JCF grabs 139th spot among nations top 400 charities

The S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation cracked the Top 140 in a new survey of philanthropic organizations across the nation.

The Philanthropy 400, an annual ranking of America's most successful charities, showed the JCF at No. 139 on the list, placing it third among U.S. federations, behind only New York and Chicago.

Riding the wave of the Bay Area's sizzling economy, the JCF collected $71.1 million last year. That figure included approximately $50.1 million in endowments and $21 million in annual gifts to the annual campaign.

The Chronicle of Philanthropy, a biweekly newspaper of the nonprofit world, ranked the JCF ahead of two federations considered to be fund-raising powerhouses, Detroit and Cleveland.

The Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco, the Peninsula, Marin and Sonoma Counties — as it is officially known — also ranked ahead of Boston, Baltimore, Los Angeles and Philadelphia.

The East Bay and South Bay federations failed to make the Top 400, which requires organizations to raise at least $22 million.

Explaining their organization's inclusion on the list, which was released earlier this month, JCF staff members and lay leaders couldn't ignore the positive financial climate.

"The economy has been good, and that's been a big help," said Barbara Farber, who is teaming up with her husband, Jeff, to run the JCF campaign for a second straight year.

But the record $21 million raised by the 1999 campaign, which ran from July 1998 through June 1999, wasn't purely economics, Farber added.

"More than the economy is the fact that people want to help other people," she said last week. "And a lot of it is getting the message out and talking to people. The biggest part of our jobs is getting the asking done, because if people aren't asked, then they usually aren't going to donate."

For the Farbers, who live in Tiburon, "getting the asking done" entailed the formation of a newly designed network of volunteers, handing people "vice chairperson" titles and putting them in charge of different regions and sectors of the campaign.

Wayne Feinstein, the executive vice president of the S.F.-based federation, downplayed his agency's ranking in the survey, saying, "We don't think about the competition."

Then again, he did send out a congratulatory e-mail to JCF staffers when the rankings came out.

Discussing the survey this week, Feinstein said he predicted five years ago "that at the end of this decade, if the economy remained robust, many, many Jewish organizations" would be raking in big money, especially because of a major growth in endowments.

"We're just keeping our head down and doing our job."

In that light, he was especially ecstatic about the campaign portion of JCF's revenues. He praised the Farbers and their team of fund-raisers, who proved that raising money in the Bay Area is more than just tapping into deep pockets.

For example, despite its Silicon Valley location, the Jewish Federation of Greater San Jose raised $1.84 million with its 1999 campaign — which was $60,000 less than its 1998 campaign totals.

Meanwhile, the JCF annual campaign raised nearly $600,000 more in 1999 than in 1998, marking the sixth year in a row of increasing annual campaign totals.

While a small gain every year doesn't necessarily indicate all-star fund-raising, the JCF campaign has recorded a 19 percent increase in revenues since 1993. And that's a statistic worth noting.

Over that period, only one of the 18 largest federations in the country, Palm Beach County in Florida, with a 27.7 percent rise, has posted a bigger percentage increase, JCF reported.

"I'm very proud because this is not an era when umbrella campaigns and annual drives are very successful," Feinstein said. "We've worked hard at that…[because] umbrella charities are not in high favor with donors."

Feinstein credited his agency's planning and allocation process, its integrity, and its lay leadership and volunteer network for striking a chord with donors.

"We're listening to the community and adjusting priorities," he said. "We're not stuck in neutral or in the past, saying that simply because something was funded yesterday, it must be funded tomorrow."

He said JCF's funding has shifted from overseas to domestic needs, including Jewish education and culture, senior services and emigre programs. He also pointed to creative ways JCF is focusing on its different communities from Silicon Valley in the south to Sonoma County in the north, rather than taking a blanket approach.

The 1999 campaign was powered in large part by two donations, each in excess of $1.2 million.

Thirty-two donors contributed at least $100,000 apiece, and 80 others donated between $24,000 and $99,999 each.

Most of the donors to the annual campaign are individuals. In fact, fewer than 1 percent of donations to the JCF's 1999 campaign came from corporations.

The S.F.-based federation supports 45 local Jewish agencies and 60 worldwide in the areas of social services, culture and education. Many of the agencies listed in the annual Resource guide — a handbook for Jewish life in the Bay Area — receive JCF funding.

Of the money raised in the 1999 campaign, JCF gave $10 million to local and national Jewish organizations, with $7.1 million going to Israel and overseas. JCF used $3.6 for operational costs.

Approximately 15,000 people contributed to the 1999 campaign, according to campaign director Ed Cushman.

The mountain of campaign donations helped build an even bigger mountain — the $71.1 million that placed the S.F. federation No. 139 on the prestigious Philanthropy 400 list.

Feinstein said those funds have put the JCF in excellent financial shape. "It ensures that the Jewish community has a treasury," he said. "And it means we can afford to be more creative" in what is funded. "Today, we feel we have more flexibility to find new and innovative responses to Jewish needs."

So do other organizations across the country. The Philanthropy 400 rankings included numerous Jewish organizations: 15 federations, two Jewish defense organizations, two American universities and three fund-raising arms of Israeli universities.

The S.F.-based federation ranked third among federations, following New York's $156.9 million (No. 44 on the list) and Metropolitan Chicago's $95.5 million (No. 92).

San Francisco ranked ahead of Metropolitan Detroit ($65.9 million, No. 155), Cleveland ($61.2 million, No. 165), Boston ($57.5 million, No. 176), Baltimore ($44.7 million, No. 219) and Los Angeles ($41.5 million, No. 236).

"It's a pretty phenomenal accomplishment," Cushman said. "If you look at that list, most of the charities receive donations from all of their affiliates across the country, like the Salvation Army and the YMCA. The 180 [Jewish] federations in the U.S. are all listed separately."

The Salvation Army was No. 1 on the list with $1.2 billion, and the YMCA was second with $629.3 million.

Cushman said that if all the local Jewish federations were combined into one giant entity, "I'd bet we'd easily be in the top 5."

The Chronicle of Philanthropy's annual survey revealed that these are excellent times in the fund-raising world. Private donations to charities rose 16 percent in 1998, the survey found, which is the biggest jump in eight years.

The newspaper quoted one fund-raiser as saying that the last three or four years have been the best times for nonprofit fund-raising in the past 25 years, and Cushman couldn't disagree.

"There is phenomenal wealth right now, and the Bay Area has probably the greatest concentration of wealth anywhere in the country," he said.

Overall, the combined 1999 revenues of the three Bay Area federations were nearly $87 million.

The Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay raised $12 million, a 50 percent increase over its 1998 total of $8 million. Most of the rise was due to a growth in endowments, said executive director Ami Nahshon, although a $3.1 million 1999 campaign represented a 7 percent increase over the previous year.

At the Jewish Federation of Greater San Jose, a strong year in endowments made up for the 3.2 percent dropoff in the annual campaign. Executive Director Jon Friedenberg said his agency raised $3.74 million in overall revenues for 1999, a 12 percent increase over the previous year.

Feinstein said every federation is seeking a "creative blend" in raising money through endowments and the annual campaign.

Looking at the S.F.-based federation's 2000 campaign, organizers say the goal is to raise $21.65 million. Although the campaign officially commenced July 1, the first major event wasn't held until two weeks ago at the Jewish Museum San Francisco.

One of the Farbers' goals is to "build more community," Barbara Farber said. Much of that will involve having more federation-sponsored events that bring people together.

"We've got a leadership circle program that's in the works," she said. "People want more programming; even as busy as everybody is, it's nice to get together."

The Farbers are also looking to expand the base of donors. Even though fund-raising organizations report that more money is being collected, donor bases are shrinking.

The JCF wants to guard against that, Jeff Farber said. "Anytime you rely on a small group of people to raise money, you're in trouble," he said. "People tend to change their giving habits and their ideas about what they want to give to. Young parents, for example, often want to give to camps or JCCs."

Although the "80-20 rule" applies to many organizations — with 80 percent of the money coming from 20 percent of donors — the Farbers said the JCF is "a little less skewed than that" and they want to keep it that way.

Andy Altman-Ohr

Andy Altman-Ohr was J.’s managing editor and Hardly Strictly Bagels columnist until he retired in 2016 to travel and live abroad. He and his wife have a home base in Mexico, where he continues his dalliance with Jewish journalism.