UJA Federation of Greater Toronto went small for this year’s centennial campaign launch, breaking a chain of annual attendance records.
“It’s not a launch in the traditional sense,” Steven Shulman, campaign director and counsel at federation, said of the Sept. 26 event. “There are tons of resources that go into the traditional launch, in dollars and staff time, and the benefit for the community in terms of gifts, is not what it should have been, so we decided that we would have many smaller events for specific interests.”
The shift, he said, heralds a more focused campaign that organizers hope will boost momentum in order to increase giving. Gone is the cycle that began unofficially in the spring and at times ended as late as February. In its place are 100 Days of UJA, from Sept. 5 to Dec. 13.
The centennial-themed period also features a microsite – myuja.ca – that aligns each day with a UJA theme and aims to remind the local Jewish community that its donations to a large organization ultimately support a myriad of causes.
It is too soon to say whether or not the bigger bashes of years past will return, said Shulman.
The “launch,” held at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre, drew about 850 people to hear pilot hero Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger and political commentator David Frum.
Campaign launches have traditionally featured big-name headliners and were open to the public. Veteran comedian Steve Martin starred last year, for example, with 2,200 people paying from $45 to $175 for admission. Comedian Jay Leno hosted in 2014.
Attendance at the Sept. 26 dinner, though, was limited to donors who gave $5,000 or more to this year’s campaign, and to members of the under-40 set who donated at least $1,000. In part, the event replaces federation’s annual Major Gifts Dinner, open to those who donated at least $10,000.
The 2017 campaign has already raised more than $27.5 million, said Glennie Lindenberg, who co-chairs the effort with Michael Buckstein. Last year’s campaign raised $56.4 million.
Since the timelines for this year’s campaign are so different, said Shulman, fundraising comparisons are rough. Donor for donor, though – tabulating gifts from donors who gave this year and last – there has been six per cent growth so far, he said.
Just 10 years ago, the prospect of Sullenberger’s name on a federation marquee would have been unlikely. But his life changed on Jan. 15, 2009, when he landed his jetliner in Manhattan’s Hudson River, saving the lives of all 155 passengers. Fame soon followed, as the American news media told and retold the saga of US Airways Flight 1549 and dubbed it the “Miracle on the Hudson.”
“Because my name was released to the press, I’ve had amazing opportunities that I would not have had in 100 normal lives,” he told the UJA guests.
Even so, Sullenberger might have had good reason to balk at the chance to visit Canada: the birds that struck both engines of his Airbus A320 aircraft and left him with posttraumatic stress disorder were Canada geese.
But the pilot holds no grudges.
“Every time a journalist says ‘Canadian geese,’ I tell them that the species is Canada goose. We don’t know for sure whether they were Canadian or not.”
In person, Sullenberger has the directness, white hair and general appearance of actor Leslie Nielsen’s pilot in the disaster-parody Airplane! But it was his next-door hero energy that made Tom Hanks the natural choice to play him in the film adaptation of his story, which is now in theatres.
“Talk about surreal,” he said, about first hearing of the movie plans. “But when the doorbell rang and [Sully director] Clint Eastwood was there, it became more real.”
Sullenberger attributes his improvisational skill to a lifetime of curiosity and a drive to improve. Born in Texas, he became a U.S. Air Force pilot before joining US Airways. He also served as an air accident investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board, which later investigated his own flying above the Hudson River in 2009.
The NTSB endorsed his decision to land in its frigid waters, and one investigator said, “This guy has been training for this his entire life.”
Training aside, Sullenberger and co-pilot Jeff Skiles had no procedure in their handbook for landing an engineless plane in one of the U.S.’s most densely populated cities.
“I took what I did know and adapted it in a new way in 208 seconds,” he said, “to do something I had never done before and get it right the first time.”