November 15, 2007
Fundraising the Rabbi Hier way
(Page 2 - Previous Page)JJ: Was it hard to fundraise when you first were starting to do it?
MH: Of course I had a hard time in the beginning.
When I went out, no one knew of our project. We had a shoebox. The designer designed what he was going to do in a shoebox. And we had to carry it around. And when we came to a parlor meeting, a person said, 'Well, it doesn't look so modern.' Listen, there were enormous challenges when you start something from scratch. In this case, people said, 'If it wasn't done up till now, why do you want to do it now? If the survivors thought there was a need, they would have done it 1945.' There are all kinds of reasons why people are against something. But you have to overcome them.
JJ: What kept you going?
MH: My belief that it was correct, that the idea was right, and sooner or later there would be room for this idea.
The other thing I've learned from a great donor, Jack Diamond -- a pillar of the shul where I was rabbi for many, many years -- he used to say, 'If you can say it in a telegram form, it's much better than a letter.' And I see many people in the area of fundraising when they start talking about a project it sounds like they're on a transatlantic flight; that is, they think they have 10 hours to land because they're going to London. The truth is, it should be short. You should know how to communicate that message in a short manner. Be respectful of the fact that the person you're asking a lot of money from is a busy person; he appreciates more than anything brevity. Don't make a big megilla about it.
You have to be a communicator. The greatest Jew in the history of the Jewish people, Moses, said to God, "God, I can't make the pitch to Pharaoh, I'm a stutterer, it's not going to work. And God did not say to him, 'That's fine, I'll do it for you, Moses.' What he did say to him, 'You happen to have a brother, Aaron, who's a good communicator. You tell the words to Aaron, he will say it to Pharaoh.' If you don't know how to, in a short form, explain to the donor the importance, if you can't communicate it, then you're not the right person to ask for the funds.
JJ: What would you tell people who are uncomfortable with fundraising?
MH: When you fundraise, you're taking someone else's money; it's an awkward feeling. But if you are doing it lishma -- for a good cause and for the right reason -- then in the end it's worth conquering your shyness, and saying, 'I'm going to be doing good in the Jewish community, and I have nothing to be ashamed of for doing that.'
If you ask people who knew me then, they would probably say: 'This guy is not going to be able to raise ten cents!'
I don't know any fundraiser who is going to say, 'I was born for this! This is the easiest thing!' The truth is, you're doing the Jewish community a favor. Because this enhances Jewish life. Without Jewish funds there would be no institutions.
JJ: When is it fun?
MH: I think it's a great feeling when you see the fruits [of your work].... Is there any satisfaction? Yes, it's worth the toil. And believe me, it's a toil. Because whatever is said, Jewish communal life is very difficult.
People have a right to their opinion. Is there anything rewarding, in the sense, when you went out and you represented a cause and you solicited someone and the person invested the funds? Yes. There's the pride. There is naches, but I would not be telling you the truth if I didn't tell you that there are always moments of anguish and concern; you have to go through trials and tribulations. When you're a nonprofit institution you're depending on other people to keep the doors open.
JJ: How much does an institution owe in return to someone who's given a lot of money?
MH: If a person has given a lot of money, you obviously owe him every courtesy. Let's say a person said, "I gave you a million dollars, and I don't want a picture in your museum about this and this thing." If it's an educational question, and the person is wrong, it's not worth having him on board. But if a person is asking for that which is reasonable, if a person has been dishonored, and he's a big benefactor, you have to take this into consideration.
Would we bend over backwards to a donor if the donor was very unreasonable and tried to interfere with the educational process and what the Simon Wiesenthal Center was about? No, we wouldn't allow it.
JJ: How significant are smaller donations?
MH: They're very significant. In our case, without it, we can close our doors. You can have inflation, you can have depression, you can have a recession, but there's one thing that is recession-proof: a small donor that gives $10 to $15 a year. We have 400,000 active, and 280,000 are active donors that send in $10, $15, $20 [and smaller donations]. We found that no matter the economic climate, they are so loyal to the cause; they're always with you.
If we didn't have those donors, we could not operate. Because the larger donors make possible the big ideas, but keeping the doors open on a day-to-day basis is the job of the small donor.
JJ: How much should someone care where the donor's money comes from? We have seen politicians giving money back that is tainted; how should a Jewish fundraiser set that bar?