Fed Campaign: ‘Every donor is a major donor’

BY DAVID BAUGHER, SPECIAL TO THE JEWISH LIGHT

Officially, the Jewish Federation of Greater St. Louis classifies someone as a major donor when they give more than $10,000. But in a year when the worst economic turbulence in decades has put a stranglehold on fundraising efforts worldwide, Bob Millstone, vice president of the Federation’s annual campaign, finds it easier to characterize things in a less complicated way.

“Every donor is a major donor,” he said.

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That simple philosophy has become central to a Jewish communal agency that is caught between the long-term challenge of expanding an aging donor base and the short-term crisis of a global recession that has killed millions of jobs and crippled federation campaigns across the nation.

This year, Federation officials hope to raise $10.7 million with the annual campaign, the same amount as last year’s effort. The key word however, is “hope.”

“To be honest, we think it’s unlikely we’ll be able to hit that number,” Millstone said. “We’re doing whatever we can to come as close to that as we can.”

Ruth Lederman, assistant executive vice president and director of development, strikes a more optimistic tone but is still under no illusions that it will be an easy sell.

“To exceed last year’s numbers it’s really going to take every single donor, every single community member to play their part and make a gift,” she said. “We can’t depend on the top end to take us over the $10.7 million mark.”

In a typical year, that “top end” of gifts of $10,000 or more comprises about 70-80 percent of the fundraising, said Lederman and Millstone. But that leaves at least a fifth of the goal based off smaller givers, a group which can make or break a campaign.

“Our community would be devastated if those gifts didn’t come in,” Millstone said. “In order to have a strong, vibrant community long-term we really need to do a better job of expanding our base and increasing the number of donors at all levels.”

The 2008 effort attracted more than 7,000 contributors. Lederman said this year, the campaign is running behind that number though how far behind is hard to say since, unlike in previous years, many donors are only just now being asked for gifts. That delay is no accident. Early last year, development staff detected a disturbing pattern in responses to solicitations as donors, uncertain about their own economic circumstances, were delaying or decreasing their contributions. Rather than turning up the pressure, Federation leadership responded by making a decision unusual for an organization worried about fundraising numbers.

They stopped asking for money

“We went into what we would call information gathering,” Lederman said. “Get in touch with your donors. Hear from them and talk to a broad spectrum of the community about what was happening and what was at stake.”

The effects of that “wait and see” approach were twofold. One result was to hold off on fundraising efforts until a brighter financial picture made asking easier and donors less squeamish. Millstone said that move is already bearing fruit.

“I think Ruth and her staff really made a courageous decision to delay our solicitations in hopes that the economy would improve,” he said. “Other communities around the country took a different strategy but ours is now starting to pay off because people are feeling better and more confident as the year has progressed.”

The other result will be unveiled early next month in the form of LightFest, a large tzedakah-oriented community event that will feature everything from a candle-making class to family entertainment to opportunities to make calls on behalf of the Federation campaign. The Dec. 6 festivities will be topped off by an attempt to convert the Staenberg Family Complex into a giant menorah.

The event’s philanthropic, community-building ethos is part of what the Federation heard when it spoke to donors. Lederman said the feedback stressed that the entire community needed to come together to deal with tough times.

Significantly, it also reflected a more diversified view of the ways in which people can support charitable efforts, some of which will be on display for LightFest.

“I’m the campaign director so people think that when I say ‘give,’ it’s only monetary,” Lederman said. “It is monetary but it’s also clothes, it’s canned goods, it’s toys for Hanukkah. It’s putting together emergency preparedness kits for our seniors. It’s a gamut of ways in which our community can really come out and help.”

An evolving landscape

As Barry Rosenberg, executive director of the Jewish Federation, looks ahead he clearly views the economic crisis as the biggest obstacle to overcome. That’s why Federation continues to search for ways to fund initiatives like Lifeline, a program administered through Jewish Family & Children’s Service which provides loans and grants to Jewish individuals who have recently lost a job. Raising funds for Lifeline will be one focus of LightFest since the loan program’s original quarter million dollar stake has been all but exhausted.

Yet challenges lurk beyond the immediate needs as well. While recent economic figures suggest an end to the recession, recovery is widely thought to be slow in coming. Even when it does, Rosenberg doesn’t anticipate that the funding spigots will just snap back on.

“We need to expect that the philanthropic landscape will be different for the foreseeable future,” Rosenberg said. “The notion of simply going back to normal would be a very dangerous idea. Too much has changed in the world and I don’t think we fully understand the implications of this recession and the restructuring of American economic life that we will see.”

That leaves the Federation searching for new strategies. Though Rosenberg doesn’t think the Federation will ever alter its core mission, he does see changes ahead.

“That may mean being willing to do things differently or being willing to stop doing certain things that we used to feel were important but maybe are less critical today,” he said.

Transition to the next generation

Until the financial crisis, the Federation had been on something of a winning streak, seeing five straight years of an “up” campaign that carried it from just over $10 million in 2002 to an all-time high of $11.03 million in 2007. Figures showed that it was on its way to extending that streak – until the fourth quarter of last year changed the playing field for everyone.

But despite the successes, long-term challenges remain. Even the organization’s record-breaking 2007 still fell a bit short of its $11.15 million goal. Part of hitting those goals in the future will mean making Jewish philanthropy and communal life relevant to the next generation.

“I don’t even like to call them the next generation,” Lederman said. “They are ‘Generation Now.'”

An effort to better appeal to that group has resulted in the youth “concierge.” A series of responsibilities assumed by development associate Margo Schwartz, the idea was created to help 20- and 30-somethings navigate the Jewish communal system.

Rosenberg said it’s all part of a “one-stop shop” concept that helps connect younger Jews with experiences relevant to their interests.

“We think that the concierge model will be replicated with lots of different initiatives in the future,” he said. “It’s part of the philosophy that we’re trying to bring into all the work that we do.”

The concierge is only one piece of the puzzle in attracting post-college age Jews into active, meaningful roles in the Jewish community. Others may become more evident after the Federation completes its new strategic plan next year. The goal will be to find the right mix of priorities to involve younger Jews in charitable giving — as well as Jewish life in general.

“What we’ve seen is that they really like to follow their philanthropy and have an impact,” Lederman said. “If we can show an impact really changing lives in Israel, they’re going to want to support what we’re doing. And if we can show that we’re changing lives in St. Louis, they’re going to want to support what we’re doing.”

In that sense, Millstone said that the 2010 strategic plan will really only be an extension of the previous blueprint developed in 2005. The key, he said, is to communicate the true purpose of philanthropy and the Federation itself. That’s a task that goes well beyond just asking for bigger numbers to increase last year’s baseline. The alternative, Lederman said, is to stop taking care of basic needs, an indication “we’ve failed as a community.”

“The goal is not to raise a specific amount of money but to meet the needs of the community,” Millstone added. “We can’t meet those needs if we’re going to have a shrinking campaign.”

That means the Federation has to find a recipe for sustainable long-term growth, a formula that may prove as challenging as it is necessary.

“We’re doing that not because we want to set a record in fundraising but because the community needs the money,” he said.

LightFest

WHAT: Jewish Federation’s major campaign event, featuring a variety of family-friendly opportunities for service and tzedakah, and the lighting of a giant menorah. For each person attending, the Staenberg Family Foundation will donate $5 to the JFed campaign.

WHEN: 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 6

WHERE: JCC and Jewish Federation Kopolow Building, I.E. Millstone Jewish Community Campus

MORE INFO: Visit the Web site www.LightFest.org