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'Philly 500' Challenge: Renewal for Birthright?

September 23, 2010 By:
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A new fundraising campaign would provide more local slots for Birthright trips. Above, a group from Hillel of Greater Philadelphia on a recent trip.

A little over a year after Howard Fischer's daughter returned from a 10-day, whirlwind Birthright Israel trip, the organization invited the Philadelphia businessman to a fundraising presentation.

Fischer, president of an executive search firm, said he's a longtime supporter of Birthright's mission but hadn't been compelled to put such support into dollars until he heard the impact of the experience firsthand from his daughter.

"It's a very special trip for a young person to go to Israel with a group of other young people," said Fischer.

Fischer is among a new contingent of community members, participants' families and even alum that Birthright has begun soliciting in an effort to rebound from the economic downturn.

A few weeks ago, the nonprofit agency partnered with the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia to raise $500,000 -- enough to send roughly 160 additional young adults from the area to Israel in the coming year.

The "Philly 500 Challenge" was prompted by a couple who offered to match whatever is raised by the end of December up to $125,000.

The Birthright Foundation, the program's funding arm, will then double that amount with a national matching grant.

"We want to encourage as many people to give so that other people who might not be able to go can go," said the husband, who, with his wife, has chosen to keep their identity anonymous. "Israel's such an important part of Jewish community and Jewish life."

But in order for Birthright to continue providing a link to Israel as demand continues escalating, "you need more than just a handful of donors," he said.

Crunching the Numbers

Cultivating those supporters represents a major shift for the agency, which has traditionally relied on a small number of wealthy philanthropists for the majority of its private donations -- Charles Bronfman, Michael Steinhardt, Lynn Schusterman, and Miriam and Sheldon Adelson among them.

Those donations -- along with funding from the Israeli government, the North American Federation system and other Jewish foundations -- have sent more than 260,000 young adults from around the world to Israel since the program started a decade ago.

Of those, about 7,600 hailed from the Philadelphia region.

While Birthright officials noted that demand for the free trips far outpaces supply, the organization has managed to generate more funding over the years as it built a reputation for helping 18- to 26-year-olds connect to their Jewish identity.

Public donations grew from $16.8 million in 2002 to more than $36.6 million in 2006, according to tax records.

In 2007, contributions spiked at $87.6 million, thanks largely to casino mogul Sheldon Adelson. According to news reports, Adelson and his wife donated nearly $70 million over two years and pledged to continue providing up to $30 million a year as long as Birthright needed it.

After the economy collapsed in fall 2008, Adelson announced that he was reducing his contribution to $20 million in 2009 and $10 million this year. Other philanthropists also scaled back amid the financial crisis. Contributions dipped to $48.6 million that year, according to the latest available tax records.

Birthright Foundation officials said they were unaffected, at least directly, by Bernie Madoff's Ponzi scheme.

Still, the drop off in donations meant the agency could only afford to send about 24,000 young adults to Israel last year, half the record 45,000 in 2008.

Faced with the prospect of turning down even more applicants than usual in 2010, the foundation appealed to local communities.

The strategy worked.

Officials said the number of individual donors increased from about 2,000 to nearly 10,000 in less than two years. Foundation senior vice president Maxyne Finkelstein estimated that Birthright raised about $71 million in 2009.

"People have really stretched to do this," she said. "They're paying it forward. They've benefited from it, they're now able to do it for someone else."

The Federation of Greater Philadelphia has long supported Birthright, donating about $200,000 a year, according to Jeri Zimmerman, director of the Center for Israel and Overseas.

This year, Federation increased Birthright's allocation to $260,000 at the same time it cut from other groups. In fact, Birthright was one of only a few overseas programs to get a bump -- a direct response to demand and a recent population study showing that Jews under the age of 40 have significantly less emotional attachment to Israel, said Zimmerman.

Perhaps the local fundraiser will help people understand that young adults can't take the trips for granted, said Zimmerman.

"Nothing happens for free," she added.

Birthright closed registration for winter trips on Monday after receiving 22,000 applications in less than a week, according to Finkelstein. Those applicants are competing for 9,000 slots.

The Challenge? More Donors!

Aryeh Weinberg, director of research at the San Francisco-based Institute for Jewish & Community Research, said it's not uncommon for nonprofits to seek more from those they serve during tough times, even though grass-roots campaigns take extra work and don't necessarily generate as much money.

"Particularly for organizations that provide a clear service to the community, when faced with the prospect of cutting operations back, many individuals will contribute," said Weinberg. "Sometimes, all it takes to spur new giving ... is to make contact and ask."

However, he cautioned, Birthright should take care that soliciting gifts from participants doesn't gradually turn into a "pay-for-service" plan.

Said Weinberg: "The challenge is how to find new larger donors to diversify the core giving to Birthright, even as it weathers the most difficult years by tapping smaller donors." 

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