Goodbye, galas: Jewish nonprofits turn to social media for new types of fundraising

Whoever thought you’d see a former U.S. poet laureate singing a kitschy jingle on YouTube, asking for funds for a small nonprofit that most of his readers have never heard of?

In today’s great economic meltdown, nonprofits are searching for alternative ways to raise money, even if it means calling in a favor from Robert Pinsky.

So in February, there was Pinsky online, deadpanning a little ditty as he picked a few chords on his Casio — and explaining why people should give money to Jbooks.com.

“They’re businesspeople. Not a bunch of idealistic schnooks,” Pinsky crooned, fighting a smirk. “They understand the time-hallowed first rule of publishing. Handed down for generations. Jews. Buy books.”

Jbooks, a subsidiary of the Jewish Family & Life online publishing company, had contemplated sending out a straight solicitation letter. Instead, editor Ken Gordon took a page from an offbeat appeal note that he saw from Framingham State College in Massachusetts a few weeks earlier. The note said, “We need your help,” followed by the word “Blah” repeated for an entire page.

In a YouTube video, Robert Pinsky is seen playing a fundraising jingle for Jbooks.com, while a pop-up window encourages viewers to donate to the organization.

“It played on people’s exhaustion with nonprofit appeals, and I think they appreciated other people being up front,” Gordon explained. “Frankly, my model here was the street performer. When you are asking people for money, you have to give them something of immediate and concrete value. If you can entertain them, it might inspire them to give.”

Gordon is not alone in searching for something new.

That nonprofits are doing away with the old became clear after the Robin Hood Foundation, which annually holds an uber-glitzy gala in which it raises tens of millions of dollars to fight poverty in New York, ran a more subdued banquet in May.

The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Chronicle of Philanthropy and philanthropy blogs have noted how nonprofits are toning down and, in some cases, abandoning such fundraisers that traditionally are their biggest moneymakers.

Signs of a similar trend are emerging in the Jewish community.

Some organizations simply don’t have the money to run the full-court fundraising blitz at chic hotels, while others are afraid donors will find that pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into a posh event is tasteless with so many people hurting for money.

Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, for instance, has dropped its annual New York gala, opting instead for an international “virtual gala” that sought to open fundraising avenues to lower-level givers.

In lieu of gathering several hundred people in New York to buy expensive tickets and pay for expensive ads in a journal, Hillel offered the opportunity for anyone — rich or not — to hold a house party anywhere in the world on June 18 in celebration of the organization’s 85th birthday.

At two points during the day, Hillel officials broadcasted short online addresses that could be viewed at the parties.

Last year’s actual gala cost around $200,000 and grossed $1.2 million; this year’s virtual gala cost $75,000 and grossed $850,000. Allowing for a natural attrition of donors because of the recession, this year’s numbers are respectable.

“Hillel has always been a grass-roots, bottom-up organization where individuals on campuses had formed Hillel houses and then became part of the network,” said the organization’s vice president for marketing, Jeff Rubin. The virtual gala, he added, was an attempt to re-energize the grass roots by including anyone, anywhere.

Similarly, the New Israel Fund, which contributes about $30 million a year to progressive social projects in Israel, is attempting to energize its grass roots by giving its supporters the tools to set up individualized Web sites through which they can appeal to their friends for small donations.

The NIF’s mainstays are those who give in the $500 range, according to its interim financial development director, Steve Rothman. But because those mid-range donors are hurting, the organization hopes that instead of $500, those donors can find 10 people to give $50 by reaching out to them through the Web sites they set up with NIF’s help.

“This year we’re not publishing an extensive annual report or investing in advertising,” the organization wrote in an e-mail to supporters. “We’re depending on you to spread the word about the New Israel Fund.”

The recession has forced the organization to realize that it needs to further diversify its fundraising strategy.

“I think that if we can blend different kinds of strategies, we will be better off,” Rothman said. “If there is a specific online campaign, that is the best of new technology we can use to raise money. But if we can connect it with an old strategy such as an event or fundraising dinner or a specific occasion, it can build and utilize the Internet for what it is good for — making connections.”

Hillel and the NIF are trying to replicate the grass-roots success of the Obama campaign, which mobilized hundreds of thousands of supporters and collected millions of dollars in small contributions through social media such as Facebook.

Hillel even brought in a consultant who worked on the Hillary Clinton and Obama campaigns to help with the project.

“I think it is impossible to ignore the Obama phenomenon, and what he did to raise money and get people to be involved,” said Joshua Kram, who was the director of Jewish outreach for Clinton and oversaw outreach to Jews in Virginia for Obama. “He really changed the culture of giving and contributing in America. Jewish organizations and for-profits should take notice and utilize those methods as best they can.”

It was conventional wisdom only a few years ago that Jewish nonprofits could not effectively raise money on the Internet because there was not a critical mass of Jewish small donors. But now even small organizations such as Jewish International Connections New York, which helps internationals integrate into the New York Jewish scene, is using online social media to cull donors.

JICNY, which has a $140,000 budget to run classes, dinners and networking events for foreign Jews who come to live in New York, garners about half of its small to medium-sized donations through Facebook, according to its board president, Jeff Stier.

And this year JICNY did not send out actual invitations to its annual event, a bazaar-themed evening featuring foods and entertainment from around the world. Instead it used Facebook to invite nearly 2,000 people.

The new methods aren’t sure-fire fixes.

The fundraising returns for the Pinsky video and the New Israel Fund project were not great, the organizations acknowledge. But there’s no other option but to try to adapt, an increasing number of Jewish organizational officials say.

“We made some money. Not as much as we would have liked,” said Jbooks’ Gordon of the Pinsky video. “We gave it the old college try.”