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Jewish Journal

No money, no cry

by David Suissa

November 26, 2008 | 7:16 pm

I gained one of the deepest insights about money when I worked on a marketing project for a casino resort in Lake Tahoe. The client had asked our advertising agency to come up with a television campaign that would dramatize their resort and new summer program. They loved our idea for a commercial, until they saw what it would cost -- about six times what they had in mind.

When I brought the news back to the troops at the agency, one of the junior copywriters, who had just joined us fresh out of college, asked a question: "If they can't afford $300,000, how much can they afford?" I told him the most they had budgeted was $48,000, which was a joke if you wanted to shoot a fancy commercial with lots of elaborate sets and many actors and even a few helicopter shots.

"Forty-eight thousand?" he said. "That's serious money. In college, we can make three movies for that."

The next day, the junior writer came into my office and showed me an idea for a commercial. It was radically simple -- and hysterical.

The client approved it, and the commercial turned out to be not just very funny, but very successful. And it cost even less than $48,000 to produce.

That little episode came to mind recently as I've been hearing heads of Jewish organizations complain about the current economic crisis. Fundraising seems to be down everywhere, pledges are not being met, building campaigns are being put on hold, and the conventional thinking is that things will only get worse.

So what's a nonprofit organization to do? If you depend on fundraising to fulfill your mission, how can you continue that mission if donations are drying up?

There's no easy answer, of course, but there is that insight I picked up from my Lake Tahoe experience: The hidden blessing of having less money is that it forces you to be more creative and resourceful.

In my Pico-Robertson neighborhood, a classic example of resourcefulness is the husband-and-wife team of Nouriel and Yaelle Cohen, the neighborhood angels who for years have been feeding and helping hundreds of needy families. They have no staff, no overhead, no marketing budgets, no committees and no consultants working on grant applications. They take things from people who want to donate them and give those things to people who really need them. It's mostly food (from restaurants, markets and simchas) but also furniture and household goods.

Their staff is their children and volunteers. Their warehouse is their living room and backyard. Their conference room is their kitchen table. Sure, they dream of one day having a real warehouse and doing a lot more, but, until then, their "mitzvah house" will have to do. As it happens, this mitzvah house is starting to fall apart, so a group of local volunteers is now trying to raise money on their behalf for repairs and renovations.

But regardless of how much they'll be able to raise, the key point is this: With very little money and plenty of moxie, the Cohens have managed for years to serve thousands of free meals and help hundreds of needy families.

Everyone's cause is different, but I think this kind of resourcefulness can come in handy for the Jewish community during these difficult times. Like the Stanford economist Paul Romer once said, "A crisis is a terrible thing to waste."

A good first step would be to learn from groups that do a lot with very little. One of the most lively and stimulating Jewish experiences in the city is located in a nondescript storefront on the Pico strip. It's called The Happy Minyan. They've been singing and dancing and inspiring hundreds of people for 15 years, and they've never had a building fund or a mortgage. Maybe that's why they're so happy.

Organizations that thrive with little overhead are usually great at providing experiences -- singing, learning, debating, poetry reading, Torah salons, meditating, community organizing, social activism, etc. -- that really move people's hearts.

If your organization is having trouble raising funds for a building or a major physical expansion, now might be a good time to consider more creative and less costly ways of fulfilling your mission.

Let's say, for example, that you need many millions to build a Holocaust memorial, but you're having trouble raising the money. You might want to scratch those building plans for now, and, with a fraction of that money, take the Holocaust message to every school in America -- backed up with minifilms on YouTube and on social networks. Be nimble and think big: Play up not just the Holocaust itself but the Holocaust idea of survival against all odds, and recruit spokespeople from all walks of life who have overcome impossible challenges. Have people create their own films.

In other words, focus on the emotional software of your cause rather than the hardware, and you'll come up with more inspirational ideas -- and save lots of money.

Here's what I would do if I were the head of a Jewish organization and my fundraising was hurting. I'd pick the five brightest people connected to my organization, and one very creative person not connected at all, and take them off campus for a four-hour brainstorming session.

During the session, I would have an easel with this simple question written on it: What meaningful things can we do to fulfill our mission with little or no money?

After four hours, at least five good ideas should emerge. Since they won't be money-driven, they're likely to be creative, soulful ideas that will potentially strengthen the organization (and, ironically, even your future fundraising).

And when you do this, try to include in your brainstorming group a hungry and eager college student who knows how to make killer commercials for very little money.

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine and Ads4Israel.com. He can be reached at dsuissa@olam.org.

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