to find something they can identify with.

“We really want to be donor-centric and give an opportunity for the donor to sponsor the agency and our efforts however they want,” she said.

Wittels said that while donors have been affected by the crisis, she thinks the rebranding has paid off keeping the organization’s fundraising stable.

“Our philosophy is that if we keep doing good work and keep serving critical community needs the St. Louis community has been incredibly generous and we hope they will continue to be so,” she said.

At Hadassah, immediate past president Judy Kramer said the organization’s fundraising figures are roughly where they were last year. Since the onset of the crisis, Hadassah has been working to hold its own.

“I wouldn’t say it is drastically improving but I wouldn’t say we were drastically hit either,” she said.

Kramer, who didn’t detail specific numbers, said she believed both passion for Zionism and the organization’s closeness to the controversy over stem-cell research were helpful in keeping donors involved and eager.

“That’s been one of the things that has helped us a lot even in this economy,” she said. “The upsurge of the religious right and people against stem cell has actually helped us.”

Nancy Lisker, regional director of the local chapter of American Jewish Committee, believes issues can be a big help in keeping donations rolling in.

“AJC’s contributors, friends and members have come to appreciate the strength and uniqueness of AJC’s role as a premier global Jewish advocacy organization,” she said. “Hopefully, that has been reflected in our ability to fundraise.”

Locally, the organization was up 16 percent in 2011 in terms of fundraising. That was on top of a 15 percent boost AJC saw in 2010. Nationally, the group was also seeing encouraging numbers jumping 7 percent last year.

“I know it may sound very odd but we’ve had two very good years,” Lisker said.

She believes that its active advocacy role on such issues as divestment from Iran is responsible for AJC’s success.

Lisker notes that donors are becoming choosier about where philanthropic cash goes. They also want greater transparency.

“Their dollars have become scarcer so people have become choosier on who they give their money to. They are going to ask more questions and want philanthropic organizations to be very accountable,” she said. “It’s a good byproduct of the situation. They are going to get more and more involved as lay leaders in the work of those organizations.”

Despite AJC’s success of late however, she said the environment is still a difficult one with donors remaining skittish.

“I don’t take anything for granted in any year,” she said.