November 15, 2007
Fundraising the Rabbi Hier way
During the past 30 years, his institution has raised between $600 million and $700 million. Even now, the Wiesenthal Center is involved in two major capital campaigns -- a $35 million expansion of the Museum of Tolerance and the proposed $250 million Center for Human Dignity in Jerusalem. That project is awaiting an Israeli Supreme Court decision over its siting.
Although today Rabbi Hier's staff includes a team of 11 fundraisers worldwide (headed by executive director Rabbi Meyer May), Hier says that during the last three decades he has learned much about how to raise money, how to work with donors of all stripes, and the special characteristics of fundraising within the Jewish community.
Jewish Journal: Is fundraising an art or a science? Is it something that can be taught or something that requires a particular personality?
Rabbi Marvin Hier: Let me tell you something about my background. When I left the Lower East Side in 1962, I got smicha [rabinnical ordination] and went to my first profession as assistant rabbi in Vancouver. I don't think I would have had the knowledge to solicit from someone $25! I came from a very poor family. I would have been on the shy side ...
From Vancouver, I went to a congregation that was very wealthy. I again had nothing to do with fundraising, because whatever obligations the synagogue needed, the synagogue members and the synagogue board were able to raise. But that was an eye-opener, because our synagogue was approached by many outside causes that came from around the world. I was there for 16 years and director of Hillel at the University of British Columbia for 13 years. Slowly, I began to understand the necessity that if you want exciting projects, you have to fund them.
So in 1977, when I decided to come to Los Angeles both to create YULA and the Simon Wiesenthal Center, I knew the fundraising would largely depend on me.
It was suddenly thrust upon me that either you do that or it won't happen. That's my job. I created the institution from scratch. We didn't know anyone here and didn't have much support.
JJ: What was your first experience fundraising?
MH: The shul in Vancouver was doing an expansion, they were building an auditorium, [I went to] the president of the men's club for a solicitation. He said, "There are so many people in the shul who will do this, why are you coming to me?
I said, 'You got yours and your father's name on the seats in this synagogue. When this synagogue moves, you don't want people to say that this seat that bears your name is not present. It would not be the right thing to do to memorialize your father who came to shul every single Shabbos, he's going to want his son to answer the call.' And this guy gave $25,000 -- that was a lot of money at the time!
I said to myself, 'You know what? You can move people.'
JJ: Are there any rules to fundraising?
MH: It's something that you learn by trial and error.... First of all, I believe that people give to ideas. If they feel that what you're proposing really fills a need and is not being duplicated ... if it is an idea which really fills a need, then I think it is easier.
But along with new ideas goes the fact that your heart has to be in the idea. If the donor sees that it's a pro-forma ask, that you don't even stand behind the product for which you're asking for a solicitation, the donor is the first one that will be able to see that. When you have an idea, your heart has to be in the idea. When you solicit somebody, they have to really believe what you're saying, that it's not for the purpose of your job. That this is an idea whose time has come, and that you really believe it.
JJ: Are there any don'ts for fundraising?
MH: Along the way, people ask me, 'Rabbi, what do you think of this cause? What do you think of this university, [the] Jewish studies program over there?' If it is a reliable institution, I only have good things to say about another charity seeking contributions from a layperson. They will always get from me a very high rating, that they should do it. I will encourage the donor. I do not take the position that that will short [my institution].
Every person who knows donors would rather the donor give to their institution; that's a given. But the truth is there are thousands of worthy and great institutions. They all need support, they've all earned the right to support, and the worst thing to do is to undermine somebody else's cause, because the first person that reads through that is the donor, and the donor says to himself, 'Aha!, He's cutting down another good charity just to make sure he can get a bigger check.' It is the worst faux pas that could be made in fundraising.
JJ: Did you learn this the hard way?
MH: No, that has always been my philosophy. That I learned from my father. There were a lot of shuls on the Lower East Side, and my father had only good things to say about other shuls, about other yeshivas. He sent me to one yeshiva and not to the other and people said to him, 'How come your son didn't go to the other yeshiva?' He did have only good things to say about the other yeshiva.
That I learned from my father.