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Does Jewish fundraising that plays on people’s fear have a future?

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Whether it’s the televised image of a starving child you can feed for pennies a day, or refugees fleeing oppression, or an appeal from a Jewish or Israel-based charity, the “ask” is wired to go to your heart over your brain, whether you know it or not.

All successful fundraising appeals to emotion. Otherwise, it falls flat.

“If you want to be successful at fundraising, the more you make people think, the less they feel, and the less they feel, the less they are motivated to give,” wrote the behavioural economist Dan Hill, author of Emotionomics: Leveraging Emotions for Business Success. “It is how the brain is wired – emotional responses dictate how successful you are at asking for money.”

By that yardstick, Jewish charities are expert tuggers of heartstrings – or Jews give reflexively. Or both.

Community leaders and fundraising professionals agree that underpinning the traditional altruism rooted in Judaism are deep-seated emotions: Jewish pride (and concern) for Israel; fear that anti-Semitism and terrorism worldwide are increasing; and summoning the spectre of the Holocaust.

READ: HOW TITHING BECAME TRENDY FOR THE BAR/BAT MITZVAH SET

Are those emotional triggers still being employed? Is tapping into donors’ anxieties the right way to raise funds?

As powerful as laying on guilt is, it’s a risky tool in fundraising. “There’s almost no way to invoke it without creating a backlash that’ll put you at odds with donors and cause you to miss the mark,” wrote American fundraising guru Jeff Brooks in his Fundraiser’s Guide to Irresistible Communications.

One marketing technique can be seen in the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies, whose website scrolls to a photo of Anne Frank (as well as to ones of Martin Luther King and Gandhi).

The Jewish National Fund, on its website, touts achievements not only in traditional tree planting, but also in trendy and, in their own way, emotive areas such as green technology and water preservation.

One Toronto-based charity issues pleas for widows and orphans within hours of a terrorist attack in Israel.

In 2009, B’nai Brith Canada came under fire for a full-page in the National Post that cited the “common objectives” of radical Islam and Nazism (killing Jews, world domination). It showed Adolf Hitler meeting with the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem and archival photos of young Nazis alongside modern-day Muslim cadres giving the Nazi salute, ending with instructions on how to donate to B’nai Brith.

The comparison “shouldn’t be made for the sake of raising funds,” Sidney Zoltak, co-president of Canadian Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Descendants, remarked at the time. “It trivializes the Shoah.”

Leveraging anti-Semitism, terrorism and the Holocaust for fundraising “is a tool. It’s not the only tool,” said veteran Toronto fundraiser Mark Gryfe. “It taps an emotion in a certain segment of the population. I don’t think it works on all people.” In fact, he said, it works on an ever-shrinking percentage of the population.

And yet: “If Israel ever comes under attack in a serious way, I have no doubt people would rally,” Gryfe said. Fear “lies beneath the surface and can easily be rekindled.”

Using strong emotion in Jewish fundraising was also evident at State of Israel Bonds. In the late 1980s, Bonds in Canada issued a mailing ahead of the High Holidays, traditionally the thick of its fundraising year. The pamphlet depicted a young man in a checkered keffiyah commonly worn by Palestinian males that covered his head and obscured his face. The caption was, “He made his pledge this year, too.”

To some, the message was clear: buying Israel Bonds strengthens the Jewish state so it can better fight terrorism. To others, it was a cynical attempt to use fear in order to raise money.

Especially after 9/11, bond drives repeated the same theme: buy bonds or the terrorists win. It’s more direct than dry spiels about interest rates and your investment portfolio.

But Bonds’ message has shifted, said Ottawa Rabbi Reuven Bulka, who has chaired both the Canadian and international rabbinic cabinets of Israel Bonds.

“When it started, it was emotional,” Rabbi Bulka told The CJN. Now, with one of the most bustling economies in the world, Israel doesn’t need bonds the way it once did, he said.

Bonds “are helpful but it’s not a make-or-break thing anymore,” Rabbi Bulka said. “The message for Bonds has changed from ‘Israel needs them desperately’ to ‘They’re a great investment.’

READ: CONFESSIONS OF A LONG-TIME FUNDRAISER

“They adjusted.”

But some Jewish charitable groups, which he declined to name, continue to prey on donors’ fear and guilt, he said.

Something I really don’t appreciate, in their attempt to make money, is they actually spread scare tactics, which then get people worried unnecessarily.”

He said he appreciates that on a psychological level, “people aren’t going to give if there’s no urgency to it. I understand it, but I really wish [charities] wouldn’t overdo it.

“I don’t like messages that are misleading.”

Fear, guilt, shame: exploiting those emotions may work in North America, but in some places, using them to separate donors from their money is discouraged.

The London, England-based Institute of Fundraising’s Code of Practice warns charities against producing any fundraising materials that are “intended to cause distress or anxiety.”

The 44-page Code of Ethical Principles and Standards from the Association of Fundraising Professionals, which counts about 3,500 members in Canada, lists “conveying false or exaggerated information” as one example of unethical conduct.

If an organization seeks money to help Israel fight terrorism, “I get that,” Rabbi Bulka said. “[But] what they don’t do is connect the dots. Tell me how my $5 is going to do that. I would forgive [charities] if they would follow up with a logical argument.”

He has “more of a problem” with charities raising money for causes related to the Holocaust – “not because it’s a thing of the past, but rather it’s more personal. Is the money best spent on memorials, which are inanimate, or on live, honest-to-goodness revival of Jewish presence or a revival in people for whom Judaism is almost a dead issue? Are we better off fostering live memorials?”

Gryfe, who has headed some of the country’s leading Jewish charities  – United Jewish Appeal in Toronto, as well Baycrest Foundation and the Mount Sinai Hospital Foundation, also both in Toronto – sees Israel, anti-Semitism and the Holocaust as “flashpoints” in philanthropy, but just three among many in an evolving philanthropic climate.

There has been “a huge redirection of Jewish dollars” away from those traditional areas, said Gryfe, who now heads his own consultancy. “The scope of where Jewish dollars are going has broadened tremendously. The emotional pull [now] is social conscience, doing good in the community and making the world a better place.”

That has translated, he said, into millions for universities, hospitals and health concerns. “There’s tremendous Jewish money pouring into [those areas]. Whereas it used to go to the arts, I think it’s now going to social services and health care.”

He attributes that “just the way the world is evolving. The younger generation is more in tune with these needs.” Even Israel receives less, at least from Toronto: UJA used to send at least half of what it raised to Israel. Now, it’s about one-third.

With more choices and higher disposable incomes, donors, said Gryfe, “are finding causes that are personally important to them.”

That personal connection is doubtless shaped by life experiences. Older people might respond to appeals for Holocaust education and Israel because they lived through dark times.

Younger donors are asking more questions, said Paul Marcus, who had leading fundraising positions at UJA Toronto, Mount Sinai Hospital and York University.

“We should be fighting anti-Semitism, remembering the Holocaust and supporting Israel,” said Marcus, now also a private consultant. But today’s givers “are more and more doing their own research. So if anti-Semitism is on the rise, [they ask], ‘Why and where? Why is it important to remember the Holocaust?’

“Older donors are more loyal,” Marcus noted. “The next generation won’t give simply because their parents gave or because they think it’s the right thing to do.”

Marcus said he’s not aware of too many Jewish organizations that still invoke dread and panic. “I think that simply appealing to visceral feelings is not a complete or proper approach.”

And it’s not the future of fundraising.

“You’re going to have to make the case each and every time. You have to present the facts that, yes, appeal to emotions, but go beyond that.” Charities, Marcus said, have an ethical obligation to be accurate, and donors need to know what they’re supporting is legitimate.

“Simply raising fears isn’t going to do the trick. All you do is paralyze people.” Strongarm tactics “are a thing of the past.”