With more than 86,000 registered charities in Canada, non-profit organizations spend a lot of money trying to convince people how to best spend their charitable dollars.
In the Jewish community, grand, black-tie gala dinners can attract hundreds of people and, in some cases, raise millions in just one night.
But considering the cost and resources that go into planning these annual mainstay events, many are asking whether they’re worth it and whether the format will engage the next generation of donors.
Tamar Kraus, 32, associate director of the Toronto chapter of Canadian Friends of Hebrew University, a fundraising arm of the Israeli institution, said a lot of her time and energy goes into planning the organization’s annual gala.
Last May, CNN anchor Anderson Cooper and Grateful Dead musician Bob Weir were the big draws at the 2016 CFHU gala dinner, which raised $2 million.
“We’re not interested in breaking even just to have a party,” Kraus said.
She said gala charity dinners are a dime a dozen, so it isn’t enough to throw a glamorous shindig to attract hundreds of people and their donations.
“If we put on an event, it has to be very targeted. We have to have a clear cause,” she said, adding that donors today ask more questions about who benefits from the money and how it’s allocated.
“They’re not the cheapest events to do, obviously, but we always reach out for corporate sponsorships and in-kind donations [goods and services instead of cash].”
According to the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) website, which lists financial information about all registered charities in Canada, CFHU spent $2.1 million in order to raise $9 million in 2015.
Although Kraus couldn’t say how much it cost CFHU to put the 2016 gala together, she said the budget is consistent from one year to the next.
“Sometimes the speaker might cost more, but the venue might cost less.”
She said that the concept of a gala might seem “old school,” but she still sees the benefit of planning them.
“When I see my donors, I can meet their families, and it’s a way for them to connect. Even with Facebook and emails, I think the face-to-face is still important and to have everyone in one room, together, celebrating all the work they’ve put in to this cause and fundraising – I think that is important, too.”
Lindy Meshwork, is executive director of ORT Toronto, a branch of ORT Canada, which raises funds for World ORT, the largest Jewish educational and vocational training charity.
She said the organization doesn’t receive any government support, so it relies on private donations, which it raises mostly through annual galas.
“We’re only an office of two by the way,” she said with a laugh, adding that she and her assistant work with a group of volunteers on a very low budget to organize fundraising events. According to the CRA, ORT Canada reported that it raised about $2.1 million in 2015, while fundraising costs were $458,000.
“What we try to do, of course, is raise the most money for our kids and keep our costs low. We don’t bring in major entertainers or anything like that. We try to be creative,” Meshwork said.
In March, ORT Toronto will host its annual Hero Gala at the Four Seasons Hotel in Toronto.
“We’re roasting a straight-laced lawyer [Ralph Lean] who is very involved in the community and politics, and we have people like [Ontario Premier] Kathleen Wynne and [Toronto Mayor] John Tory who are coming to roast him… it should be a lot of fun,” she said.
Although ORT Toronto currently hosts one gala a year, until recently, it also hosted a second major event.
“That’s gone by the wayside now, and we’re trying to bring in the next generation,” she said, adding that she was starting to see that galas are not appealing to people in their 30s and 40s.
She said that ORT Toronto is considering running a number of smaller-scale, cheaper events, rather than one major gala.
For example, it runs a scavenger hunt that cost about $6,000 to organize, but pulled in $40,000 last year.
“I don’t know how it is for other organizations. There definitely is a shift with us.”
She said she doesn’t foresee ORT Toronto ditching gala fundraisers entirely any time soon.
“It’s still effective, and we’ve been quite successful at raising significant funds through the galas by keeping our expenses low. If we were to receive some major donations, then we wouldn’t have to focus so much on the major galas, but I don’t see that happening.”
Ben Feferman, 32, who has held various professional and volunteer roles within the Jewish community, thinks that costly gala fundraisers should become a thing of the past.
In 2012, Feferman produced a documentary called Sha Shtil: An Inside Look Into Canada’s Jewish Community, which, in part, was critical of Jewish charities. He believes some charities mismanage the funds they raise and are not transparent enough.
“I don’t care if the CEO gets paid half a million dollars. I don’t care how they spend their money, if it’s on galas. My whole thing is that you have to be transparent about it. If you want to do a gala, how much does that gala cost?” Feferman said.
“I think there needs to be mandatory disclosure of direct and indirect fundraising fees. There needs to be mandatory disclosure of how much actually goes to programs and how much goes to overhead.”
He believes the fundraising strategies of the past are not appealing to millennials.
“With a lot of smaller organizations, the appeal is that they are leaner… A lot of donors today like to be active, they like low overhead, and a smaller organization is able to do that,” he said.
He suggested that people in their 20s and 30s aren’t interested in galas.
“Maybe they still do as well as they used to, but they are relying on old money to keep them going, and newer donors are just not interested in that.”
Feferman said a good example of a charity event that engages young professionals is JEDx, an event put on by the House, which organizes programming for young Jewish adults. The event is modelled on TED talks and was held last year at Toronto’s St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts.
“The overhead is much lower. Yes, they use a big venue, but you don’t have a big dinner and all those costs, and it’s engaging, it’s entertaining.”
Millennials ‘are the peole we need in leadership now’
In 2016, the JEDx event attracted 770 people and raised almost $200,000.
Steve Shulman, campaign manager for UJA Federation of Greater Toronto, said UJA’s strategy is to raise money without having to rely on gala fundraisers.
“We raise our money essentially by canvassing, by saying… ‘We’d like you to make this gift to the best of your ability because of what we do.’”
The UJA campaign brings in about $60 million a year. In 2015, the federation reported to the CRA that it spent $6.2 million on fundraising.
“If we had to rely on events to raise money, we would raise a lot less money in terms of the net,” he said.
Although UJA doesn’t depend on galas, it does raise funds through its annual Walk for Israel ($1.1 million in 2016), and it organizes its annual Big Event, which attracted about 700 people last year to see comedian Bob Saget.
Although the Big Event was not a fundraiser per se, he said everyone who bought a ticket was required to make a minimum gift to UJA’s campaign.
If you made a donation of $25 or more to the campaign that year, the ticket cost $135. If someone had not yet contributed to the campaign, a ticket cost $160, which accounted for a $25 donation.
Shulman said he sees such events as being less about the donation and more as an entry point to becoming engaged with UJA in the future.
“We don’t look at the Big Event and say, ‘Gee, how much did we raise from that event for UJA? Rather, with an event like that, we say, ‘How many new donors did we bring in?’ he said.
“People separate it, but it shouldn’t be separated – a person making a gift, is part of engagement… Even if somebody makes a relatively small gift, there is a sense of ownership in making that gift.”
Shulman said UJA staff are always assessing the effectiveness of their events and engagement strategies, and making adjustments accordingly.
“In the last few years… we’ve become more and more focused on… what are the longer term implications of the event, to be able to assess if it’s worth, not just the money, but the time of the professionals and volunteers who are working on this as opposed to working on something else.”
Last fall, UJA opted not to hold a large community campaign launch featuring a big-name celebrity, as it did with comedians Steve Martin in 2015 and Jay Leno in 2014.
“We were able to cover the costs very well in terms of sponsorship and everything else, but a tremendous amount of resources went into [those events] and we said, ‘Gee, a lot of people who went to the launch – a minority, maybe 20 per cent – weren’t making gifts in the long run to UJA. We’re not in the business of putting on entertainment. We’re in the business of raising dollars so we can carry out our critical work here and in Israel and around the world,” Shulman explained.
Instead, campaign organizers decided to use those resources to host a major gifts dinner to include donors “at a lower giving level.”
“We included donors who were at $5,000 and above, and put a lot of our resources into bringing beneficiaries of our work to the event to each table. So each table met with two beneficiaries, and they had intimate discussions with beneficiaries about the importance of our work.”
Shulman hopes these strategies will engage younger people.
“It’s not so much of a next-generation concept, but one for now. These are people we need in leadership now, not in the future,” Shulman said.
Yair Szlak, chief development officer of Federation CJA in Montreal, said his organization raises about $42 million a year through direct solicitation, much like UJA Federation of Greater Toronto.
“We do events because they engage people. Events bring out volunteers. They’re a way for us to give a message to people who may not give to us, but they’re not necessarily a fundraising mechanism for us,” Szlak said.
“But if you look at the Jewish General Hospital, it’s got amazing events that raise a lot of money. The Doctor’s Gala raised $2.5 million last year. Jewish National Fund did an event not long ago [honouring real estate magnate Sylvan Adams] that raised $5 million.”
He said despite the fact galas have significant overhead, they bring in a lot of money, as well as mobilize people who may not have otherwise been connected to a cause.
Asked about whether this format appeals to millennials as it appeals to their parents, he said, “I don’t think anyone has yet figured out how to work with millennials. It’s a work in progress. We don’t know the answer. It’s an evolving answer. We know that what has worked in the past is not necessarily going to work in the future.
“As an organization that wants to survive – we just celebrated our 100th [anniversary] and we’d like to be here for another 100 – we have to [adapt].”
He said 100 years ago, there were the founders and builders of the Jewish communities and its institutions.
“They gave as if this was their second home.”
Szlak said Generation X proved to be a “more selfish generation,” and “now this millennial generation, they are philanthropic, they are givers of time and givers of money, but it’s all over the place. There is no one cause that defines them.”
He said they prefer to give smaller amounts to several causes, rather than narrow their focus on one cause.
As a result, Federation CJA has become “very aggressive” about securing endowments.
“Montreal is a little different, because we had a whole generation leave the city, but we also realized that the next generation may not be as philanthropic as the previous generation,” Szlak said.
“They have a different mentality than the generation that built the communities.”
He said organizations that are successful are offering lower ticket prices for young professionals and creating programming that appeals to them.
“We find that certain events we do, when we have high-level CEOs sitting in a board room, sharing their success story – sold out, every time. It’s about finding niche markets,” and also about offering donors value for their gifts, he said.
He doesn’t think galas will become a thing of the past, but they’ll need to evolve.
“Galas will continue to happen. I don’t believe they’re dead.”