JFed struggles to meet goals for campaign

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

With the year drawing to a close, the Jewish Federation of Greater St. Louis is putting out an appeal for increased donations as it braces for what could be its lowest campaign total in more than a decade.

The latest numbers showed the agency’s annual fundraising effort at just under $6.5 million as it moves into its final month. Ruth Lederman, assistant executive vice president and director of development, didn’t want to speculate on an exact figure but said the struggling yearly initiative had the potential to fall below the $10 million mark for the first time since 1997, the year she came on board as campaign director.

“Let’s say it’s the worst that it’s been in 13 years,” she said.

If the numbers don’t improve, it would mark the third down year in a row for the campaign, which peaked at just over $11 million in 2007 dropping to just over $10.7 million in 2008 in the wake of the economic crisis. The effort fell again to less than $10.3 million last year during a campaign marked by Lightfest, a community-wide fundraising event designed to give a last-minute boost to donation figures.

Previous to 2008, the Federation had had five consecutive years of a growing campaign.

This year, the agency is launching another effort to bolster the flagging numbers. Last week, it announced a more than $100,000 “challenge grant” funded by 19 area families who would match new or increased donations dollar for dollar. The organization is recommending that those who haven’t yet given increase their gift by 10 percent.

“We already have seen some initial positive results from the challenge,” said local Federation executive vice-president Barry Rosenberg. “Several people have increased their gifts just as they heard about it so we think it’s going to help us. The early indications are that it will and that’s very gratifying.”

Rosenberg said that despite the worrisome numbers, St. Louis had weathered the economic storm better than the national average to this point. Lederman said many federations saw drops of up to 15 percent over the past two years, something that didn’t happen here.

Paul Kane, senior advisor to the CEO of Jewish Federations of North America, said that it is difficult to compare Jewish umbrella organizations since their fiscal years can end at different times but he said 2009 was a tough year with many Federations down 10 percent and a few falling by as much as 18 or 20 percent. He said 2010 will likely turn out to be “flat-plus” for many communities while 2011 is looking distinctly upbeat with promising major gift results showing a healthy rebound, sometimes by double-digit increases.

“I think people were really looking for a floor,” Kane said, citing a strong appeal and a recovering economy for the turnaround. “In 2009, we really didn’t know where the floor was.”

Elsewhere in the Midwest, the picture seems to be stabilizing, yet improvement may be primarily in relation to what was lost during a couple of rocky years. The Jewish Federation of Memphis saw its fundraising effort shrink by 12 percent for 2009, said Molly Jalenak Wexler, director of financial resource development. That leveled into a flat campaign in the 2010 cycle, which ended in June and the numbers appear to have turned positive for 2011.

“This year, so far, knock on wood, we’re up 7 percent,” Wexler said. “But it’s still early.”

Omaha has also already begun its 2011 campaign and the initial signs are promising, said Sharon Kirshenbaum, campaign director for the Jewish Federation of Omaha. Like its larger counterpart in St. Louis, the organization is coming off two years of falling numbers. Its campaign, normally around $3 million was down more than 2 percent in 2010 and more than 5 percent in 2009.

“That was the first down campaign I’ve seen and I’ve been here 15 years,” she said, noting that agencies have had to adjust but haven’t needed to shed staff. “Even though we’ve been down, we haven’t really felt the impact like some of the Federations out there.”

At the Jewish Federation of Greater Kansas City, Gail Weinberg, financial resource development director, said that her agency had seen a drop of about 15 percent over the previous two years but 2010 figures, which will be finalized after Dec. 31, were painting a picture that the worst may be over for the approximately $4.6 million campaign.

“We’ll be a little up at this point and I say that guardedly,” she said. “I think there is some glimmer of hope on the horizon for philanthropy. Donors are feeling a little bit more optimistic.”

The Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago reported a sharp decline of 7.4 percent in 2009 bringing in $77.5 million after a record 2008. The 2010 effort will conclude in January.

“This year it’s certainly been harder than it usually is but I’m sure that’s the story you are hearing from everybody,” said Joel Schatz, assistant director of communications. “But with a particular emphasis on increased need and what’s going on with people economically, our community certainly has responded and we’re running slightly ahead of last year.”

Locally, Lee Bohm, 82, a major donor from Creve Coeur, said she was concerned about the budgetary fate of St. Louis’s Judaic agencies, particularly Jewish Family & Children’s Service, which would find cuts more difficult to stomach during a time of increased need. She urged area residents to contribute what they could.

“We always think about Jewish people as not having needs but right now there are many who are hurting a lot,” said Bohm, who has given to the Federation for nearly 60 years and is one of those supporting the challenge grant. “They are having to go to the food pantry where in years past they were donating to the food pantry.”

Sheila Greenbaum is another of the participants helping to fund the challenge grant. She said that she’s happy to be a part of the effort.

“I just really hope it helps,” she said.

Greenbaum said the Federation is caught at a crossroads in the philanthropic landscape as giving habits remain in flux.

“Right now, we’re probably in a transition,” she said. “I think there’s a recognition that people often would rather do designated giving and I’m fully appreciative of that but we have very worthy agencies that have to open the door and turn on the lights and I think with the federated dollar you still get a big bang for your buck.”

“I think if we implement the new strategic plan, then the way we do development is likely to do some changing,” she added. “I can’t tell you exactly how that’s going to look. I don’t think anyone knows that yet.”

Marvin Plattner was once a large donor to the Federation and even headed up its $25,000 givers committee. In the late 1970s, he would contribute as much as $15,000 per year.

Today, living on a fixed income, the 76-year-old Creve Coeur resident gives $18 a year.

“That’s just to say to them, ‘I’m with you,'” he said.

Plattner said that as a former fundraiser, he thinks Federations have to work hard to keep donors connected to the community. He said trips to Israel can often be a key component in building a lifelong commitment to Jewish communal efforts.

“I think one of the biggest jobs that a fundraiser has is to teach people how to give because people generally don’t know what is expected of them,” he said. “Once you explain to or show them what is expected, they’ll go on from there.”

Lederman said that donations like Plattner’s are important to the community’s overall fiscal health. About 20 to 30 percent of the organization’s campaign total comes from smaller donors.

“The annual campaign is a community campaign and every single donor matters, whether they are giving $18 or $100,000,” she said. “It all adds up.”

Lederman said this year’s campaign was hurt not just by continuing economic skittishness but also by the loss of major givers to death. Overall, the Federation’s efforts began nearly $800,000 behind last year’s starting point.

“A significant six-figure gift is very hard to make up,” she said. “Usually in that situation we’ve made it up through people coming behind them increasing but we don’t see that right now because of the economy.”

She said development and building connections with the next generation, both a part of the Federation’s strategic plan, were important aspects of the agency’s effort to boost fundraising for donors both large and small. Like Plattner, she said trips to the Jewish State, such as those offered by Birthright Israel, can be a big part of fostering connection to the Federation’s work. A focus on one-on-one conversation with community members is important too.

“Very few donors start off giving six or seven figures,” she said. “Most start off at modest levels and as they learn more about the work of an organization, something touches them, something excites or motivates them to get more involved.”

In addition to the challenge grant, the Federation has taken other action as well. A “Visionaries Gala” raised nearly $200,000 while a Young Professionals Division event brought in gifts from 70 new donors.

Lederman said budgetary priorities will not be decided until after the final figures are in but she worries that agencies which may be taking a third budgetary hit in a row will find themselves less able to respond to emergencies when they are needed most. The Lifeline program, administered by JF&CS, is one example. Federation channeled half a million dollars into the effort, which assists Jews who find themselves in financial distress. JF&CS now needs another $400,000, she said.

Meanwhile, the news isn’t all bad. Lederman said that the Federation’s investments have performed well and that may offset some of the slack from lagging fundraising.

“The annual campaign is a significant part, but only one part of what goes into the allocable dollars,” she said. “You have the investment dollars off of endowments. You have one-time gifts. You have project gifts. We have a lot of different ways in which we fundraise.”

Lederman also sounded an optimistic note about 2011.

“The wonderful thing about the annual campaign is that it’s annual,” she said. “We have a whole new year to excite community members about the work that we are doing and we can hope that those people who are having difficulty will find their lives are getting better and they’ll be able to once again be donors.”

Matching donors

As of press time, the families supporting the Challenge Grants are:

• Lee Bohm

• Maxine Clark and Bob Fox

• The Fox Family Foundation

• Family of Rich and Isabel Goldstein; Rob and Susan Goldstein Family, Marc D. Goldstein

• Gladys K. Crown Foundation:

Randall and Nancy Green

• Sheila Greenbaum and Gary Wasserman

• Lubin-Green Foundation

• Harvey and Terry Hieken

• The Kalishman Family

• Ken and Nancy Kranzberg

• Bill and Kim Miller

• Robert and Colleen Millstone

• Marvin and Neva Moskowitz

• Sanford and Rosalind Neuman

• Barry Rosenberg and Barbara Levin

• Ron and Pam Rubin

• Todd Siwak and Gianna Jacobson; Greg and Stacy Siwak; Roger Siwak

• Carol and Michael Staenberg

• Harvey Wallace and Madeleine Elkins

How to donate

To donate to the federation’s annual campaign, call 314-432-0020 or make a gift via the Internet at: