The International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, established in 1983 to promote understanding between members of two major, often at-odds religions and build broad support for Israel, was one of the first nonprofit organizations to devote a full-time position to social media.
FundRaising Success met Christina Johns, the person who fills that position, a few years ago when she approached us with the idea of writing a column for what was then the magazine's Giving 2.0 e-letter. We liked her drive, her youthful energy and her easy grasp of social media, which seemed at the time to be throwing most of the world of nonprofit marketing, communications and fundraising into a tizzy.
While many nonprofits were scrambling to latch on to what the sector was lauding as the Next Big Thing, IFCJ calmly and methodically absorbed the new medium into its overall marketing, communications and fundraising strategy.
It's tempting to point to its commitment to social media as the cornerstone to IFCJ's stunning increase in contributed funds (from $50 million to nearly $100 million since 2005). While that would bring a smile to the faces of folks who are just itching to ditch direct mail and hitch their fundraising wagons to some quick, easy and seemingly cost-free star, it would be wrong and, perhaps, a matter of wishful thinking.
Rather, Johns' position as online media manager at IFCJ is indicative of the organization's greater overall commitment to meeting donors and other supporters "where they are," embracing new strategies and ideas, and — perhaps most importantly — rolling them into a seamlessly integrated plan that focuses on consistent messaging spread across numerous media: direct mail, e-mail, Web, DRTV, social media, etc.
That commitment, Johns and her colleagues at IFCJ are quick to point out, starts at the top.
According to the organization's vice president of development, Sue Woodward, IFCJ founder and President Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein recognized early on that a multipronged approach to fundraising and outreach is the one true path to success.
"Our founder had the vision to see that by making investments in a variety of direct-response mediums, it would allow us to have a broader outreach," Woodward says. "He was one of the first to use DRTV, and now he sees the investment in social media as another opportunity to engage, educate and build a greater understanding between Jews and Christians."
IFCJ Senior VP Chris Cleghorn calls Eckstein "the driver of growth" for the organization, and Johns explains that it was the rabbi's comments at a staff meeting in 2008 that gave her the courage to pursue social media for IFCJ.
"Our founder has always been very pro new things and new ideas, and it was at a staff meeting where he mentioned thinking outside the box … that anyone, no matter where they are in the organization, has the ability to think outside of the box and has the opportunity to pursue their ideas," Johns explains.
With Eckstein's blessing, so to speak, Johns, a project coordinator at the time, approached her supervisor with the idea of researching the whole social-media milieu to see what kind of a fit it would be for IFCJ. Granted, she had to do the research on her own time, but it turned out to be time well spent.
Johns started looking into how other organizations — both non- and for-profit — were using social media. Her first impression? There's lots of potential here for IFCJ.
"I know our donors — they love talking with us. They want to be heard just as much as we want to give them news and information about projects," she explains. "They have a strong affinity for what our mission is and who our founder is.
"Social media is a unique opportunity for them to communicate with us and see what we're doing," she says, adding that having a presence on social-media sites such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube alleviates the organization's inherent challenge of having much of its work take place outside of the U.S. and far from the eyes of donors and other supporters.
"It's not like we're Goodwill and people can walk down the street and say, 'Oh, I give clothes here,'" she explains.
With social media, she says, IFCJ can bring evidence of its work abroad to its U.S.-based donors more immediately than with direct mail and other media.
There's a lot more to the social-media story at IFCJ, and you can read about it in a Web-exclusive sidebar. But social media is still a small — albeit growing — piece of the equation.
A host of other channels
"It's just another doorway; it gives [donors and supporters] another option," Johns says. "It's not the medium; it's the message. If you have a good message, people are out there and they want to hear it. Social media is just another part of having an integrated fundraising and marketing campaign."
Woodward echoes Johns' thoughts, saying that IFCJ has made a concerted effort for a number of years to use a multichannel approach. To reach out to a broad audience, the organization uses a mix of DRTV, direct mail, online, telemarketing and most recently, of course, social media "to engage, educate and promote a greater understanding between Jews and Christians, while building broad support for Israel."
"For years as fundraisers we have heard that the channel a person comes in on is most likely their preferred channel and you won't see much crossover," Woodward says. "Instead of taking that statement at face value, IFCJ created a strategy several years ago that included contacting donors through a variety of DR mediums — for donor engagement and increased gifts. It has paid off as we continue to see file growth in both donors and gifts.
"We don't make the determination for the donor how or where they will give — we simply make it as easy as possible for them to choose how and when they want to give," she adds.
Key to success with such a broad strategy, Woodward, Cleghorn and Johns all agree, is consistency of messaging across the mediums.
"For example, we know that DRTV is a key driver to our Web pages for information gathering and to donate. We ensure that all offers from the DRTV program are reflected with the same dollar handles on our website," Woodward says. "We also ensure that when we go out with either direct mail, e-appeals or renewal telemarketing calls, that messages and offers are consistent and even though asks vary by mediums (lower dollar handles for mail, higher for online) that they are consistent derivatives so as not to confuse the donor."
Adds Cleghorn: "And we do not necessarily segregate communications by channel — Web donors will receive direct-mail communications."
Interestingly, as communications — whether for business or pleasure — are getting more succinct (even 140-character "tweets" are being lambasted for being too long to retweet without editing) and cryptic (omg I h8 dat), IFCJ is having some of its best fundraising success through a medium that could be seen as the antithesis of things like Facebook and Twitter: DRTV.
Cleghorn says DRTV is the highest source of new donors at IFCJ, accounting for 45 percent to 50 percent of all new-donor acquisition each year, followed by direct mail, then online, and personal referrals and friends.
Other keys to success
He also points out a variety of other factors that are at play in the phenomenal growth of IFCJ's contributed income in the past five years. Chief among them:
■ Renewal and ongoing giving is largely through a strong and consistent direct-mail follow-up to donors across all sources — including regular monthly appeals and a dynamic monthly newsletter to tell the fuller story of need and the results of donors' giving.
■ There is a major focus on educational outreach, providing information for people interested in the Jewish roots of the Christian faith and other issues related to Israel.
■ There is a strong effort to cultivate donors — a monthly newsletter, a quarterly magazine for donors and a special effort to touch donors in meaningful and timely ways. Web cultivation, including the rabbi's newsletter and special alerts, touches donors instantaneously using a younger medium.
■ The organization utilizes all channels and takes pains to be sensitive to donors by "honoring their gifts to us, which are very heartfelt and often are truly sacrificial gifts," Cleghorn says.
■ The three-year-old planned-giving program is performing at a high level, and gift annuity and bequest commitments are growing at a strong pace.
■ There is a commitment to think creatively about ways to personally express appreciation to donors.
■ The biggest new emphasis is to go much deeper into data analysis to see trends of renewal and attrition, how best to optimize channels, and continue the investment in strengthening donor acquisition.
"Also, core to all we do is that we stay current with issues and events in Israel and those affecting the safety and security of Jews around the world," Cleghorn says. "There is controversy associated with our mission, but many people, especially in America, are very deeply committed to Israel and the Jewish people."
A tricky mission
The nature of IFCJ's mission — to foster understanding between Christians and Jews and foster support from both for humanitarian and social programs in Israel itself — has both positive and negative implications for fundraising and other communications. The mission, for one, lacks broad-based appeal with the general public, so TV and radio programming, mailing lists, etc., are limited.
And then there's controversy, of course, in the very nature of the Christian/Jewish relationship and in the fact that IFCJ focuses its work in one of the world's most religiously, politically and physically volatile regions.
But it also reaches deep into its supporters' belief systems and relies heavily on their sense of moral and spiritual obligation.
"Yes, we do have a unique ministry. For the people who deeply believe in our work, there is deep appreciation and strong commitment to us," Cleghorn says. "But what we do can lead to criticism because some individuals and groups on both sides — Christian and Jewish — may disagree with part of what we do.
"But the fact is that people are motivated from their personal faith to support our work, and many do not give just generously but sacrificially," he adds. "Though not technically a religious organization, we view our work as a ministry that cares deeply not only about the people we help, but also about the people who donate — giving them information, nurturing their faith and showing we care in specialized ways. For example, we place telephone calls to follow up on donors who live in an area that has been struck by a natural disaster such as a flood or tornado. We call them on behalf of Rabbi Eckstein to see if they are alright and if we can pray for them."
Finally, Cleghorn offers these important takeaway tips that nonprofit organizations can glean from IFCJ:
■ Really care for donors. Respect them and walk with them through times of generosity and times of difficulties.
■ Invest in stewardship, and communicate ongoing and sincere appreciation.
■ Cultivate a personal relationship between the leader and donors. "The outreach to donors is on behalf of the leader."
■ Dedicate significant time, energy and expense to testing new acquisition/cultivation/stewardship strategies. "Don't rest on your laurels." FS