Francesca David knows she’s fighting an uphill battle.
A few years ago, she began to promote a hospital in her native Israel that she feels is worthy of Canadian support. The Soroka University Medical Center, located in the southern Israeli city of Be’er Sheva, serves hundreds of thousands of people and is the go-to medical facility when there is a conflict in and around Gaza. She tried to get Canadian Jews to donate money to the hospital, with limited success. Then, after the Canada Revenue Agency approved Canadian Friends of Soroka as a charitable organization, she was able to offer tax receipts to donors, easing the financial burden on contributors.
That provided an uptick in support, but, David acknowledges, it’s tough to gain a foothold in the charitable world, when Canadians are faced with a plethora of worthy options for their discretionary giving.
People don’t know much about Soroka, while other charities, like the Jewish National Fund (JNF), have been around for years. “It’s a major competition,” she said, and while contributions are coming in, they’re coming in slowly.
The Canadian Jewish community has supported a number of large charitable organizations for generations. The bigger ones are well known: federations in each major city raise funds through annual campaigns. Those funds are allocated to a number of organizations that provide services to the elderly, families and immigrants, among others.
Then there are substantial and venerable organizations like the JNF, B’nai Brith Canada, the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center and Baycrest Health Sciences, all of which raise millions of dollars each year on their own.
So where does that leave smaller organizations with ambitious missions and limited resources?
Well, it appears that Canadians as a group are fairly affluent and generous when it comes to charitable giving, so there is a substantial pool of money to draw upon.
Charity Intelligence Canada, an organization that provides information to donors to help them make informed decisions on giving, stated in 2016 that, “Canada rank(ed) sixth in the world out of 140 countries” when it comes to charitable giving.
Statistics Canada data shows that in 2015, 5.5 million people gave $9.1 billion to charity, out of 26.2 million who filed taxes.
StatsCan data also showed that the average amount donated increased with the age of the giver and that the average age of donors has held steady at 53 or 54 for several years now.
Tapping into Canadians’ generosity is the key for small Jewish charities. Canadian Friends of Soroka is banking on the personal relationships and connections between prominent Canadian physicians and their counterparts in Israel to unlock donors’ generosity, David said.
Like Soroka, Bar-Ilan University is an important institution in Tel Aviv. Canadian Friends of Bar-Ilan have been in business since at least the late 1960s, said Harold Heilbut, CEO of the organization.
In the past, it operated offices in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, but around seven years ago, the Montreal and Vancouver offices were closed, he said.
“We are re-inventing ourselves at the moment. We have brought in a marketing company that will put us on the map,” Heilbut said. Not only is the company going to redesign the group’s website, it will also suggest a “new direction” for the organization, he added.
In the near-term, the organization is launching a student scholarship program to help celebrate Israel’s 70th birthday and a campaign to raise money for a computer science building on campus that will consolidate all the university’s IT infrastructure in one location, Heilbut said.
Heilbut believes Bar-Ilan’s mission is its prime selling point. “I firmly believe that Bar-Ilan offers something different. It’s more than just an appeal to Zionism,” he said.
In getting the word out, the Canadian Friends of Bar-Ilan relies on traditional mass mailings twice a year. It also approaches pulpit rabbis to solicit their support and occasionally brings in speakers from Israel, to keep the university at the top of potential donors’ minds.
Heilbut acknowledges that getting the word out is not easy: “It’s a matter of being persistent, getting your name out there. It’s telling, not selling.”
Freya Morrison, the group’s administrative director, said there has been a drop in the number of donors in recent years and younger people are not donating the way they used to.
To date, supporters of Bar-Ilan tend be older, she said, but with the new marketing push, the idea is to target a younger demographic.
Heilbut believes that “if the message is right, you will get donors. If the message is credible and you are credible, I think there are donors for the right causes.… It’s the message. I think there is a lot of money out there.”
“Our goal is to bring (in) $2 million this year and I think we’ll do it,” he added.
When the Canadian version of Mazon was first conceptualized in the mid-1980s by Rabbi Arthur Bielfeld of Toronto’s Temple Emanu-El, it proved to be the right idea at the right time, said Jay Brodbar, national executive director of Mazon Canada.
Canadian Jews were taken by the idea that they could donate three per cent of the food budget from their simchas to the organization and help alleviate hunger in the community, he said.
Many well-known community leaders got on board with the idea and synagogues promoted the cause to their members. The organization was soon up and running.
In its first round of allocations in 1987, Mazon gave $25,000 to various recipients. In 2016, that number stood at around $400,000, recovering in the last three years after a dip in allocations seven years ago.
Mazon was fairly successful right from the start. Its Montreal gala was particularly popular, Brodbar said, but over time, “the landscape gets more complicated.”
The earlier model was not really sustainable and the Montreal office was forced to close in 2016. A number of factors played a role in that decision, including donor fatigue and the need to consolidate the organization’s offices and lower costs.
But certain realities intrude on the best-intentioned charities.
Newer and smaller charities have to find people of influence who support their work. “For almost every small charity, you could isolate those people and the extent to which they do well is linked to these people,” Brodbar said.
It’s a matter of connections and influence, he added.
Changing times are also a major factor. The older generation saw supporting Jewish charities as almost a community tax, but that’s less true of younger people, he said.
“For us to be sustainable in terms of impact, the big challenge, especially with regards to the upcoming generation, is mission-based,” Brodbar said. There has to be a connection between the charity’s mission and the values of the people you ask for support.
When Zev Moses started the Museum of Jewish Montreal about eight years ago, getting it off the ground was a tough slog, but it’s now at a point where it has gained some momentum.
“Starting a Jewish not-for-profit, especially in the realm of culture, is not for the faint of heart. There’s not a lot of money in it,” he said. “The reason there are no new Jewish cultural organizations out there is that it’s hard to get off the ground and scale it up.”
When he started, Moses was 26 and full of ideas about how to provide Montreal with an organization that would highlight the community’s rich history. At the time, he didn’t have much more than a good idea, plus a little seed money from the Jewish Foundation of Montreal.
Working from his apartment, he originally conceived of a short-term project to create an online virtual walking tour of local neighbourhoods.
A number of other programs developed from that initiative and about a year and a half ago, Moses was able to move the operation into a storefront. Today, the museum runs around 60 programs each year – including lectures, cooking demonstrations, concerts, film screenings and workshops – as well as hundreds of walking tours.
What turned it around was “a final push with a specific major funder,” he said. “He gave us enough funding to open this space, to showcase what we’re about. That gave us breathing room to go to other funders and to make us sustainable.”
Where once the museum subsisted on a few tens of thousands of dollars a year, today it operates on a budget of $500,000 to $600,000 per year. “It’s a huge leap for us,” he said.
Finding that first big angel investor proved very time consuming, he continued. Through networking and getting his name out, he was able to make the connections needed to put the museum on a sound footing. In the meantime, the museum still relies on fees from users, which amounted to around 30 per cent of its budget, plus government and community grants. “It’s a real challenge,” Moses said.
Moses, who has a background in urban planning, said that small start-up charities could benefit from community resources that provide the knowledge base needed by people who are just starting out. It took him seven years of learning on the job to get to the point where the museum is becoming sustainable over the long-term.
There’s a tremendous amount of satisfaction in building something from the ground up. “This is like starting a new business. It’s social entrepreneurship,” he said.
That’s something Toronto’s Avrum Rosensweig can relate to. In 1997, he founded Ve’ahavta, an agency he hoped would “encourage all Jews to play a role in tikkun olam (repairing the world).”
Working out of his apartment, he said that he “started with no money” (his first donation amounted to $500).
Within a short time, he was able to organize a medical mission to Guyana, thanks to donations from major corporations, such as Apotex and Novopharm.
It was a success, with people walking for miles to come to the medical clinic that proudly advertised itself as Canadian and Jewish, he said.
From there, Ve’ahavta continued to grow, thanks to word of mouth and print advertising, notably in The CJN.
Rosensweig spoke about its mission in schools and shuls and “people got really excited that we existed,” he said.
Rosensweig believes he started just at the right time. The Jewish community was “opening up and becoming more involved in the world,” he said.
Rosensweig credits his previous experience at United Jewish Appeal (UJA) with giving him the training, knowledge and connections that allowed him to succeed, and to turn a good idea into a workable charity.
“If you don’t have financial backing, there’s very little you can do. If you don’t know the financial players in the city, there’s very little you can do,” he said.
After years working at UJA, Rosensweig knew many of the players in the Jewish community. He leveraged those relationships by calling on people personally and asking them for support.
“You’ve got to get somebody who is a player, at the upper echelon of the community, and who understands what non-profits are all about,” he advises.
In addition to the face-to-face canvassing, he held events to attract potential big givers. In his second year, his Starry Nights Gala proved very successful.
Within the first year, he hired his first staff member. Today, Ve’ahavta employs about a dozen full-time staff members and another 10 to 12 part-timers. It operates on a $2.5-million budget.
As for the suggestion that people are suffering from donor fatigue, Rosensweig acknowledges that sentiment is out there. “I’ve heard that since I started fundraising,” he said.
But he believes there are still lots of people – including some who are not Jewish – who are ready to support worthwhile charities.
“If you work hard enough, you’ll find those gems.”