Communication and Courage
By the late 1990s, the leadership of the Denver-based organization that was known as Allied Jewish Federation of Colorado knew change was in the air. For the better part of a decade, AJF sensed that the nonprofit’s presence as a “federated fundraising organization” left something to be desired — and that its relationship with donors was in jeopardy if it didn’t clarify its mission and better define its role in the community and beyond.
Then came the economic downturn of 2008-2009, and AJF knew it could no longer afford to wait.
“This has been brewing over the last decade; we were feeling the trends,” says Doug Seserman, president and CEO of what is now called JEWISHcolorado. “We realized then that the time was right now to be proactive in driving the organization toward the future.”
Those trends, he explains, centered around major donors and younger donors, and how they prefer to give to and interact with the organizations they choose to support.
“We sensed in the 1990s and 2000s that things were changing in philanthropy, especially among major donors and younger donors,” Seserman says. “Younger donors, especially, wanted to control their giving, direct it and designate it in a way their parents or grandparents didn’t. [Previous generations] were more comfortable with giving to an umbrella organization.”
The idea of AJF being a federated organization was vague at best, confusing and even misleading at worst. And while AJF’s mission was clear within the organization, many people — even its supporters — weren’t completely sure of what exactly it did and where its money was coming from or going to.
For 67 years, AJF has been an umbrella organization serving the Jewish community in Colorado and around the world. Two-thirds of its work is local, while a third is focused overseas, mainly in Israel. The mission involves offering a number of programs to enhance the quality of life for Jewish people throughout Colorado, mobilize relief efforts in times of crisis (such as the recent flooding in the state) and support Jews throughout the world. It’s federated in the sense that it’s “a multipurpose fundraising organization” rather than a single-purpose one, Seserman explains. And that was part of the problem. Many new/younger donors prefer to give in a more
“When I came to work [at AJF] in 2002, I came from a corporate-marketing background,” Seserman says. “The idea that one product could meet all needs was just foreign to me as a marketer.
“Giving one umbrella gift, while it’s important and righteous, is not completely enough to meet all donors’ needs,” he adds. “When we saw that change happening, we realized you can either lead, follow or get left behind, and you’re better off being proactive by planning for the future.”
Seserman says AJF was “built in the 20th century for 20th-century donors and 20th-century needs in the Jewish world.” The challenge then was to reorganize for the 21st century, maintaining its relationship with older, more established donors but also creating opportunities for and nurturing relationships with a new breed of up-and-coming donors. And that relationship had to evolve around more focused giving.
“The next generation does Jewish in a different way,” he says.
Working with the results of a community survey taken in 2010, AJF formed a core team of about 15 people (made up of key staff and board members, as well as some people from within the community and some outside consultants) to “reimagine” the organization.
To be clear, not much changed in the way AJF was run or the services it offered. The reimagining was primarily highlighting the programs and services provided by JEWISHcolorado and emphasizing its relevance to the Jewish community, and it was a way to build stronger relationships with donors and other supporters and provide more opportunities for giving.
‘A profoundly evolutionary change’
The subsequent brainstorming and scenario planning led to what Seserman calls “a profoundly evolutionary change” in the organization, starting with its name. It “dropped the F-word,” Seserman quips, meaning “federation.” It was a word the organization believed confused the public, making it seem as though AJF was overseen by a larger organization and not independent in making its own decisions about what services to offer and to whom.
“I’m not even sure where the word federation came from or what it means. I’m a ‘Star Trek’ fan, so to me it means the United Federation of Planets that comes together to protect itself against its enemies,” Seserman says with a laugh.
“So [in the course of changing the organization’s name], we stumbled upon calling ourselves what we are — JEWISHcolorado. It was very organic and explained our purpose: to build and sustain Jewish life in Colorado, in Israel and around the world,” he adds.
Once the name was set, the next goal was to very clearly identify exactly what the organization does and how. It was important to make it perfectly clear that supporters could both give to it and through it, as grantmaking is as core to JEWISHcolorado’s mission as directly providing programs and services.
To that end, the reimagining team came up with the notion of SMECA, which speaks to both the organization’s mission objectives and grantmaking. In short, SMECA represents two mission objectives and three areas of grantmaking:
- Secure, steward and share philanthropic and human resources;
- Mobilize the community in times of need;
- Engage the next generation of being Jewish;
- Care for the vulnerable; and
- Support Israel and Advocate for the Jewish world.
“I’m not sure we communicated those goals clearly before,” Seserman says. “Now since the reimagining, we’re approaching donors in a much simpler way, with a more straightforward and compelling message. Now when donors give to us, they have what I call flexible philanthropy to give both to our organization and through our organization to other partner organizations. But we wanted to focus on some distinct things that we can do on behalf of our community, not just on our role as a conduit to other agencies.”
Part of the reimagining also focuses on the relationship that JEWISHcolorado has with the agencies it supports. Previously, it allocated funds to more than 70 organizations. Over the next five to 10 years, it hopes to pare that down considerably so it can work more closely with strategic alliances. Seserman explains that those partnerships benefit the individual agency, allowing it to focus on programming with decreased overhead costs while JEWISHcolorado manages the fundraising efforts. And they allow the community to continue to take advantage of programs that may have otherwise become unavailable.
Communication and courage
The reasoning behind JEWISHcolorado’s reimagining makes sense, but how did the organization pull it off? Anyone who works in the nonprofit world knows supporters can be skittish and that even a new font in a direct-mail package can cause an uptick or downslide in donations.
The two underlying keys, Seserman says, were communication and courage. AJF leadership first vetted the idea for the reimagining to about 300 people at an annual meeting in 2010, addressing the economic downturn and its effect on fundraising, as well as the changes in philanthropy that were looming.
The courage part came, he says, in the form of fearless self-assessment and the ability to actually move forward with the resulting plans.
“We wanted to be on the leading edge of change but not the bleeding edge,” Seserman says. “The change took time; it took brainstorming, looking at options, getting buy-in. In the end, we just had to have the courage to take a shot. We stood a stronger chance of success in the future if we made changes from a position of strength — before our weaknesses made us more vulnerable.”
JEWISHcolorado Marketing Director Danielle Bergstein says one of the biggest challenges was communicating that despite the fact that JEWISHcolorado was taking somewhat of a different direction, it was still the same organization that the community had supported for 67 years.
“We needed to let people know that it wasn’t as if that organization no longer exists,” she says. “Our messaging had to be crafted so that our constituents understood that the foundation of what we were is still here. However, it is now more streamlined and focused.”
JEWISHcolorado’s services and operations continued pretty much as they had in the past through the duration of the changeover. (Seserman likens the process to renovating a restaurant. The “smart” thing to do would be to close for three months while the renovations are being completed and the menu revamped. AJF’s revamp, however, happened while the organization kept its doors open and its services up and running.) And aside from some capacity-building funding from longtime major donors, there was no fundraising done specifically around the reimagining project. But communication about the rebranding played a key role in much of the organization’s messaging across all channels as it was happening.
“Throughout the process, we focused on the message of, ‘You spoke; we listened,’” Bergstein says.
The survey at the heart of the reimagining went out to specific focus groups at several times throughout the process. As the organization prepared to unveil the rebrand, it used print ads, email and events to prepare the community for the changes, she explains. Now on the revamped JEWISHcolorado homepage (jewishcolorado.org), a bright “We’ve Reimagined” link both points to a Donate Now button and links to a page that explains all about the rebranding project.
What about results?
While all of this is well and good, what about results and how the reimagining has affected JEWISHcolorado’s fundraising? Given that the name change went into effect on Oct. 1, 2013, it’s a bit too early to know. But the overall feeling at the organization is that it was a move in the right direction.
Despite all the changes, fundraising is up about 2 percent over the same time last year, Seserman says, which is pretty amazing.
“As far as results, we don’t really have many yet. So I can’t say if this was a no-brainer success,” he says. “But I can say that we’re holding steady, even given all the change. We’re starting to see a growing comfort level and support. And a renewed energy.
“You can say we got our strut back,” he adds. “We’re not dancing in the hallways yet, but we’re feeling confident around who we are and what we do.”