Fundraising these days needs creativity and a Jewish heart

Examining fundraising trends anywhere in North America should begin with two assumptions: fundraising is more successful in a strong economy, and committed, accountable fundraising professionals can be effective in good times as well as bad.

However, Jewish life in the West is often considered to be worthy of observation as a “canary in the coal mine,” portending significant changes that might not be widely evident. The Bay Area Jewish population is largely composed of people who were born elsewhere or whose immediate families hail from elsewhere. Individuals who reside in the area in which they were born have been more likely to maintain formal contacts within the Jewish community, including belonging to the synagogue in which they were raised and donating to Jewish charities.

This is one reason why Jewish affiliation rates in the Bay Area are currently at or below 20 percent, with the exception of the South Peninsula, or Silicon Valley, where the affiliation rate is closer to 35 percent. The difference in the Silicon Valley is particularly pronounced among families who migrated to the Bay Area in the last 20 years. The members of this migration were older than those of previous decades and were much more interested in affiliating in some way with Jewish communal institutions.

The number of Orthodox Jews in the Bay Area comprises a smaller percentage of the Jewish population compared to most cities east of the Mississippi, and the intermarriage rate is considered to be one of the highest of large metropolitan areas.

Finally, demographers have found that the Bay Area Jewish population is notable for being widely dispersed over a large geographic area, with no significant population concentration in any particular zip code. The result is a challenging and costly delivery system for Jewish services without a highly developed public transportation system. The consequences of these factors for fundraising purposes result in a need for very creative strategies to identify prospective donors.

In the Bay Area, the era of civic-minded Americans born before 1946, who wrote checks out of a sense of duty and did not require reports on the use of the funds, has shifted to an era of Boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) who seek direct engagement and a clear sense of impact in exchange for their charitable contributions.

The fundraising strategy for the World War II generation is clear. CEOs and development officers should focus meticulously on seeing past loyal supporters, regardless of the size of their annual gifts, and asking them to consider remembering the Jewish charity in their wills. In surveys, when endowment prospects were asked if they have put their favorite nonprofits in their wills, most of them reported “I have never been asked.”

For the past 25 years, large federation endowment bequests throughout the U.S. have come principally from annual campaign donations of $100. Many of these individuals, who received help from the Jewish community, never felt able to give up control of their assets in their lifetimes, but wanted to give back at the end of their lives. This calls post-haste for old-fashioned charitable relationship building, which is at the core of all successful fundraising.

The Boomer generation needs more than a once-a-year phone call. These donors want to be heard, and they often insist on some kind of designation of their funds to their fields of interest. Those who fail to listen will lose the charitable funds.

Generation X, born between 1965 and 1980, and Generation Y, born between 1981and 1991, make up half the pool of potential donors, but they contribute less money to fewer charities and they give in different ways from their parents and grandparents.

Direct mail dominates 77 percent of giving among donors born in 1945. Generations X and Y donate money at retail stores or supermarkets, or through cell phones. They might find out about a charity on a friend’s Facebook page or through a text message, as was the case in the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake. Social events, volunteer activities and face-to-face solicitations are all more effective with younger donors, who are less concerned about research and administrative costs. Giving habits among younger Jews are also a factor of changes in Jewish identity in an age in which being Jewish is just one element in a multifaceted identity spectrum. Jewish identity and Jewish affiliation are no longer synonymous.

These factors are pronounced in the Bay Area, where many of today’s new communication devices were created. As “People of the Book,” these young Jews are not likely to seek authority figures in their teachers in the way past generations might have, but they value very much the culture of dialogue.

Those who wish to plan for the Jewish future must consider whether there is an effective system in place to produce great Jewish professionals who will inspire the most talented Jewish volunteers. Funders will need to focus on Jewish preschool families and teens as well as day schools and more impactful supplemental school experiences. Funders of outreach efforts, such as Birthright Israel, will need to ensure that follow-up programs, such as Birthright Next, are effective to protect the initial investment.

Many Jews, including Jews of the Bay Area, are searching for meaning and purpose. If we foster a sense of Jewish community, if we enable Jews to connect with others Jewishly, Jewish giving will continue in strength as donors are given the opportunity to better the world for themselves and for all those yet to come.

Phyllis Cook served as the executive director of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Endowment Fund of the Jewish Community Federation for 25 years. She is now the managing director of PLC Philanthropic Services and sits on the board of directors of several foundations.