New community endowment campaign sets an unconventional course
By Cindy Mindell
WEST HARTFORD – It may take a village to raise a child, but who sustains the village?
This month, the Jewish Community Foundation of Greater Hartford answers the question with the launch of the Aim Chai Endowment Campaign, an unprecedented collaboration between the Foundation, Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford, and 27 area partners. The campaign engages donors and community members in a collective effort to build a stronger future for Jewish Hartford.
The effort has been brewing quietly for more than two years, says Aim Chai co-chair Eric Zachs, the result of a conversation among community leaders and philanthropists on how to ensure Jewish continuity.
The first result was a plan to enhance the Jewish Community Foundation endowment capacity and role. Philanthropist Henry Zachs and Jewish Federation senior staff advisor Stephen Bayer discussed the idea with fellow community leaders and presented a preliminary proposal to synagogues and community agencies. The plan was adopted by the Foundation and formalized with structure and methodology, says Eric Zachs, a resident of West Hartford who also serves as vice chair of development at Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford. He was asked to co-chair an executive committee that would spearhead the effort.
Eric Zachs was joined by Bruce Fischman, who has helped raise funds for the Jewish community since the late ‘70s as Federation campaign chair and vice chair, and Foundation development chair.
The executive committee began by hiring fundraising and development consultants CCS to conduct a feasibility study to determine what the Jewish community envisioned for itself. A report based on interviews with 100 families was used as a basis to kick off the Aim Chai campaign.
Participants told CCS that they wanted something new and different and didn’t want to be solicited for donations so frequently.
“We determined that we have tremendous potential in the community,” says Fischman also a West Hartford resident.
For nearly a year, the campaign has been in its “quiet phase,” with members of the executive committee having one-on-one conversations with 39 major-donor families who already have a philanthropic track record with the community organizations in the Aim Chai partnership. Instead of asking these families to write checks, the conversation has focused on their vision for the Jewish community and what kind of lasting gift would be meaningful to them.
The committee also worked with the partner organizations to develop individual fundraising case statements and a collective communal vision.
“Coming out of the recession, organizations were worried about staying alive,” says Michael Johnston, president and CEO of the Foundation. “In the community, generally, an institution will reach out to donors saying, ‘It’s important to do this project or serve this clientele and we need your help.’ But sometimes, in that process of trying to engage people on an annual basis, we lose track of what’s possible beyond that one institution.”
The committee asked donors to think big – if they could make a profound difference, what would it be? “Ideas came up and we could lend our knowledge to the seed of an idea and make a case for how people could support and achieve it,” Johnston says. “People got excited about the possibilities.”
The approach is proving successful.
“We haven’t been turned away yet, and all 100 families are on board and stepping up to the plate,” says Fischman. “After seeing how far their gift can go and that they can be involved over the long term and get their kids involved, many of them are giving us substantially more than they promised in the feasibility study.”
So far, Aim Chai has raised more than $20 million in cash and nearly $5.7 million in legacy gifts.
The campaign has already launched several initiatives, or “transformation funds.” For example, the three Hartford-area Jewish day schools are working together on “Building Steam for STEAM” (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math). Hebrew Health Care’s “Dreaming Big” focuses on preparing for the next generation of seniors – an estimated 8,000 Americans will enter the ranks of senior adulthood every day for the next 18 years – and how changing healthcare policies can meet needs.
Each of the 27 partner organizations is designing initiatives to address their respective future needs. Aim Chai both allocates money for immediate use and sets up endowment funds to create a steady income stream, allowing the organizations to plan more effectively over time and meet the community’s needs as it evolves.
Aim Chai may be the only such initiative in the country, says Johnston.
“The Foundation endowment exists to build the financial footings of the Jewish community,” he says. “This was a moment for us as a community to embrace the idea that we could be more powerful and successful together as a combined entity. This country and our Jewish community, along with others, are experiencing the largest generational wealth transfer in the history of the country. If there was a time to discuss how to leave a legacy behind, this would be it.”
Getting so many disparate organizations together was no easy task, says Johnston, given the unique perspective of each.
“But we all understood that there’s great power in working together,” he says. “What’s very important in any effort like this is that all of us, as institutions, have to put aside our own agendas, the silos between institutions have to come down, and we have to trust each other. We’re all committed to building and sustaining the Jewish community, and when we approach this endeavor with ‘We’re all in this together,’ no single institution can survive without the connection to the others.”
In this way, no organization interested in this partnership is left behind. (Some were not ready to participate in the campaign at this time, Johnston says.)
Now Aim Chai will work to involve the community at large. The first step is education, says Johnston: What does community mean in an era when people are engaged electronically? What does Jewish community mean today?
“We hope to talk with people who have not been engaged before, allowing them to approach us in their own way,” he says. “We want people to embrace philanthropy and Jewish community in ways that are meaningful to them. Through our public communications, we want to offer opportunities for volunteerism and advocacy as well as giving. We know that a younger generation of our community believes in the idea of participatory philanthropy so we need to find ways of engaging them in the work.”
In fact, the executive committee and feasibility-study interviewees include 20- and 30-something donors, says Eric Zachs.
At the May reception introducing the Aim Chai Endowment Campaign: (l to r) Aim Chai Executive Committee member Gayle Temkin; Gerry Goldberg; and Kim Margolis. Temkin and Goldberg are co-chairs of the Day School Transformation Fund; all three serve on the campaign’s Partners Council.
“The world is changing, our parents’ generation and our kids’ generation look at the world quite differently, so institutions need to adapt,” he says. “How are people connecting Jewishly through the various stages of their lives? How do we bring the expertise to sustain these institutions and develop leaders of the future?”
In the course of this phase of Aim Chai, Johnston has seen the Foundation’s role in the community begin to change.
“Traditionally, the Foundation’s mission was to endow the community financially but now we’re also thinking of an intellectual endowment,” he says. “How can we teach, train, educate, and make institutions stronger?”
Aim Chai is about more than the money that sustains communal institutions, Johnston says.
“It’s a campaign to engage people in the life of the Jewish community, to teach them about philanthropy and how impactful it can be, and to find a way of educating those not actively engaged in the community about the extraordinary things going on,” he says.
Eric Zachs has derived great joy in working closely with people for a common Jewish purpose. “That is incredibly gratifying,” he says. “Our goal now is to show others who may not be as involved the joy they can get from that effort.”
For more information, visit the new Aim Chai website: aimchai.org.
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