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Thursday, July 02, 2020
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This past spring, our Jewish communities were forced to take on a fundamentally different character. These radical changes provoked by COVID-19 had ripple effects in many areas, and one of the most immediate, and perhaps most profound, was the need to quickly rethink major fundraising events that allow shuls, schools and organizations to survive.

The Jewish Link reached out to a few shuls and yeshivot who’ve conducted successful virtual fundraising events over the past two months, to learn what worked and what the challenges were. Here are the responses from five institutions.

Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy/Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School, Livingston

The JKHA/RKYHS’s 72nd annual dinner was scheduled for Tuesday, June 2, and there was a lot riding on its success; as Director of Development Lauren Shapiro reports, “Our annual dinner funds more than 66% of our annual campaign and is critical to our budget and all school operations.”

Shapiro and her team, along with volunteer leaders, quickly changed plans. She stated: “We pivoted to a Spring Appeal Campaign, featuring an online virtual ad journal that provided opportunities for our school community to pay tribute to our dedicated faculty and staff.” They kept the June 2, date as the conclusion of the drive and began outreach right after Pesach.

The result? “The Spring Campaign was successful financially and provided an important opportunity for community building.” But the campaign was not without its challenges; the new approach required their team to focus intently on reaching out to donors and asking them to renew their gifts, as well as reaching out to others in the community. They also worked hard to create a vibrant online campaign, replete with videos, uplifting messaging, and communications designed to create a sense of connection to the school.

Their advice to others: “Be flexible in your thinking about the specifics of your own institution and your stakeholders.” And beware of “virtual event” fatigue.

Congregation Israel of Springfield

Congregation Israel took its gala dinner online and achieved very encouraging results. The 45th gala dinner and tribute was held on Sunday, June 14, and attracted over 150 participants, as well as exceeding their budgeted income for the event and attracting much positive feedback from shul members.

Speaking on behalf of all of the event co-chairs, Sherry Stein and Dolores Greenfield report that the virtual dinner was challenging in a number of ways, with many moving parts (some entirely new), no actual dinner to attend, shul members who were newly struggling with the economic impact of COVID-19 closures, and a concern that “our honorees might feel slighted this year.”

Yet the new format offered benefits that prior dinners didn’t, such as the capability “to invite all shul members to participate regardless of contributions” and the ability to “sit comfortably in one’s own home to celebrate without having to drive or (for some) to pay for a babysitter.”

Their advice to others: “Take the leap. It’s a learning experience and the end result was a beautiful celebration and a successful evening for our shul, its members and the honorees.”

Yeshivat Noam, Paramus

Talk about terrible timing: The Yeshivat Noam annual dinner was scheduled for Wednesday, March 18, just as everything was shutting down. Their fundraising team had to think fast.

They pivoted to an online event, which they scheduled for Thursday, June 4, and called a Virtual Celebration. The fundraising team used the new format to expand the reach of the event, to engage more of their students by incorporating a Kahoot! game, a scavenger hunt and a musical chagigah. To build excitement for the event, all school staff and families received a Yeshivat Noam swag bag with a soft fleece blanket and fun Yeshivat Noam puzzle.

The virtual celebration attracted the participation of over 450 households and the fundraising for the event was very successful. Amy Vogel, director of development and communications, notes that with more families now seeking scholarships than ever (due to COVID-19 job losses), the school’s fundraising has become more imperative than ever.

Their advice to others: Forge ahead, involve all ages and make sure your event has ruach and warmth.

Rabbi Pesach Raymon Yeshiva (RPRY), Edison

Like other yeshivot, RPRY saw the writing on the wall and knew its spring dinner would not be possible this year. So instead they invented an alternative “on the fly” and scheduled a virtual gala for June 14.

To make their virtual gala appealing, the school enlisted two well-regarded and humble honoree couples, who were introduced at the event with whimsical videos (developed by Imagination Creations); included a school parent and volunteer known to be sharp, funny and professional as the host; had a video created to illustrate the event theme of “Bridges: Creating Connections” (also by Imagination Creations); included an exclusive performance by comedian Ashley Blaker, divided into two 15-minute segments; and featured a game of Kahoot! that tested attendees’ knowledge of trivia about RPRY. Most significantly, they held the event to well under two hours, a brevity virtually unheard of at prior fundraising events.

The event attracted a broad audience, including people from out of town who might not otherwise have been able to attend. It exceeded its fundraising goals and drew numerous emails, texts and other expressions of delight from members of the RPRY family.

Their advice to others: “Embrace the online medium, but don’t just try to make an event that moves speeches into a Zoom call,” said event chair Rebecca Cypess. “Think about what the online environment offers you that you wouldn’t be able to do otherwise.”

Congregation Ahavas Achim, Highland Park

The shul was a few weeks into promoting its annual dinner, featuring a few well-regarded honorees and scheduled for Sunday, April 26, when the community began closing down. Shul leaders quickly realized that, at a minimum, the dinner would need to be postponed until late summer or fall and the shul had to find alternative means to raise funds for the spring and summer.

Fortunately, they had an alternative plan in the bullpen. As fundraising co-chair Rob Haarburger describes: “Before the crisis, we had been working on an idea for the late spring that would entail a 24-hour learn-a-thon alongside a match campaign. We were able to take this concept and refit it for online learning. The original concept became “The Ahavas Achim Match Campaign and Virtual Learn a Thon.” Our learn-a-thon became 12 hours long, and we were able to recruit incredible speakers such as Rabbi JJ Schacter, Rabbanit Shani Taragin and Malcolm Hoenlein. We ran a match campaign alongside the event, which allowed people to have the learning be in merit of a loved one.”

The event, held on Sunday, May 3, did exceptionally well. Their original goal was to reach $40,000; their total at the end of the event was $51,776.

Their advice to others: “Think outside the box, think of your audience, and offer something truly different.”

By Harry Glazer

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