Jewish nonprofits learn to fundraise in a virtual landscape
COVID-19Pandemic pivots

Jewish nonprofits learn to fundraise in a virtual landscape

COVID-19 forces organizations to find new ways to build relationships

The Jewish National Fund has been forced to pivot from events like its Tree of Life award presentation (pictured here from 2017) and find new ways to connect with potential donors because of the COVID-19 outbreak. (Photo by Lauren Rosenblatt / PJC)
The Jewish National Fund has been forced to pivot from events like its Tree of Life award presentation (pictured here from 2017) and find new ways to connect with potential donors because of the COVID-19 outbreak. (Photo by Lauren Rosenblatt / PJC)

To Roi Mezare, fundraising is really about relationships.

“Without a meaningful relationship there is not going to be a meaningful gift,” explained Mezare, associate director of major gifts at the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh. “Luckily, in 14 years with Federation, I’ve formed a lot of meaningful relationships.”

Those relationships, Mezare said “are part of a very committed community that cares deeply.”

Federation and other Jewish nonprofits have had to adapt their fundraising techniques – and in some cases, alter their goals – due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

At least for now, gone are the days of large Super Sunday events, where throngs of volunteers call hundreds of donors. Gone, too, are the carnivals featuring food, booths and magic shows. Instead, fundraisers are using tools like Zoom to stay in touch with potential donors. Some even maintain connections using the out of-fashion telephone.

“The form of communication has changed,” Mezare said. “Instead of doing it face-to-face, you have to do it via phone or Zoom or FaceTime. If the relationship is there, though, then the form of communication doesn’t impede it.”

Federation’s numbers add validity to Mezare’s claim. This year’s Community Campaign raised $13.6 million.

“I believe that’s the second best we’ve ever done in our 100-plus years,” ventured Federation’s Senior Vice President and Chief Development Officer Brian Eglash. “We also had more increased dollars than we had over the last few years.”

Though Eglash prefers “human contact” when meeting with community members, he knows that is not possible right now. “So, this is the next best thing.”

The Federation is a “relationship-based fundraising organization,” Eglash said. “I’ve reached out to well over 100 people and had some really incredible conversations on Zoom, on Microsoft Teams and over the phone.”

Federation has had success with its legacy giving program as well.

“Our [Jewish Community] Foundation had one of the best years in its history, with a little bit over $22 million new dollars into the Foundation,” Eglash said. “We have a Grinspoon Life & Legacy program where we partner with 19 local institutions. Over the last two years we’ve had over $26 million in expectancies. This year alone over 240 people left legacies through letters of intent.”

Most of Federation’s contributions come from individuals, Eglash noted, adding that the impetus for giving is the donor’s “deep care for the community.”

“Starting in March, when things were collapsing in the stock market and people’s businesses were really struggling, some people still increased their giving,” he said. “They felt like, as bad as it is for them, there’s someone else out there more challenged. I’m talking numerous examples, not one or two people.”

Since March, Federation has allocated $1.6 million in direct COVID-19 response. The money has come from a reallocation of existing Federation dollars as well as additional donations.

The Jewish National Fund campaign director for Pittsburgh, Jeff Koch, has not had the opportunity to develop long-term relationships with donors. He started working at the agency in November, four months before COVID-19 forced the closure of most businesses and social distancing.

He calls himself “a relationship building person, that’s who I am. Nothing is going to replace getting to meet with someone face-to-face.”

Koch said he wants to learn about people. “I want to hear their story. I want to hear their connection to Judaism and Pittsburgh and how that correlates to their love for Israel.”

Because COVID-19 has made physical meetings impossible, JNF has “pivoted and gotten creative,” Koch explained, pointing to the organization’s annual Breakfast for Israel which moved online this year and featured Knesset member Sharren Haskel, as well as Temple Sinai’s Rabbi Emeritus Jamie Gibson.

Nationally, JNF created Spectacular Sunday, a streaming event on Facebook and YouTube, which marked the biggest day of fundraising in the history of the organization. The speakers featured in that program included Gal Gadot, Mark Spitz and Sen. Joseph Lieberman.

From August 24-28 the nonprofit is offering virtual tours of Israel.

Pittsburghers continue to donate to JNF, according to Koch, noting that “there are still some people who feel very strongly that ‘I give, and I give for a reason, and I plan on giving you the same support.’”

Others have been forced to cut back on their giving, though.

“There’s other people who say, ‘Jeff, I’d love to continue my support. I may have to give a little bit less this year,’” Koch said. “People are looking at their finances, looking at the stock market. The conversation has led to them saying, even if they can’t do it this moment, ‘when things hopefully level out again, I really look forward to meeting you.’”

For Friendship Circle Pittsburgh Executive Director Rabbi Mordy Rudolph, fundraising, like programming, can be summed up by one word in the age of coronavirus: adaption.

“The only thing that’s certain is uncertainty,” Rudolph said. “Everything changes constantly. There is, obviously, sensitivities with businesses that have supported us in the past. Some folks we know, just from being part of the world around us, are struggling.”

Friendship Circle’s programs engage youth and adults with diverse abilities in a full range of social activities. The organization’s largest fundraiser, Friends All Around, was scheduled for April. It did not take place as planned.

“We lowered our expectations, didn’t have a physical event. It ended up being a virtual event where we sent out a tribute book, paying tribute to our graduating seniors and tried to accomplish as much of the mission of the event as we could,” Rudolph said.

The reconfigured fundraiser was able to reach its amended goal, according to the rabbi. And, while the forecast fundraising goal was lower, so were the associated costs.

The nonprofit has worked to pivot from live, in-person fundraisers.

“Federation has been very helpful, increasing their allocation this year due to COVID-19 and other foundations have stepped up or increased support,” said Rudolph.

When the opportunity presents itself, Friendship Circle has engaged the community. A case in point was its Drive-By-Carnival at Schenley Park. The nonprofit has also continued to communicate its message. “There’s a story posted on our window so you can read that and connect,” said Rudolph. “It’ allowing the feeling of community to happen.”

The pandemic has presented one opportunity Friendship Circle has attempted to leverage: it is selling face masks – dubbed Communicator Masks, designed in collaboration with iKippah and donated by Marc Tobias – that allow deaf individuals to read the lips of those wearing them.

While Jewish not-for-profits have had to adjust their practices and goals, the Federation’s Eglash believes the community will survive and thrive.

“Pittsburgh is a special place,” he said. “When you add the heimish aspect of the community, it’s really amazing. Our community’s incredible, and we are resilient, we’re going to get through this and we will be stronger as a result.” PJC

David Rullo can be reached at

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