Money and How to Get it: What Every Educator Needs to Know About Fundraising

  • by: Yisrael Feuerman

This article originally appeared in the Lookstein e-community Mifgashim.
I. Being a Learner
“I can’t do it, I just can’t do it,” a colleague of mine, head of a wonderful school in Israel, recently told me. “I can teach, I can help my students, but to ask for things, to ask for money and get rejected, I just can’t do it”. This colleague is indeed an extremely capable and competent educator — one of the rising stars in the field.
Her school runs at a small deficit which must be made up by fundraising. She tells me further that she is petrified at the thought of asking for money and as time goes by, the debt builds and she feels more and more anxious.
“What about fundraising do you find objectionable?” I asked her. She recounted all sorts of unpleasant associations and experiences of having been rejected and feeling like a failure. “It’s something I am just not good at – getting what I need – when it comes to money.”
I can’t say exactly that I was surprised by her statements, but I also knew her to be an outgoing woman who enjoyed being with people. Despite her enjoyment, she was saying that fundraising needs to be delegated to someone ‘else’ and she lamented the fact that she could not afford to hire someone to do it for her.
I asked her if she were at all curious about this process of how people in life manage to get the money they need and whether or not she might be open to a new idea. “Absolutely,” she said. I then asked if there were individuals within the orbit of her school who had financial resources. She said yes. Would you be willing to engage in discussions with people who have money, not to ask them for money, but for the purpose of learning more about them and their interest in education? She said “yes.” In fact, she was scheduled to meet with one such individual later that week and would make a point of engaging in such a discussion. One important thing: “lead with your curiosity and interests,” I told her, “not your hunger.”
Later she got back to me and said that a deep and fruitful discussion ensued with this man. That discussion was the basis for what ultimately turned into a substantial gift for the school.
“I had spoken with this man many times, she later told me, and nothing ever came of it, how come I was able to succeed this time?”
I invited her to speculate.
“I think that I stopped being an educator and an asker – and positioned myself as a learner,” she said.
Donors learn about us and our schools, not because we dazzle them with our activities and accomplishments, but because we take an interest in them and learn about them – just as we often do with students.
Educators love to educate and it is what we do best, but the need to educate is much less useful, in the experience of fundraising, than the need to learn. Many operate under the mistaken assumption that we need to educate people about our work and they will give. Our learning about them is the process by which they became educated about us.
II. It’s All about Relationships
A large, burly man in his late 50s with a slight stoop comes to the synagogue on the average twice a week during morning services. He is there not to pray, but to beg. He walks around smiling good-naturedly with his hand out. And every third person or so gives him 50 cents or a dollar.
He has been making the rounds in various synagogues for close to 20 years. Few if any even know his name. He in turn knows nothing about his “donors.”
There is a word in the Yiddish lexicon for a man like him. He is a schnorrer.
Though charity is an exalted activity in Yiddish culture, the word schnorrer is one of the Yiddish language’s worst epithets. It denotes a person who doesn’t want to pay. He (almost always male) doesn’t want to work; he wants a hand-out. He habitually asks for things, usually money, but not exclusively. He is a man about whom it is nearly always suspected as not being entirely genuine.
Paradoxically, though he is completely commonplace, the schnorrer is hated. People are so repulsed by the schnorrer that time was a parent would have preferred their child marry a criminal (non-violent) than a schnorrer. (At least the criminal ‘works’ for his money – such was the silly thinking).
What then is the difference then between fundraising and schnorring?
One answer often given is that a beggar is not interested in a relationship. His needs are so overpowering, so compelling to him that he cannot concentrate on anybody else.
A schnorrer is a taker. He doesn’t give. He only takes. He is relationship averse and relationship avoidant. He is not particularly interested in seeing the “donor” again nor is the “donor” interested in seeing him.
The fundraiser is not just interested in his needs or even the needs of his own organization. He is concerned with needs and interests of the donor and with society as a whole. He is only an agent to receive funds in order to do good. The funds are not for him. And therefore, people entrust the fundraiser with staggering sums that no beggar would ever receive.
It is said that the fundraiser, as opposed to the schnorrer, is interested in relationships.
But it is not that simple. Fundraising has ever-changing dynamics. It is a dance of nuances.
When I started in this field nearly 20 years ago I worked with a talented man who was head of one of the largest social service agencies in NY. His father was a holocaust survivor from the Old Country. He tried to explain to his father what he did – that he supervised people, that he coordinated budgets and personnel, established relationships with elected officials and wealthy people. The older man took in all the information and then said simply, “Oh, so you’re a schnorrer.”
The reality is that all human beings at one time or another behave like schnorrers. This has nothing to do with income. It has everything to do with character. Some are beggars for love, some for money, others, for recognition.
One of my clients, no matter how successful he has been in raising money for his cause, when it comes time to pay, he whines. “The pressure,” is killing him, he often says. He is always in need of ‘more help’ – someone who will give him a break.
People operate from psychological states and positions. A rich man may behave like a beggar and a poor man may have an expansive outlook and a developed sense of vision.
Rich and poor in addition to being socio-economic conditions, are also states of mind out of which we habitually operate. In fact, many wealthy people complain about not having enough money, time and therefore cannot give. They feel impoverished.
The big money, the wealth, is in creating relationships. A relationship suggests equality. We start from the idea that people use their feelings, their interests, their heads and their hearts. That we need not cajole, whine or guilt people into action, but we first establish an interest and obtain permission to make a request.
A colleague of mine runs a kiruv center and bais medrash in a small city in the Northeast. He reported to me that he was “stuck” in a number of what he called unproductive experiences with donors and potential givers. For example he has a “close” relationship with donor “x”, but he is frustrated. Donor “x” is a man of means and is a serious giver to every cause in town, but gives a paltry sum to the yeshiva.
“What feeling do you have towards this man?” I asked. “I like him very much and I enjoy being with him. We have Kiddush together, we socialize. — I have dropped many a hint to him, joked with him and cajoled him, but he always gives me the same answer, ‘Jack, you know that I am stretched…'”
“You’re not getting a gift from this man because you’re both operating like beggars,” I told him. You’re hoping he will like you and if you stay in his proximity, he will give you a gift. This is the only reason you are spending time with him. You know it and he may know it too. He, on the other hand is getting a lot of time and attention from you and giving very little for it. He is not truly in your corner or active on your behalf. You need to find out why.
You might approach him with a tone of mild curiosity, I counseled. Ask him what is on his mind. Ask him about him. And whatever his response, don’t try to change his mindset. Just learn more about him and his thinking.
Following my suggestion, Donor “x” told my friend, “Truth be told, I like you and enjoy being with you. You do a lot for this community, but my family ties go way back here to the synagogue and so many other things I have loyalty towards. Those places are struggling and you have a nice office – I am not saying you’re not doing a lot, but quite frankly I think other groups are more deserving.”
My friend was surprised and hurt and even felt a little bit criticized by this remark but acting on my suggestion, he persisted.
“That is your perception. Is some part of your mind open to the idea of seeing things differently?”
“Not really, he said. Few people ever succeed in changing my mind.”
I advised my colleague to alter the nature of the contact with donor “x”. Send him only new information about your work. New programs, new activities that haven’t been done before. Make no requests, I told him. He is not open.
The most important activity in philanthropy is to build relationships with people who are interested in seeing you and your organization succeed and grow. You cannot buy that. We make contact, we learn, and relationships and love follow. This is the foundation of the work.
As of this writing, this donor “x” is still a modest giver, but my friend has since gone on to invest his energy productively. He built new relationships with other large givers and attracted people who sincerely believe in him and his work.
In the end, people can deliver or disappoint, but building relationships is the work of a lifetime.
III. The Uses of God in Fundraising and Other Everyday Human Endeavors
A few years ago, a prominent man who owed my school substantial money on a pledge, assured me repeatedly that though his pledge was late – it would absolutely, positively be there by 3 p.m. on Thursday — Guaranteed.
Upon hearing his words I breathed a sigh of relief. He was emphatic. He used so many words to say that he would do it and because we needed the money for payroll and lives were hanging in the balance, I believed him and relaxed somewhat. P>But then he added two words after “Guaranteed.” The words were “B’ezrat Hashem” At that point my stomach dropped. My brain told me that the money would be there, but my stomach or my gut told me it wouldn’t. A conflict between my brain and my gut and my gut usually wins. (He eventually did deliver, but not when he said he would.)
Why did he throw God into the picture and what does it mean?
A few months ago a man hired me to do fundraising work and just as we were signing the deal he said I don’t want to shake your hand to conclude this deal between us. We are mere humans and I don’t believe in you or even in us, it is up to God. God provides.
I took that as a bad omen. The nature of fundraising is such that many things happen by chance or as if ordained by on High. Even the very social contract to give and to give to Jewish education is mandated by The Torah. And yet, this particular gentleman, it turns out has particular problems with people as it relates to money. He has let us say, an immature attitude towards money. He is a Jewish educator doing the Lord’s work and is in serious debt which he rationalizes is okay because he is doing the “right thing”. That is his choice, but at the same time he is notorious for not paying his staff and others on time. In fact, as I got to know him, he seems to be unwilling or unable to pay anyone on time. He selectively takes responsibility for payment, but does not take responsibility for paying in a timely fashion. He treats his money difficulties, which are legion, as if it is something that world does to him, and not a condition in which he has a major hand.
I firmly believe this person uses God as a defense against the idea that he is responsible for his actions.
But are donors also using “God?” Moreover, are we better off with God in the picture or without Him when it comes to fundraising?
Let us examine:
Many people give charity because they think that God will reward them. In fact, God promises that He will. And yet, isn’t this a kind of merchant mentality? We are giving to you or your school because God will give it back to us. We are giving you because God will give it back to us. The human experience is reduced in that equation. The “you” as it were, is weakened and the “I” is weakened. All the strength is imputed to God.
The idea that people are doing things because of God may have a weakening effect on all human relations – especially that of fundraising. There is a cultural imperative to give because of the contract that we have to be a holy people in front of God and the nations. That is the initial impetus for giving. However, the translation of cultural imperative and divine religious mandate to the world of people, is where the commitment can either be weakened or made strong.
The best and largest gifts are given because there is an authentic “I” as in I give this and an authentic “you” in the sense that I give this to you. In fact, ask donors: Do you want to do this? Not do you want to do this, but do you want to do this? And I set out with them to learn why they want to.
Often the donor begins a mutual process of discovery in learning more about the why behind their giving impulse and why it is directed to you and your school. This is an exciting and alive fundraising process, which stimulates even more giving.
As in many matters in Jewish education, it is good to bring Godliness and holiness into the experience, but it is not always helpful to bring God Himself in.