Continuity catch-phrase lacks passion, new study says

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Jewish continuity just isn't sexy enough.

At least that's the message in a new report that says Jewish continuity won't become the cash cow that Jewish philanthropy leaders might have expected.

In fact, if fund-raisers heed the report's recommendations, they'll consider dropping this decade's catch-phrase from their appeals altogether because it lacks "excitement, commitment and passion."

"There's no single reason that people give. So slogans, looking for hot buttons and trying to psych the donor out — none of that is going to work," said Gary Tobin, who directs the S.F.-based Brandeis University Institute for Community and Religion.

"American Jewish Philanthropy in the 1990s," a recently released report co-authored by Tobin, outlines why Jews give money and how charities must respond to keep the dollars coming.

The report recommends that philanthropies do a better job personalizing solicitations, tying donations to specific projects and acknowledging donors even if they give smaller amounts.

This means groups cutting back their professional staff are headed in the wrong direction.

"Given the furious competition for available funds from non-Jewish organizations, the failure to provide adequate staff will result in a never-decreasing share of those funds going to Jewish organizations," the report warns.

Nixing the phrase "Jewish continuity" — a term used to describe programs dedicated to building Jewish identity — doesn't mean abandoning the idea, according to Tobin. Instead, philanthropies that want to raise money by identity-building must highlight specific programs, what they accomplish and what a contributor's donation pays for. A donor may be more willing to support a single emigre family or needy family, for example, instead of a faceless group.

"Organizations will have to clearly communicate how they support Israel, what kind of local services they provide, how they build Jewish identity. A lot of receptivity is still there, but it requires more attention, more specificity,"Tobin said.

This approach is particularly important because some donors find it difficult to reconcile their contributions with their beliefs that Jewish organizations have failed to nurture Jewish identity.

"Some donors feel `burned' over having placed a great deal of faith in their annual gift to Jewish organizations, particularly federation, which they feel has not `paid off' in the form of a stronger Jewish community," the report said.

Bay Area federation leaders say they substantially agree with the report's assessment of giving and asking. And both already have taken advantage of Tobin's proximity by bringing him into their fund-raising strategy sessions.

"We've already begun to reshape in line with his recommendations," said Wayne Feinstein, executive vice president of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation.

Part of the S.F.-based federation's plans include offering contributors the option of sponsoring specific projects. And though the federation is financing Jewish identity-building projects, Feinstein said fund-raiser doesn't include the "lackluster" pitch of continuity.

Likewise, the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay used Tobin's research to help formulate the fund-raising goals and strategies found in its new campaign called "Year 1: The Future is Now."

"Many of the Year 1 changes within our federation are premised on the same beliefs," East Bay federation executive vice president Ami Nahshon said. "Giving opportunities need to be much more personal — both the solicitation and the acknowledgment."

Despite its warnings, the report contains reassurances that Jews still care about rescuing fellows Jews in troubled areas and supporting synagogues and local services.

"One thing I want to emphasize," Tobin said, is that "despite all the ways Jewish fund-raising organizations can improve themselves, they still are the most successful fund-raising organizations in the country…The question is: How do they adjust?"

Even those who have faith in the United Jewish Appeal-federation system do not necessarily support a general fund for Jewish continuity, which some see as"only the latest in a long series of crises generated by the fund-raising system."

"Almost no one will make a major contribution to a fund devoted to Jewish continuity without being able to exercise some control over that funds, "according to the report.

That conclusion was disputed by Rabbi Brian Lurie, executive vice president of UJA, which partially funded the report.

"If he's saying you can't raise money for Jewish continuity — I think he's wrong," said, Lurie, who is former head of the federation in San Francisco.

He pointed to the recent fund-raising successes of Hillel: The Foundation forJewish Campus Life as evidence that continuity is a cause donors can relate to.

Lurie also predicted that five years from now, the community will receive large gifts to finance Jewish high schools, summer camps and Israel trips for youths.