The quiet of a rare family dinner was shattered by the shrill ringing of the telephone. Noticing an odd number on the caller ID, we chose not interrupt our meal. But the caller was persistent. The ID now said ‘out of area.’ That often identifies an overseas call. Since we have close relatives living in Eretz Yisrael, as well as extended family members, I couldn’t ignore this call.
Reluctantly and somewhat apprehensively (it was in the middle of the night in Israel) I picked up the phone. A young, breathless voice asked for my husband in rapid Ivrit, identifying himself as the grandson of my second cousin (with whom we are close). All I heard was my husband’s name and the word “dachuf – urgent.” I gave the phone to my husband and anxiously tried to follow the conversation. Did something happen to a relative? What was the emergency?
I watched as my husband’s expression shifted from fear to confusion and then to annoyance. I was relieved and perturbed to learn that the ‘emergency’ was a fundraising campaign for a small yeshivah that this young boy learned in. As he explained, every boy was asked to undertake to raise a significant amount of money for the yeshivah in a blitz 3-day campaign. A generous philanthropist had pledged to double (or triple) the total funds raised if they crossed a certain threshold. Wouldn’t we want to contribute generously to this important cause?
I could tell that my husband was controlling himself as he carefully wrote down the website info to contribute and wished the boy hatzlachah. Of course he resisted the urge of telling the ‘fundraiser’ what he thought of the idea of pressuring young boys who would otherwise be sleeping to reach out to their parents’ and grandparents’ friends and relatives abroad. It was not the young boy’s fault that he was being taken advantage of in this way, especially since many other institutions were doing the same.
After several similar scenarios, I felt harrassed, so I called Hamodia. “This is getting out of control,” I said. “If this clever fundraising tool gets overused or abused, the real emergencies will suffer. This issue deserves your attention.”
(From a loyal Hamodia reader.)
By now, nearly everyone in the Orthodox community has been solicited to contribute to a “crowdfunding” campaign for a cause or organization. The method, which bases itself on raising large sums through a very broad base of what are mostly modest donations, has gained increasing popularity in recent years, relying heavily on internet based forums. Over the past six months or so, crowdfunding by one institution or the other has become what seems like a daily routine in the Orthodox world.
Largely run in conjunction with the six-year-old giant of crowdfunding consulting, Charidy, campaigns have raised untold amounts of money for mosdos and a long list of causes involving individuals who are facing dire challenges.
This relatively new approach to an old need has produced great success stories, and some think that it seems poised to replace traditional journal dinners, parlor meetings and the like.
At the same time, many in the community have raised serious questions about the effects of crowdfunding. Some criticize the use of internet and social media. Others object to what they see as the ill effects of mosdos turning their parent or even student bodies into fundraisers.
Many fear that the overuse of dramatic slogans and the labeling of campaigns as an “emergency” will dull our senses when needs arise that are indeed desperate. And, even many who are advocates of crowdfunding complain about what has become a bombardment of appeals; they question its long term sustainability.
A Successful System
Rabbi Moshe Margaretten, an askan from Monsey who has been advocating for prison reform for more than a decade, led one of the most unusual campaigns within the Orthodox world.
After years of false starts and dashed hopes, his team was finally on the brink of passing a major prison-reform bill at end of 2018. It was supported by President Trump and had passed the House, and had enough support for Senate passage. However, only 12 Republican senators had signed on and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was refusing to put the bill forward without further Republican support. With only a month to go before the end of the year, Rabbi Margaretten and his team needed to hire a squad of lobbyists in an effort to garner more Republican support.
“The door was closing. Ten years of work had come down to four weeks that were make-or-break,” Rabbi Margaretten told Hamodia. “The traditional way of raising money takes lots of time, to get appointments by philanthropists and raise money from them one by one, but for us it was urgent.”
With a small window to bring a decade-long effort to completion, he approached Charidy to raise the needed funds, and a matching campaign yielded a $2 million windfall.
The lobbyists hired with that money succeeded in convincing some 20 additional Republicans to support the bill, and Sen. McConnell agreed to a floor vote.
“Charidy gave me the platform and the ability to reach out to Klal Yisrael and, baruch Hashem, we got the money to get this over the finish line,” said Rabbi Margaretten.
Shmuel Stern, founder and CEO of Compass Crew, a Kiryas Joel-based marketing firm that has acted as an agency for over a dozen of the most recent Charidy campaigns, said that once mosdos discovered that the crowdfunding system could be adapted to their clientele, the reasons for its popularity were obvious.
“Fundraisers all used to bring in the most money through a dinner, but a dinner, even with a good honoree, only brings in a few hundred people. The preparation is very long and difficult, and you are mostly left with pledges which you then have to start actually collecting,” he told Hamodia. “If it’s done right, crowdfunding can bring in huge numbers of people, you work hard but for a much shorter time, and you walk away with money in the bank.”
At What Price?
With Tobey Finkelstein
by Dini Harris
Mrs. Finkelstein’s career began when she was still single and fresh out of college. She was working for a not-for-profit publishing company established by Rabbi Shimon Apisdorf and Rabbi Yigal Segal, which gave her a taste for Jewish non-profit work.
When the second intifada broke out in 2000, her unique blend of entrepreneurship — mixed with concern and desire to help — pushed her to do something for Jews living in Israel.
“I decided on a solidarity project at a kid level,” she says. “I had an idea about making the world’s largest Rosh Hashanah card, and I ran with it.
“I sent out fax and email invitations to schools and camps, and was inundated with Rosh Hashanah cards. We got about 40,000 cards from all over the world! People were looking for positive ways to connect with what was going on in Israel.”
“I scrambled to research what to do next. I asked exhibition companies how to connect the cards, and the neighborhood kids pitched in to do the gluing and pasting.
“At the end, the project was huge. The card was about 3,200 feet long! El Al sponsored the flight that took the card from New York to Israel. We had a send-off ceremony on September 4, 2001, at New York’s city hall with Mayor Giuliani.
“The reception ceremony was in Yerushalayim on September 12 — yes, just a day after September 11 — so you can imagine that it was very intense and emotionally overwhelming.”
Next on the List
For the next while, Mrs. Finkelstein worked for non-profit organizations, including AJOP and the OU. Then, when she progressed to being a wife and mother, she went low-key, doing marketing for an internet-based company.
From the sidelines, she observed developments that merged her two areas of expertise: non-profits and online marketing. In particular, she followed the development of crowdfunding platforms.
“Initial crowdfunding sites were created as business tools,” she says. “They helped small companies find investors that would fund their business ideas.
“But crowdfunding was quickly co-opted by non-profit organizations, who realized that these tools would allow them to raise money without the printing, postage and marketing expenses that are part and parcel of traditional fundraising.”
In 2009, Minnesota’s first online giving day caught her attention in a big way.
“It was extremely innovative at the time,” Mrs. Finkelstein says. “The results blew everyone away. More than $14,000,000 was raised in this 24-hour period. So much was earned that the foundation hadn’t prepared sufficient funds to cover all the credit card processing fees.”
Mrs. Finkelstein was electrified. “I knew that if it worked in Minnesota, it would be even more effective in the Jewish community.”
Good Works in Baltimore
A few years passed and, Mrs. Finkelstein, now living in Baltimore, heard that the Jewish Caring Network, Baltimore’s organization that supports families dealing with serious illnesses, was running its annual walk-a-thon fundraising campaign.
“I reached out to the organizer,” Mrs. Finkelstein said, “and asked if the organization would be willing to add an element of crowdfunding. She said, ‘Yes, but we don’t know how.’
“That was perfect for me. Neither of us had anything to lose. I used Crowdrise, an existing fundraising platform, and invited everyone who had signed up for the walk-a-thon to create their own fundraising page, which they sent to their personal contacts.
“The organization’s goal was to raise $10,000. I pushed the goal to $30,000. In the end, we raised $72,000 through the crowdfunding site.”
“The next permutation of my crowdfunding role,” says Mrs. Finkelstein, “was a campaign that I did for the small Chabad preschool my children were attending.”
“It started with my growing interest in day school tuition. I couldn’t find an answer to the conundrum: How can a day school provide a quality education with funding limited by tuition? The equation doesn’t work.
“I was working in the school when I did the campaign for the Jewish Caring Network. Rabbi Elchonon Lisbon, who was the school’s executive director at the time, asked me to do something for them. But I didn’t think that style of campaign would work for the tiny school.
“A few months later, Charidy launched its crowdfunding platform. It added the ‘matching-timed’ model, meaning that every donation to the campaign was quadrupled by donations from major donors, and the entire campaign happened within 24 hours. This was a huge innovation in crowdfunding models, and no one had seen it yet.
“I saw the platform and told Rabbi Lisbon, ‘Let’s do it. This will work for you.’
“The school had never done any fundraising, and we had no idea how to set a goal for the campaign. I looked at the budget and estimated that the school needed $40,000, and set that as the goal.
“I knew he could do it. In the past, one of the school’s biggest donors had given $1,800. I told Rabbi Lisbon to ask him for $10,000. He came back to me in a daze, ‘He said yes!’
“We rallied the parent body, decorated the school, made a logo and printed t-shirts. We made a call center in the school so we could all make our phone calls together. The whole school community was geared up for it.
“We raised $40,000 in the first hour and a half and ended up raising $60,000 for this tiny preschool with a very small community of parents.”
Mrs. Finkelstein was excited about what she had helped accomplish for the Jewish Caring Network and for the Chabad preschool, but she still had her sights set even higher.
“I approached Charidy,” she says, “and asked if they had ever done a combined campaign — for multiple Jewish organizations at the same time.
“They weren’t ready to do it yet, but meanwhile I reached out to Rabbi Yitzchok Lowenbraun of AJOP and asked if he would be interested in promoting a joint campaign.
He was willing to try, so six months later, I spoke to Charidy again. At this point, they were more experienced and confident, and we did it with them.
“Our goal was to raise $1,000,000 collectively for kiruv organizations across America during a ‘Kiruv Giving Day.’ Twenty organizations participated. Each one set their own individual goal, some $50,000 and some $100,000… and we did it. We raised $1,400,000 for kiruv in 24 hours.”
Since her first successful efforts, Mrs. Finkelstein has helped many organizations run their own effective campaigns.
Mrs. Finkelstein acknowledges that though it has only been around for a relatively short time, the luster of crowdfunding in the Jewish community is starting to tarnish.
“There’s always donor fatigue,” she continues. “Before, there was donor fatigue with mailings, donor fatigue with dinners, and now there’s some level of donor fatigue with crowdfunding.”
“But something is going to change,” she says optimistically. “Someone is going to think of an innovation that will make things interesting again. And, hopefully, when that happens, our community will embrace the change and we’ll be able to continue benefiting from crowdfunding. Crowdfunding is bringing in more money more efficiently for our organizations. It’s a windfall.” n