Jewish Journal

Fundraising the Rabbi Hier way

by Amy Klein

Posted on Nov. 15, 2007 at 7:00 pm

Rabbi Marvin Hier. Photo by Bart Bartholomew. Courtesy Simon Wiesenthal Cente

Rabbi Marvin Hier. Photo by Bart Bartholomew. Courtesy Simon Wiesenthal Cente

When Rabbi Marvin Hier moved to Los Angeles in 1977 to establish the Simon Wiesenthal Center, he hadn't had much experience in fundraising. But in creating the Wiesenthal Center, and subsequently the Museum of Tolerance and Yeshiva University of Los Angeles (YULA), he had to learn how to ask for money -- and fast.

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.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?MH: I've never met a human being that is infallible. Jews do not believe in infallibilty. We say it in the machzor, 'koh ha'adem kozev" -- all human beings tell half-truths, we are all sinners, and for that, that's why we have Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, to clean the slate. If a person made a mistake, and with that mistake that person has done restitution, or has said, 'OK, I shouldn't have done this. This is bad.' Are we supposed to ban that person for eternity? The Torah teaches the very opposite. That's why we have teshuvah!

JJ: But should institutions looks into the origins of people's funds?

MH: Yes, we should, if what we're looking for [is] when someone has done something and has not apologized. If what we're looking for is perfection, you're not going to find perfected human beings.... It is against the principles of our Torah to keep the person forever as a pariah.

JJ: Do you ever tire of holding out your hand?

MH: If I would get tired of the ideas, I would get tired of fundraising, but as long as I have ideas, I won't get tired of fundraising.

JJ: Anything else you want to say about fundraising?

MH: I think you asked me so much that I'm going out right now and looking for a donor.

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