Oshman Family JCC in July 2020, after the facility had been mostly deserted for months due to the pandemic. (Photo/Seth Leslie)
Oshman Family JCC in July 2020, after the facility had been mostly deserted for months due to the pandemic. (Photo/Seth Leslie)

Our Pandemic Year: 12 months of frenzied fundraising and philanthropy

Part Two of OUR PANDEMIC YEAR, a week-long series examining how the Covid pandemic has changed our local Jewish world.

There was a day last spring when Cindy Rogoway, executive director of Hebrew Free Loan, was really worried. The pandemic had hit, California was on lockdown and scores of people were suddenly thrust into financial insecurity. The S.F.-based organization, which gives out interest-free loans, was deluged with requests.

Cindy Rogoway
Cindy Rogoway

“We really found ourselves at this moment in March last year where I was very concerned that we wouldn’t have enough money to meet the needs of the people turning to us,” she said. “We had such a huge influx of applications.”

The answer to the problem was a quick influx of cash in the form of a repayable grant — a free loan to Hebrew Free Loan, so to speak —  from the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund, which went to the donor-advised funds it manages and raised a total of $5.6 million, including $1 million from Federation itself.

For the first time in its history, HFL was borrowing money. It was unprecedented, but Rogoway said it saved the day.

“It became clear to me, as the director of a nonprofit, just how dependent we are on the goodwill of people in the community who care,” Rogoway said.

In fact, funding has been up across the board in the United States during the pandemic, with donor-advised funds, for example, increasing grants by almost 30 percent, to $8.3 billion, over the first six months of 2020 compared with the same period in 2019, according to a new report from National Philanthropic Trust. Meanwhile, a recent study on Jewish foundations and federations in the U.S. found Jewish philanthropy was a big chunk of that total: 82 foundations gave a total of $1.09 billion, focusing first on urgent needs such as food, cash assistance and health-related services.

Sam Buckwalter requested a loan from Hebrew Free Loan after being laid off from his job at a Japanese restaurant in San Francisco early in the pandemic.
Sam Buckwalter requested a loan from Hebrew Free Loan after being laid off from his job at a Japanese restaurant in San Francisco early in the pandemic.

That focus on practical help lines up with the grants given through the S.F.-based Federation in two categories.

On top of the $5.6 million loan to HFL, more than $1.2 million went out for urgent, practical aid. Recipients included S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children’s Services, the San Francisco Campus for Jewish Living, Jewish Vocational Service, the Jews of Color Initiative and the Reutlinger Community in Danville, as well as food banks, shelters and city agencies.

Additional aid went out in a category the Federation called “stabilizing our Jewish ecosystem.” Organizations such as JCCs, camps and cultural institutions received $1.5 million (including $75,000 to J.), another $1 million went to Jewish preschools for reopening, and further aid went to help fund scholarships at Jewish schools.

Joy Sisisky
Joy Sisisky

Joy Sisisky, the Federation’s chief philanthropy officer, said it was a case of using every tool at hand to meet the incredible need.

That strategy included launching an emergency campaign, making grants from annual campaign funds, working with those in charge of donor-advised funds, and tapping into restricted endowed funds and the Federation’s own endowment.

“I think the goal really has been to encourage us to pull every lever, kind of at the same time — if there was ever an emergency it’s now,” she said. “And to use the funds that are available to us to help the community when they most need it.”

One organization that needed money for immediate services was Jewish Family & Community Services East Bay, which received $150,000 from the Federation.

“We started fundraising right away,” said Holly Taines White, senior director of development and community engagement for JFCS East Bay. “The community stepped up big time. We got some really amazing, generous gifts.”

JFCS East Bay needed that generosity because the organization, on top of providing a host of services to low-income families, also started providing cash assistance for pandemic relief  — some through its Jewish Community Safety Net.

“Obviously, it was challenging,” White recalled. “That influx of cash was mostly directed to the direct financial assistance, but then we were continuing all our normal services also, so all of a sudden we had a brand new program we were fundraising for and offering.”

Donated produce arrives to be delivered by Jewish Family & Community Services East Bay volunteers, March 2020.
Donated produce arrives to be delivered by Jewish Family & Community Services East Bay volunteers, March 2020.

The suddenness of the pandemic, with the fear and chaos it engendered, put established Jewish nonprofits on the spot. All at once they had to grapple with a sliding economy, loss of revenue, and the uncertainty of raising money in a time when every day brought new and alarming headlines.

“At the beginning of the pandemic, the only thing that was certain was that no one knew what to expect — foundations and grantees alike,” said Danielle Foreman, director of programs at the S.F.-based Koret Foundation, which made $5 million in emergency grants to food-providing organizations (including S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children’s Services) in the early weeks of the pandemic.

On top of everything, the organizations needed to devise a plan for the current fiscal year — which started last June — without knowing what 2020-21 would bring.

White said it was a pressing need to keep programs funded, even as pandemic weariness set in.

“What we’re seeing now is people we helped then — it’s not like a lot of them are in much better situations — coming back and saying, ‘We still need help,’” she said. “The need is here. It’s not going away any time soon.”

Seth Leslie
Seth Leslie

At the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto, no one on staff knew how long the doors would stay shuttered. Seth Leslie, the center’s chief development officer, remembers the debate last spring: Would the OFJCC reopen in July? Or maybe they’d have to wait until September.

Leslie laughs now when he looks back. “We had no idea,” he said.

JCCs, with their reliance on revenue from preschool programs, fitness centers and classes like meditation or piano, are a little different from other nonprofits that get funds primarily by asking people for donations or applying for grants, Leslie said. Generating revenue from programs is an enviable model in good times, and before the pandemic, the OFJCC was generating roughly 85 percent of its operating revenue that way. But social distancing and other Covid-19 regulations put an immediate axe through that revenue.

“That was all gone,” he said. “It wasn’t part gone, it was all gone.”

Management realized that even with staff cuts, they’d need to reach out to the community for help. But, Leslie said, they’d just had a big ask only a few weeks earlier. OFJCC leaders worried that “now’s not the time to ask for money, it’s a pandemic, people are scared,” Leslie recalled.

But he felt differently. “My view was, gosh, now seems like the time to ask for money!”

OFJCC programs that had brought in more than 85 percent of operating revenue during fiscal year 2019-20 dropped to 55 percent for the year that started during the pandemic. The JCC asked those who’d paid for canceled classes or memberships to donate that money, rather than get a refund. Staff also went back to their donors and were able to raise $1.3 million in late spring from foundations and individuals; they asked people to give more or to give sooner or to reallocate (to the emergency fund) what they’d already given. The OFJCC ended up with around 500 new donors, Leslie estimated.

“We could create opportunities for people to say yes and be helpful, even if they weren’t writing a new check,” he said.

As the months wore on, the importance of making fundraising a bigger part of the OFJCC budget solidified, as one big source of guaranteed revenue, the fitness center, all but disappeared. Because nobody knew when it would reopen, or if usage would be down once it did, OFJCC officials determined that “fundraising will be a bigger piece than before,” Leslie said. To that end, a working group was formed to look at fundraising over the next five years and discuss strategy.

“I think the main thing is being really conservative, and trying to make reasonable projections,” he said.

At the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, ticket sales plummeted to zero when a stay-at-home order went into effect last spring. Then again, said Jay Auslander, the museum’s director of development, ticket sales at the CJM (and other museums) don’t cover the cost of operations anyway. But revenue-making lectures and events also were off, no one was renting CJM spaces for events, and retail income from the museum shop and the Wise Sons Deli outpost dried up.

“So fundraising became, in some ways, the only game in town for us,” he said.

Auslander said the first thing the CJM did was ask its board members to reach out to their own networks. But the museum also turned to its thousands of members for help, knowing that they’d understand the value of keeping the institution afloat.

The Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco. (Photo/Gary Sexton)
The Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco. (Photo/Gary Sexton)

“They’ve continued to be supportive,” he said. “And that’s really inspiring and makes my work really rewarding, to see that.”

At J., donations increased as well. The newspaper, a nonprofit, saw a 33 percent increase in the number of donors in 2020 compared with the year before, and took in around 20 percent more in fundraising dollars.

Tanya Shadoan, senior director of philanthropy operations at the Federation, said giving was higher during the 2020 calendar year, but that wasn’t the only difference. It was also spread out differently from a typical year, rising suddenly after March because the need was acute, but trending downward when autumn arrived.

“We spiked in July,” she said. “That is really when the highest number of dollars went out.”

For Hebrew Free Loan, Rogoway said the loan monies HFL received ($4.6 million from donor-advised funds it manages and $1 million from Federation itself) was a “saving grace” that allowed HFL to meet what she said was a 230 percent increase in loan applications in those early days.

But even with that breathing room, HFL still needed to fundraise on its own throughout the year. Thankfully, she said, donors were generous, because the economic effects of the pandemic have been uneven, with industries such as restaurants and the arts taking huge hits, but other people still working and the stock market strong. In spring, HFL did a mailing campaign asking for donations; the prepandemic goal had been around $25,000.

“We made over $200,000,” she said.

But it’s not easy to sustain fundraising at a higher level.

“This is what always happens in a crisis,” said White at JFCS East Bay. “People give, and then it kind of fizzles out. Even though the need doesn’t go away.”

And that need — whether it’s at an institution that nourishes the Jewish soul through art, fuels the body through a gym membership or feeds a family through grocery deliveries — is being supported by fundraising.

But will it continue?

In looking ahead, Rogoway said she had more questions than answers.

“I don’t know if there will be a shift at all, big picture,” she said. “If there’ll be a shift for philanthropists in terms of prioritizing social services and that security net for people hurting. It’s so hard to know. So much depends on what happens with the economy.”

Until things change, it’s fundraising that is proving crucial to keep Jewish organizations afloat.

“I hear it all time,” said Leslie from the Palo Alto JCC. “I’m living it. Fundraising is saving us.”

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.