When we think of a fundraiser, the image that usually comes to mind is that of a man knocking at your door, calling you on the phone, or shaking hands and connecting with other men at shul. But over the last decade, not only has the landscape of fundraising changed with innovative methods such as crowdfunding, online 24-hour matching campaigns and grants from a whole host of sources, but the profile of the fundraiser has also broadened. Nowadays, hundreds of nonprofit organizations have been founded and are being run by frum women. These women often shoulder the responsibility of raising amounts that can range from thousands of dollars for their yearly budget to multi millions, depending on the organization.
Women face unique challenges in this arena. A lot of networking is done in a shul setting at a kiddush, dinners or simchahs, as well as yarchai kallahs and retreats, and since most of the biggest checks to organizations are being written by men, women have an obstacle to overcome at the outset in order to connect with big donors. What’s more, even if they do schedule meetings with potential male donors, they must surmount the hurdle of having to arrange it in a public place or office with other staff around to make sure there are no yichud issues. In addition, the relationship-building that normally happens with a repeat donor has barriers to developing in the usual way.
So how have women bridged this gap? What is the best way to get a foot in the door? And what supports are being built in the world of women-run nonprofits to scaffold success in fundraising?
The Advent of Female
Sarah Rivkah Kohn, the founder and director of Zisel’s Links and Shlomie’s Club, shares that up until relatively recently, those in charge of the finances of our community organizations were almost all men. Neshei groups and women auxiliaries existed, but were always seen as a supplemental budget.
Sarah Rivkah points to the fact that part of the shift arose out of necessity. In the last decade or so, women have established a slew of nonprofits to address the myriad needs that exist in our community, and the fundraising for such efforts often rests squarely on the founder’s shoulders. Unfortunately, many of these well-meaning women found themselves unprepared for the gargantuan task.
“Many people ended up in a situation where they said to themselves, ‘I started this organization to do something wonderful, but I didn’t realize what the financial aspect would entail. What am I supposed to do now?’” Sarah Rivkah explains.
Her own organization is a case in point. It all began from her personal understanding of what it’s like to lose a parent as a child. Having lost her mother when she was only nine years old, she wanted to support children going through the same challenge. Her first idea was to start a magazine for teenage girls, providing them with a platform to connect to other girls in the same situation, as well as to hear from mentors and role models who had also “been there.” The success of the magazine, which launched in 2006, led to more programming, eventually becoming Zisel’s Links, Shlomie’s Club and Little Links of Pearls, all forums for children of various ages to bond with and learn from others who share their experiences of loss.
Zisel’s Links has since developed into an international organization, serving over 2,700 children from preschool through young adulthood. As the organization grew exponentially, so did the need to fundraise. “I didn’t anticipate that I would be running retreats, paying for therapy, funding kallahs and so much more,” she admits, noting an annual budget that jumped from $20,000 initially when it was just a magazine to almost $3 million now that it has multiple offerings.
Sarah Rivkah elaborates on the main female fundraiser’s hurdle of accessibility to donors, given that she can’t network with men at the usual venues. Layered onto this is the challenge of parlor meetings and fundraising dinners.
“Events are still primarily catered to men, so if I’m running an event for my organization, it’s hard to have a speaker in my place who conveys my vision as well as I can,” she explains. “I also don’t know of any fundraising networking events in our community that are open to women, which is another obstacle to growth.” To keep up with trends, she initially sought advice from people one-on-one or attended secular fundraising trainings, which weren’t particularly attuned to our community.
Creativity Trumps Challenges
Sarah Rivkah explains how she learned to reframe and bridge this gap. “I realized that because I’m limited in pursuing the conventional route, I would have to get creative. I would have to solve problems in new ways. But when it comes right down to it, that’s an edge that women possess.”
Sarah Rivkah figured out that she could still do a lot of passive connecting by exchanging cell numbers so they can connect on WhatsApp, where she curates her status so people can see what her organization is up to. Because many of her donors view her status, when she approaches them for a periodic donation, they feel like she has kept up with them. She also raises a quarter of a million dollars annually on social media via LinkedIn and Instagram, and has created her own hashtag—#talesofaleader—where she gets real about telling the story of her organization, including both successes and challenges. Her candor enables her to build trust with these donors, who appreciate her honesty.
Lastly, she created a “Month in Review” newsletter that goes out to a smaller list of donors, highlighting organizational statistics and updates on what the budget has been going towards. After running some tests sending out the “Month in Review” on different days of the week, she was able to ascertain that while women generally opened the newsletter any day of the week, men consistently read it much more frequently if it was sent on Thursday night. “We need to start experimenting and learning what works,” she advises her fellow fundraisers.
Even though she doesn’t get to see most of her male donors when she attends their simchahs, Sarah Rivkah makes a point of going anyway to meet donors’ wives and tell them how much the family’s donations have meant to her personally. She relates that many women have sincerely appreciated this, saying, “My husband gets all the thank-yous, and I never get to hear the kind of story of impact you just shared with me.”
Once Sarah Rivkah chisels her way through the accessibility barrier, she encounters the “trifecta” that makes all the difference with potential donors: the organization’s story, its numbers, and the amount of the donation you are asking for. “My experience has been that women are valued for their work and our boundaries are respected. Once I am meeting with a man, I never find that it makes any difference that I am a woman. Getting these three factors expressed clearly is at the heart of opening doors.”
And yet, the million-dollar question still looms: Why don’t these organizations just hire a man to do the fundraising? Why try to overcome all these hurdles if it’s so difficult to do so?
“Experience has shown me that when you are a passionate founder, no one sells your organization better than you,” Sarah Rivkah explains. “The field isn’t exactly full of people who are passionate about taking on fundraising for an organization, and it involves significant cuts being taken out of the funds. We just need to get creative, and then the playing field is leveled.”
Sarah Rivka first heard about the Chesed Leadership Program—an innovative educational fellowship for women running nonprofits—just as it was graduating its first cohort. “I read a short press release about the first graduating class and immediately contacted the director to put me on the waiting list for the second one.” Indeed, there were manifold benefits to having formal training in organizational management. She recalls that the Chesed Leadership Program was such a game changer that her staff held their breaths whenever she came into the office the day after one of the classes. “I was so motivated and eager to implement everything I learned right away. It meant more work for all of us, but better service for those we were helping.”