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A Time for Funds

Jewish Federation faces donations challenge.

by Andrea Adelson

February 14, 2002 | 7:00 pm

Even as its executive board starts a search to replace its top administrator, the Jewish Federation of Orange County will intensify its annual fundraisng drive over the next two months.

The Federation, an umbrella group that helps in funding community-wide Jewish education programs, assists the needy and provides humanitarian aid in Israel, is starting its annual campaign in an unusually challenging fundraising environment, as a number of high-profile fund solicitations are planned or are underway to pay for additions to theaters, schools, museums and synagogues.

Within the Jewish community alone, philanthropists are being wooed to support six synagogue expansions, an endowment for subsidizing seniors and to pick up the $45 million tab for a Jewish high school and Jewish community campus.

The competition for resources among the county's relatively young Jewish institutions is a tribute to the community's growth. However, the umbrella organization, which traditionally provides a substantial financial footing for youth organizations, the Jewish Community Center and services for the poor, has seen far more modest growth in contributions.

Since 1995, the Federation's annual campaign has increased 13 percent to $2.05 million in the year ending June 30. Contributions are mostly divided up locally between eight agencies, which generally are forced to supplement their budget shortfalls with additional fundraising and grantseeking.

"During the golden age of wealth creation, this community is among the lowest responding communities in America," said Michael Fischer, an assistant vice president of the New York-based United Jewish Communities (UJC), a federation of 189 communities. Other Sun Belt cities with comparably sized Jewish populations of 60,000 residents, such as San Diego, Denver and Phoenix, raised $7.9 million, $6 million, and $5.3 million, respectively, in 2001, he said.

Nationally, the UJC's annual campaign gained little more ground than Orange County on a percentage basis. Since 1995, its annual campaign increased 15 percent to $850 million last year. Endowment assets, held by local community foundations, more than doubled to $8 billion in that period.

"Umbrella organizations have a challenge to define their case in a way that donors understand," said Ira Schreck, a Los Angeles fundraising consultant. "People give money away to causes that resonate for them."

An additional hurdle for umbrella groups is motivating donors to act collectively out of community interest. "Those are challenging concepts to sell and they're especially hard in the West," said Don Kent, a Sanford Bernstein investment banker and former UJC marketing vice president.

The county's Jewish residents are diffused across 126 square miles and nearly 30 synagogues. They are typically recent transplants with a high intermarriage rate and low affiliation rate. Without an identifiable center, the Federation distills communities of interest by supporting the efforts of agencies that organize Shabbat programs for teenagers, professional get-togethers for realtors or a scholar-in-residence, whose time is shared by synagogues and schools.

"It's very difficult for people to get their arms around the Federation," conceded Blossom Siegel, a past president and board member. "It's the United Way of the Jewish world." Given the Federation's resources, she said, "we are doing amazing things in Orange County."

Younger philanthropists want more control over their charitable giving than their predecessors and are reluctant to accept the Federation's approach. "It's the Soviet model," Kent said. Donor-advised funds, which permit givers to select their own charitable recipients, can bolster a Federation campaign if there is cooperation with the allied community foundation.

San Diego's Jewish Community Foundation, for instance, gave $3.2 million to its federation, and was the charity's largest grant recipient. The gift comprised 40 percent of the Federation's budget last year, said Charlene Seidle, director of donor services. Orange County's substantially smaller Jewish Community Foundation gave $70,000 to the Federation, said Anne Firestone, the foundation's executive director, though individual Jewish agencies also applied for gifts. In total, the foundation distributed $4.4 million last year in gifts from individual donors and endowments to numerous beneficiaries.

The Federation's visibility and fundraising efforts are expected to get a jump-start once the current Jewish campus is relocated from a Costa Mesa industrial park to a 20-acre site in Irvine adjacent to Tarbut V'Torah Day School.

The private courting of prospective major donors to fund the Samueli Jewish Campus has already begun, according to organizers, but a public effort will not commence before April, a spokeswoman said.

The timing isn't coincidence. In a gentleman's agreement, other allied Jewish agencies agreed to forswear fundraising in February and March, leaving the field to Federation campaigners. Its efforts include the recent lunch for 500 women, testimonials by teens at services and the Super Sunday phone-a-thon on March 10. Last year, volunteers made their pitch to the 18,500 Jewish residents and netted $171,000.

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