Jewish-Related Charities Mobilize Because Of War

October 15, 2006       Mark Hrywna      

As the war between Israel and Hezbollah was intensifying this past July, Jewish National Fund was working furiously to mobilize its email donors. Within a day of hostilities beginning, it had sent an email blast to the nearly 280,000 donors in the organization’s database. More messages rapidly followed. Within a week, on all fronts, the nonprofit was fully mobilized.

Jewish charities in the United States mobilized just as quickly as the Israeli army, receiving millions of dollars in support of operations in the Middle East.

One of the first Jewish organizations to get out with an email blast to all of its donors, JNF was also one of the first non-terror, non-disaster relief organizations to have “a real meaningful way for people to help,” Linda Wenger, executive director of marketing and communications, said of JNF’s Operation Security Blanket (OSB). The campaign kicked off Monday, July 17, just five days after two Israeli soldiers had been kidnapped, the spark that ignited the fighting.

Because it was one of the first organizations off the ground, JNF came to mind when one Philadelphia businessman wanted to make a rather unique contribution.

Upon returning July 27, from a mission trip to northern Israel run by United Jewish Communities, Terry L. Steen, president of Steen Outdoor Advertising, approached the group with an idea. Steen offered 12 billboards in prime locales throughout south New Jersey, northern Delaware and southeastern Pennsylvania. At an average of $40,000 per month for three months, that comes to a contribution of $115,000.

“We didn’t even know when they were going up,” Wenger said of the billboards. According to Wenger — who described the billboards as “very bright” and “attention-grabbing” – Steen “basically did it by himself, and did it very quickly.”

“Very quickly” could very easily describe the whole of Operation Security Blanket. On July 14, JNF kicked off its OSB fundraising push with an email blast. Several more blasts went out in the days following, supplemented by print advertisements, conference calls with major donors, regional phone-a-thons, and a direct mail appeal to 190,000 donors living in South Florida that garnered $58,000.

Explained Jodi Bodner, director of communications, by the week ending August 19, approximately $4.5 million had been raised, with gifts ranging from $18 to $100,000. Bodner said $3 million has been spent fulfilling OSB’s three objectives: summertime respite for area children (regardless of creed), rebuilding security roads, and emergency equipment.

According to Bodner, the constant televised reporting of the war allowed the public to see what was going on. By addressing the fires that blazed, the families cooped up in bomb shelters, and the general consternation of those in the area, JNF had some “very real and tangible” appeals. In the course of just five hours, several of the phone-a-thons, for example, raised $60,000. Bodner cited one community in northern New Jersey that raised $100,000 to purchase a compact fire truck capable of navigating the forests and ancient streets in northern Israel.

JNF found another earnest supporter in JDate, a California-based Internet dating company for Jewish singles. After JNF had sent its first email blast, “they were very interested in getting their members involved,” said Wenger, who noted that prior to JNF, JDate hadn’t worked with a philanthropic cause.

JDate posted a donation button on its Web site, “and we saw some numbers right away,” said Wenger. JDate expanded its involvement by posting a large JNF banner and sending out email blasts to its more than 500,000 singles, opening up for JNF a wider audience.

In more ways, JNF’s online effort proved surprising. According to Internet Marketing Manager Matt Jacobs, the online gifts grew from an average $48 to an average of $178.38, “significantly higher than the average (online) gifts for (disaster relief organizations for Hurricane) Katrina.” As of mid-August, JNF had raised $717,092 just online for OSB; 69 percent of the 4,020 transactions were first time gifts.

The biggest lesson learned from Operation Security Blanket, ongoing despite the cease-fire, “is if you have something very real — if you can say exactly where (a donor’s) money is going — I think it makes a difference,” said Wenger. “It creates that viral marketing where people are telling people. It wasn’t just a vague, ‘Help Israel;’ it was, ‘Here are three different ways we’re helping.’”

Nobody could miss the advertisement in the Sunday, August 6 edition of The New York Times. Splashed across the top half of page 21 read the bold statement, “Israel Needs Your Help. Now!” If that wasn’t attention-grabbing enough, skip a few lines down to, “100 percent of your contribution will provide support for victims of violence.” Officially launched August 3, the New York City-based UJA-Federation’s Israel Emergency Campaign has already amassed more than $43 million in contributions, bolstered by a $10 million appropriation from the organization’s reserves. The entirety of that $43 million, according to Laurie Pine, director of communications, will go directly to the relief efforts in northern Israel. “Several key donors underwrote all of our administrative and advertising expenses,” explained Pine.

The large ad in The Times was supplemented by several smaller ads in other publications, including in The New York Post, The New York Sun, and Newsday. United Jewish Communities, the national umbrella organization, provided UJA and the other 155 community federations with television and radio ads. But it was in those first few days that UJA experienced “an outpouring of support that was inspirational,” said Pine.

Within 48 hours of hostilities, said Pine, executive vice president and CEO John S. Ruskay had sent an announcement to staff that the organization was gearing up for a big effort. Meantime, UJA was receiving unsolicited contributions from communities, which spurred the organization to create the Israel Solidarity Fund, “because we needed a vehicle to let people know it would go to the right cause,” said Pine. As of July 27, the pot was approaching $1 million, and the Fund evolved into the Israel Emergency Campaign.

Seven days after the Israeli soldiers were reported kidnapped, UJA sent its first email blast to an “All Email” group (30,000 donors and “interested readers,” explained Pine) and to several niche markets. “It wasn’t all fundraising,” said Pine. “Much of it was informational, updates on what we were doing where their money was going.” Three more emails blasts have since gone out.

The Aug. 3 launch of IEC came just three days after the executive committee of the UJA board met in emergency session to appropriate $10 million from the reserves. Many of the New York Jewish community’s top leaders gathered for the campaign’s kick-off event at the Regency in New York City, and, according to Pine, raised $20 million in the first hour.

The days that followed for UJA included heavy fundraising efforts, “a multi-tiered approach,” said Bonnie Shevins, group vice president. This included special events, briefings, fundraising ads as of July 20; radio and television spots which aired Aug. 7 — Aug. 13; two waves of direct mail, one to higher-end and one to all other donors; and, a tele-giving operation, which was modified specially for the relief efforts.

“We tried to use all channels,” said Shevins. Of the relative fast pace of mobilization, said Shevins, “Sadly, we’ve had great experience with dealing with crises. We’ve got an infrastructure in place, so it’s a matter of days.”

Pine said that staff are still tallying numbers in addition to gearing up for a second effort — a redevelopment effort — in northern Israel. “It went by in a blur,” she added.

The weekend of Aug. 19-20, American Near East Refugee Aid (ANERA), in partnership with Connecticut-based AmeriCares, chartered a plane full of medicine headed for Lebanon. According to ANERA President Peter Gubser, “now with the cease fire, the displaced people…are heading back home in the southern part of Lebanon, and so we’re formulating programs so we can help people keep body and soul together.”

When fighting broke out, ANERA had an appeal on the streets that was more oriented toward relief efforts in Gaza. “So, we couldn’t very well double up on that,” he said. Two weeks later, ANERA sent out a brief one-page Emergency Mail letter reminiscent of the yellow telegram. The letter described the crisis and the three major elements of ANERA’s campaign: provide medicine to clinics, hot meals to those displaced and living in shelters, and infant hygiene kits, all to the Palestinian and Lebanese areas of Lebanon.

The fundraising push consisted of a combination of direct mail to the organization’s list of 25,000 active and inactive donors, and email blasts to 1,000. Gubser said checks ranging from $1 to $10,000 have been coming in, to the tune of approximately $300,000 as of mid-August. Gubser added that results from the direct mail appeal were still coming in, and “so far they’re looking very good.”

Several more emails are in the works, said Gubser, adding that the amount raised via email has yet to be tallied. He expects to raise $100,000 from the Emergency Mail letter.

“We’d love to raise $1 million,” said Gubser, but admitted that number might be a stretch. “With the medicines, we’re touching a couple hundred thousand people, easily. Probably more.”  NPT