Jewish communal appeal?

By 1 March, 2009Personal Blog

The topic of a Melbourne Jewish community appeal has been debated for several years now, and discussed at many levels and amongst different stakeholders. Fundraising poses huge challenges to not-for-profit organizations of all sizes, and while we often think of ways to make the system more efficient, more equitable, and with greater foresight, the proposed solutions aren’t always the panacea they are made out to be.

The situation reminds me of a classic Chassidic story about Reb Levi of Berditchev, one of the great Chassidic leaders of the eighteenth century, and known especially for his advocacy on behalf of his fellow Jew. This is my own translation of a story from Sippurei Chassidim (Zevin, 1956).

When Reb Levi took the role of Rabbi of the town of Berditchev, he did so only after agreeing with the town council that he not be bothered for any town meetings, except if any new laws needed to be introduced.

So it came to pass that he was called to a town meeting, to discuss the introduction of an important new law: instead of poor people going from house to house and begging for their needs, a central fund would be established. This fund would provide a fixed monthly allowance for the poor. The benefits were obvious – the fundraising cost would be lower, administration would be centralized, and the poor were saved from having to go from house to house. Surely this innovation would provide a better solution to the existing system!

With Reb Levi making a rare attendance at a town meeting, the proposers were eager to hear his response to their idea. He replied: “My brothers! When I took on the position as Rabbi, I asked that you not invite me to meetings where you would simply be discussing old laws”.

They were surprised at his comment. “Our dear Rabbi”, they said, “This is a new law we wish to introduce”.

Reb Levi responded: “I’m afraid you are mistaken, my brothers. This is not a new law, rather one that dates all the way back to the times of Sodom and Gemorah, who instituted that poor people be disallowed from soliciting from people’s homes!”

The council members took heed of Reb Levi’s sharp response, and immediately withdrew the proposal.

On face value, a communal appeal seems like a good idea. At present, donors are bombarded by requests from institutions and individuals in need. Duplication in services and infrastructure is rife, and there are inefficiences everywhere. The proposers think in terms of fundraising efficiency, and of community-wide planning, both of which are things that our community as a whole certainly needs.

But when fundraising is done in this manner, the important element of emotion is removed from the process. The direct connection between a charity and the funder is an important bond that is weakened with the introduction of aggregators.

These days, while sophisticated philanthropists often take a very systematic approach to giving, they actually need, even more than before, a connection to the particular cause. Rather than just writing a cheque, funders want to be confident their money is used effectively, and aligned with the social change they wish to achieve. This often leads to closer interaction with not-for-profits, from governance down to operational levels. While some organizations consider this invasive, what is shows is the passion and energy that the funder has for the cause.

One of the risks in moving to a communal appeal model is that support for the community can be reduced to blind cheque-writing. The ability of not-for-profits to reach out directly and engage the sentiments of prospective donors is compromised, and as a result, the “heart” behind the giving is diminished. Such a loss is far more than mere dollars.

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