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Jewish Journal

Fundraising Fears

by Michael Aushenker

October 4, 2001 | 8:00 pm

It is quickly becoming the largest philanthropic campaign ever mounted.

In just two weeks since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Americans have raised more than $675 million in individual, foundation and corporate gifts toward disaster-relief charities, services and funds assisting families of victims. The American Red Cross raised around $211 million, the Salvation Army about $21 million and the United Way more than $120 million, not counting $150 million in pledges via the star-studded, two-hour "America: A Tribute to Heroes" telethon.

Alongside these groups have been Jewish organizations, raising money and coordinating health services for the victims. But, with this sudden windfall of philanthropic focus on addressing America's tragedy, some wonder if it could impact the future of fundraising for Jewish causes.

Within three days following Sept. 11, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles amassed $150,000 through its Victims of Terror Fund (now at $312,000). According to Bill Bernstein, the Federation's executive vice president of financial resource development, the Federation forwarded the money to the Jewish Federation of New York. The money was distributed to "a variety of human-service organizations that are directly working with victims; post-traumatic disorder grief counseling; emergency financial support; orphaned children; people with a lapse of medical insurance that are victims of the disaster and are hospitalized," Bernstein said.

Meanwhile, Bernstein told The Journal that he has already taken measures to ensure that local philanthropists will not lose sight of The Federation's vital mission here. Bernstein said he has been meeting with major donors to "articulate what would happen if our campaign would not finish at a level of support that would allow us to provide the basic social services that our community has come to rely on." While Bernstein said he is "extremely optimistic" that The Federation will meet its fundraising goals, "We're not blind to the idea that the economy is not in the position that it was a year ago."

To date, The Federation has raised more than $36.4 million in this year's United Jewish Fund campaign, compared to a little more than $35 million at this time last year, with a goal of finishing in excess of $43 million, more than last year's total of $42.2 million. Bernstein noted that a 5.5 percent spike in individual donations over last year did not occur in direct reaction to the attacks, nor has there been "a precipitous decline" in contributions since they occurred.

Even before Sept. 11, a sluggish economy had already cast a pall over this year. Now, Bernstein said, the challenge for The Federation will be to maintain its fundraising through the year's end, when major donors often "use appreciated securities to pay charitable commitments."

Whether or not The Federation reaches its fiscal goal this year will not affect its daily operations in the short term.

"Traditionally, in recessionary times," Bernstein said, "The Federation and other charitable organizations have experienced some instability but generally we're able to keep allocations stable without disruptions to the system."

"This year might be harder to make their charitable contributions," Bernstein said. "We're hoping that people will dig a little deeper."

L.A.'s Federation is not alone in its concern over this year's final quarter, what normally is the United States' most productive period. Of course, this is not a normal year, and many charities across the board are bracing for a lean year, while others may close for good.

"Charities that are teetering are going to have serious problems," Jeane Vogel, the founder of Fund Raising Innovations, wrote in The Chronicle of Philanthropy this month. "Some of this is very Darwinian. It's survival of the fittest. The organizations whose boards have slacked off are going to fail."

An article titled "Charities Brace for Lean Fundraising Season in Tragedy's Wake," found that overall giving to charity increased after the 1991 Gulf War and the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, but declined when the stock market fell sharply.

"When you look at how people react to catastrophe and crisis, they react generously," Patrick Rooney, COO and director of research for the Center on Philanthropy in Indianapolis wrote. Unfortunately, this year's disaster was an "unusual combination where you have this catastrophe and the economy is already so soft that the catastrophe could precipitate a recession, which could then attenuate giving," Rooney noted.

He added that charities devoted to education will likely suffer more than those supporting the arts will, which traditionally does not hinge on the health of the economy.

In the short term, some Jewish groups have been rolling with the punches by incorporating America's collective fundraising into their programming, and by doing so may ultimately attract more people to their own cause. B'nai B'rith, the 189-year-old community-action network that has been struggling in recent years, has suddenly been infused with renewed vigor and relevance. In addition to staging blood drives and offering assistance, B'nai B'rith has aggressively raised money, nearly $40,000 toward its Disaster Relief Fund so far.

"This is one of the greatest responses to anything we've ever done," said B'nai B'rith Regional Director Steve Koff, of the $3,000 raised locally over five days. "And that's just Southern California alone."

Koff admitted that "there is a concern of the unknown" regarding the months to come.

"What I do have optimism for is that it will bring more people into community involvement," Koff said, adding that he was heartened by the initiative taken by B'nai B'rith Youth Organization members to collect money at their schools.

Other organizations will make Sept. 11 relief a partial or total priority of upcoming events. Israel Cancer Research Fund's upcoming "Rhapsody in Blues" gala will devote 25 percent of its proceeds to the cause. Singles group Klutz Productions has organized a dance party fundraiser benefiting the New York Firefighters 9-11 Disaster Relief Fund.

For others, it's not so simple. According to Ila Waldman, executive director of Friends of Sheba Medical Center, proceeds from its fundraisers can not be diverted to Sept. 11 relief because "everything we do has to be earmarked toward Israel, as part of our by-laws."

So how will Sept. 11 impact charitable groups, such as Friends of Sheba, built on supporting Israeli causes? Administrators at West Coast Friends of Bar Ilan University, American Friends of the Hebrew University and other institutions in similar situations, told The Journal that it's too early to tell. Ron Solomon, executive director of West Coast Friends of Bar Ilan University, said that since these institutions rely on long-term friendships with major donations, he does not expect to see a dip in contributions.

"Those come from people committing serious money," Solomon said, "people who are convinced 100 percent that the greatest need for their dollars today is for Israel. They're so strongly convinced that Israel is the most important place to put their dollars."

"We had our major dinner on Sept. 9," Solomon continued, "literally a day and a half before this whole thing happened. We raised a good amount of money. I haven't seen anybody withdraw their commitment following the attacks."

However, the concern is real, as Solomon did note that West Coast Friends' national headquarters has scheduled an Oct. 15 conference in New York specifically to address "how to deal with it as a factor in the future."

In the short term, Solomon will be eyeing recent solicitations very closely.

"One way we will be able to see an indication over the next two months, will be through our direct mail, since it appeals to grass-roots donors," Solomon said.

American Friends of Hebrew University, which does not conduct annual fundraising events, derives its financial support through long-term donor development.

"People become involved in the university around specific projects such as endowing research or scholarships or construction of a new facility," said Jeff Rouss, director for American Friends of the Hebrew University, Western Region. "Therefore I don't believe it will affect us in the long term. It will help us because this outpouring to New York only strengthens the commitment to the repair of the world."

Rouss added that more than 350 donors attended an American Friends reception for terrorism analyst Dr. Meron Medzini. "What it said to me was that the philanthropic community was very interested what the implications are of this terrible act," he said.

Fundraising for Israel will be affected, said Philip Gomperts, the recently appointed Western U.S. Region director of American Associates at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, which is currently engaged in important research to address Israel's water crisis, population growth and education problems.

"The list of people who could be major givers," Gomperts said, "are suddenly realizing Israel is in the middle of this whole debacle and needs to be supported. They might be giving money now to these causes, and rightly so, but I don't think it will affect Israeli causes. I think it's separate in their minds. People still feel that Israel has to be kept strong, that without Israel, the plight of the Jews will be in jeopardy."

But Sheba Medical Center's Waldman said she's unsure how fundraising will be affected. "It's a big question mark," Waldman said. "All we can do here in the U.S. is to double our efforts. Supporters of Israel sometimes donate even greater in times of need. Boy, are we in need now. We can't let them down now."

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