Federations optimistic about 2012 campaigns

JFed Assistant Executive V.P., Director of Development. Photograph by Kristi Foster.

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

 Coming off a difficult campaign fundraising year in 2011, the Jewish Federation of St. Louis is optimistic that 2012 may finally present a light at the end of the tunnel.

“Things are looking good at the beginning part of the year,” said Ruth Lederman, vice-president/director of development. “People are responding to the call.”

In the early going, Lederman said the nascent campaign is ahead of the pace compared to last year, when the annual fundraising drive fell 5.5 percent dropping to $9.4 million, an almost 15 percent decline from its 2007 high and the lowest numbers seen in more than a decade. It was the fourth straight year of shrinkage for the effort, which once topped $11 million.

“As you know, we went through a whole strategic plan and there’s a new direction for Jewish Federation,” she said. “With the 2012 campaign in this economic climate, you have to set yourself apart from other philanthropic endeavors. What we are promoting and what our strategic plan is promoting through its six strategic initiatives will really resonate with the community.”

The big picture

Annual campaigns around the country were devastated by the financial crisis that rocked markets in 2008 leaving a trail of increased need, shrunken investment portfolios and jittery, tight-fisted donors in its wake. Yet the situation has varied from city to city since then with some federations experiencing relatively quick recoveries while others continue to navigate rough philanthropic waters.

Developing a full picture of federation fundraising efforts nationwide was difficult since not all publicize figures and a number did not return calls requesting comment. Of those that did, the picture for 2011 was mixed but most, like St. Louis, say they are ahead of pace for 2012.

“We’re actually having a really strong campaign this year,” said Daniel Blain, senior vice president of the Jewish Federation of Cleveland. “It’s definitely stronger than our last three campaigns and we’re projecting an overall two percent increase if we achieve our goal.”

That would put Cleveland’s annual effort at about $28.5 million dollars, a significant turnaround from the recent past. The Cleveland campaign saw a three percent decline in 2010, a drop which punctuated a much more severe 12 percent loss in 2009. Things finally seemed to stabilize last year with a half percent increase that left the drive just shy of $28 million.

“We’re definitely seeing more optimism,” Blain said. “Donors who had cut their gifts have reinstated them. There’s just a much more positive outlook both about the economy and our community.”

Around the Midwest, the environment was a challenge and results were varied.

Joel Schatz, director of news and information for Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, said the Windy City is rebounding. The organization just ended last year’s campaign in January totaling $78.8 million, about $160,000 over 2010’s total. Before the economic crisis, the effort netted nearly $84 million at its peak.

“It’s certainly been challenging but the community has come through,” he said.

According to figures in its annual reports, the Minneapolis Jewish Federation has seen a difficult stretch for its campaign. It fell to $11.6 million last year from $12.25 million in 2010, which itself represented a $1.8 million drop from 2009. The organization did not return requests for comment regarding its fundraising situation.

Other areas around the region more or less held their own last year. The Jewish Federation of Kansas City reported a roughly flat campaign in 2011 reaching its $4.6 million goal. Jane Blumenthal Martin, director of strategic marketing for the agency, said it has set a “cautiously optimistic” goal of $4.8 million for this year’s campaign, which began last fall.

“That is down from a few years back,” she said of the just completed effort. “In 2007 and 2008 when things started getting rocky, we were closer to the $5 million mark.”

Things are looking up for 2012 however. Kansas City is 5.5 percent above last year so far.

“Being in the Midwest, people were definitely affected and we’re still seeing the effects,” she said. “With what’s been going on, not only are donors having a harder time giving but the demand on the services we support has increased dramatically.”

Still, she thinks that while the region might take longer to recover, it may also have been shielded from the worst effects.

“I don’t think it’s dropped us quite as steeply as we’ve been hearing from the coasts,” Martin said.

Flat but hopeful was also the story for 2011 in Cincinnati where the federation completed a $5.1 million effort. It was about $6 million before the crisis.

“We have a rare and exciting opportunity this year because we have a matching grant that we are working with for new and increased gifts,” said Lindsey Wade, senior development officer.

That’s one reason 2012 is looking better. Their goal is to get back to pre-recession levels.

“This year we are at an eight percent card-for-card increase,” she said.

Beyond economic circumstances

Some federations find themselves in very unique circumstances. For New Orleans, the more notable challenges didn’t come from the financial disaster in 2008 but from a natural disaster three years earlier when the city lost a significant portion of its Jewish population after Hurricane Katrina. In 2006, the organization didn’t even run a campaign. When the effort resumed the following year, it had declined from $2.84 million to more than $2.6 million.

The onset of the financial crisis worsened the situation with the figure bottoming out in 2010 at under $2.4 million.

However, last year, fundraising picked up again, increasing by about $150,000. Sherri Tarr, development director for the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans said the campaign for 2012, which will conclude this summer, isn’t looking bad either with a 9 percent card-for-card increase over last year.

Tarr notes that while the Jewish population of about 9,500 has returned to its pre-storm levels, Katrina’s shadow still presents challenges.

“That includes 1,800 newcomers who have moved to New Orleans since the storm,” she said. “Most of these people are young. They are not familiar with the federation system and they are not replacing the upper-end donors that did not return after Katrina.”

Still, the hurricane may have given the federation one advantage.

“We had less Jews but we had such incredible participation in the campaign because people really saw what the Federation did for them after Katrina,” Tarr said. “We don’t have to explain to the community what Federation does. Everybody knows.”

Des Moines didn’t experience a hurricane but Elaine Steinger, executive director of the city’s Jewish federation, said area residents have gotten to see a lot of what the federation can do for them. Of late, it has participated heavily in synagogue remodeling efforts and the construction of a new Hebrew school.

Though the agency does not release specific numbers, she said the campaign was hammered badly in the 2008 economic crisis and remained flat the following year before starting to rise again in 2010.

Last year, it flattened once more though 2012 is looking up.

“The campaign is going up,” she said. “We have a five percent goal and I think we’re going to reach it.”

She said the philanthropic environment is far more competitive than it was three or four decades ago.

“Now Jewish institutions are competing with the symphony and the arts center and the library and the animal rescue league,” she said. “We have shifted to the younger generation and they are very enthusiastic so we see a resurgence in volunteerism and fundraising.”

Inverting the model

St. Louis isn’t the only city exploring ways to reinvigorate giving in a difficult environment.

In Atlanta, the federation has seen its campaign shrink from about $18 million before the crisis to $15.35 million in 2010. Last year, it shed even more weight dropping to $14.8 million. Ronette Throne, vice president of the effort, said the agency has been exploring various ideas and has tried to put on more events, including their first community event in a decade. Headlined by “Saturday Night Live” comedian Seth Meyers, the festivities attracted 1,100 people.

“We have to bring back some events to bring them back into the building and bring them back into the community so they can remember why they were giving in the first place,” she said.

It may be bearing fruit. She said 2012 is showing an upward trend.

“Part of it is the economy but I think the strategies we’ve incorporated this year in the campaign are what is driving some of our success,” she said. “I also believe it’s the leadership that we have which has been committed to securing increased gifts and finding new gifts.”

The Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle has also seen a tough stretch of fundraising since the economic crisis. A campaign that used to raise more than $6 million barely cracked $5 million in 2010. It tumbled again last year to $4.95 million.

David Chivo, vice president of the Center for Jewish Philanthropy, the agency’s fundraising arm, said the organization is taking proactive measures to address the problem.

“The challenge for Jewish Federations nationwide, as is the case for many umbrella or communal fundraising efforts within the Jewish and general community, is how do we engage a new generation of donors,” he said, “not just a generation in terms of age but also as a construct identifying people who are new to giving to a communal fund.”

Chivo said that Seattle is “inverting” the model by putting less emphasis on unrestricted giving and more on targeted gifts to certain “impact areas.” It’s an idea that caters to the increasingly specific desires of donors.

“We’re all about marrying the passions that our donors have for certain causes and being the conduit through which they can express their philanthropic passions,” he said. “We’re highly optimistic that this will help us raise more money on behalf of the Jewish community in the years to come. We now live in an era of choice and accountability and our Jewish Federation is not afraid of that choice and accountability but embraces it.”

Chivo said the Federation’s annual campaign, which runs through the summer, is showing signs of recovery in 2012, up about three percent over last year. They’ve set a goal of $5.1 million.

“Only now are we seeing the reemergence of some of these donors as participants again,” he said. “In other cases, we’re hearing from individuals that their passion is still with the work that we’re doing but they are not yet able to return to our philanthropic ranks this year.”

Back in St. Louis, federation leadership continues to feel good about donors returning to the ranks as it plans to kick the campaign into high gear in March. Though she said she feels it’s important to distinguish the value federation provides, Lederman said being competitive doesn’t mean it’s a competition.

“We have a lot of wonderful non-profit philanthropic institutions and I hope and believe that the Jewish community is very charitable to many of those institutions both within and outside the community,” she said. “I don’t really look at it as a competition. I look at it as that we need a network of these different agencies and there are enough different people with different passions to support these worthwhile institutions.”