So what does it take to get a charity started in Los Angeles? How can a project be incubated just enough to get people excited so that they will one day open their checkbooks and start signing?
This was the question that was seeking an answer recently in Brentwood, where the ever-affable nonprofit marketer Gary Wexler had assembled 30 of his colleagues in an effort to begin an L.A. chapter of Friends of the Jerusalem Foundation. The Jerusalem Foundation is a large and successful nonprofit, nonreligious and apolitical fund that was started by Teddy Kollek in 1966 and has since grown to be the open purse strings behind over 2,000 social welfare and cultural projects in Jerusalem. It has provided the money and the concepts for everything from free medical clinics to cinemas, schools and a zoo. Everyone who visits or lives in Jerusalem, it seems, is in some way a beneficiary of the largesse of the Jerusalem Foundation.
Since its inception, the Jerusalem Foundation has been a fundraising machine, raising over $550 million. Most of the fundraising that was done in America came from the East Coast, which was why Wexler was brought in, so that he could start garnering West Coast support. This was the mission, and the pitch that Wexler made to get these people in the room came in the form of a three-page letter.
"Folks, I don't know what the hell I'm doing," Wexler wrote. "As a marketing person, I couldn't ask for a better product or cause to 'sell' than the city of Jerusalem."
A number of people here are Wexler's colleagues from the Wexner Fellowship, an elite Jewish leadership training program, while others are his business associates or personal friends. Later, it is announced that there are lawyers, doctors and members of the film industry in the room. First, Wexler hands out copies of Yehuda Amichai's poems on Jerusalem, and different people read them aloud. The words are melodic enough to set the mood, and together with the crackling fire, the atmosphere is primed for warm and fuzzy goodwill.
Next step in Wexler's plan is bonding; a charity can't be built by appeals alone. The way to get people hooked is not to talk at them, but to include them in the conversation. So around the room they go, with everyone saying their name and their connection to Jerusalem. As the discussion continues, the anecdotes become more animated and heartfelt. "Jerusalem is my heart, my soul, my life," says one woman.
By the time Alan Freeman, the director for overseas coordination for the Jerusalem Foundation, stands up to tell everyone why he thinks the foundation is so imperative to the survival of the city, people want to hear what he has to say.
Freeman's speech is sobering -- he tells the story of a friend of his daughters who was severely wounded in a terrorist attack while she was walking down the street. He tells everyone what good work the Jerusalem Foundation does -- he describes the building of the Cinemateque and the restoration of the Via Del Rosa -- and explains why support is still needed, especially now that tourism is down and the city is besieged by terrorist attacks.
Then Wexler takes the floor again and talks about his vision of building a community and matching people up with their professional counterparts in Jerusalem. "[I want to] build an emotional organization that people feel like they are participating in," Wexler says. Afterward, people seem eager for the next step, signing their names in a guest book and talking among themselves about how much they liked the evening. "I was so inspired -- I think that I am going to get involved," says Cindy Steinschreiber from the Pico-Robertson area.
The evening is only the first stage of a long process. In an e-mail that is sent out to all those who attended the next day, Wexler outlines the strategy: the plan is to have Los Angeles residents work on projects for the Jerusalem Foundation, to connect them with their Jerusalem counterparts and to build the community of Jews and Christians around the issues of Jerusalem. Only once all this has happened, can the next step, which is the serious fundraising, begin.
Wexler is banking on his different approach to spell success for the Los Angeles Friends of the Jerusalem Foundation. "People have not been creating organizations that really reach out. They keep reaching in to the same pot of 300 to 400 people," Wexler says. "So my goal in this is to reach out even further. The fact of the matter is that not a lot of organizations are offering a lot of hands-on involvement. They are just raising money for people the whole time, rather than allowing them to bond and create community and fulfill their depth, their spiritual needs."
The Jerusalem Foundation's first local event is a discussion with a prominent Jerusalem Jewish, Muslim and Christian speakers. The event will be held June 19 at a venue still to be determined. For more information, call (213) 624-0612.