Tuesday, July 23, 2019 -
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A new JEWISHcolorado

L-r: Doug Seserman, Nancy Gart, Ruth MalmanFIRST things first: The Allied Jewish Federation of Colorado no longer exists.

Nor does its partner, the Jewish Community Foundation.

The federation and the foundation are history — at least in terms of their names and to some degree their methodologies — but the work they do in the community remains very much in the present day.

In place of these two institutions that have been integral parts of Colorado Jewry is one that aspires to carry on their work in new, improved, more relevant ways — JEWISHcolorado.

“We have said,” quipped Doug Seserman, JEWISHcolorado’s president/CEO, “in a loving way, that we have dropped the F-word, whether the F-word is federation or foundation. We’re just trying to be JEWISHcolorado, with both aspects of that living in us.”

In a recent interview with the Intermountain Jewish News, Seserman joined up with JEWISHcolorado Co-chairs Nancy Gart and Ruth Malman (formerly coordinating council chair of the Allied Jewish Federation and chair of the Jewish Community Foundation, respectively) in discussing the new name and restructuring that were implemented last fall.

Where there were once two 501-C3 non-profit institutions, there is now one.

Where the federation (the institution that ran the community’s annual campaign and allocated funds according to community needs) and the foundation (a donor-directed body funded by the community’s endowment fund) were once separate, albeit closely linked, they are now one.

While the name and structure have changed, the work that these erstwhile separate institutions have long done remains vital.

The Colorado Jewish community still needs someone to “secure, steward and share” its charitable and human resources; to mobilize in times of need; to engage the next generation in being Jewish; to care for the vulnerable members of the community; to support Israel and advocate for the Jewish world.

All these needs and more, Seserman says, will continue to be met by JEWISHcolorado.

But not quite in the same ways as before.

Improving efficiency and clarity

TAKING a fairly complex formula and reducing it to simple language, he provides an explanation of why the changes have become necessary.

“Typically the federation is the umbrella organization that has an annual campaign and uses that to distribute dollars locally and globally,” says Seserman, adding that JEWISHcolorado will continue working within that basic game plan and will continue its participation in the national Jewish federation movement as a member of Jewish Federations of North America.

The former Jewish Community Foundation, Malman says — and its current component as part of JEWISHcolorado — exists “to secure funds for the future with an endowment as a long-term asset.”

Says Seserman: “Many federations have a foundation inside of them. In Jewish communities around the country, about half the federations have a foundation integrated and about half are separated.”

In Colorado’s case, the Jewish Community Foundation, whose funds constitute a communal endowment fund of some $50 million, was integrated into the Allied Jewish Federation.

“The foundation, in its purest sense, would have the corpus that came from something, whether it’s a private family foundation or a community foundation. They use that corpus to do grant-making and fund their operations. Our corpus was never significant enough to make grants, nor even fund our operations, so the federation was relied upon to fund the endowment piece.

“But inside of our $50 million in the foundation we have donor-advised funds, restricted program endowments, custodial accounts for agencies and synagogues. There’s a lot of work in the foundation that is really important in the community.

“This community needs a strong Jewish community foundation, in addition to Rose Community Foundation, and it never really had one.”

Tying both federation and foundation into a streamlined new institution — JEWISHcolorado — will not only improve efficiency and clarity for both organizations but hopefully open the door to funds that can support those causes the federation has long supported as well as enhance the endowment.

The old federation campaign canvassed more than 5,000 donors annually, while the old foundation had around 130 donor-advised funds. While a “small subset” of campaign supporters were also active in the foundation, most of them — including many major givers — were not.

JEWISHcolorado, Seserman hopes, can help the federation serve as a “sales channel” for the foundation by encouraging supporters of ongoing community needs to jump on the bandwagon for the long-term needs covered by the foundation.

“We would like to have those conversations,” he says.

Changing landscape of giving

THE advent of JEWISHcolorado also has a lot to do with recent evolutions in the philanthropic environment.

“Umbrella giving,” for example, is not as popular as it once was. This is a traditional fundraising model, in which donors are approached for a one-time gift from a central fundraising body (such as the federation or United Way), which then decides where to disburse those funds.

“From a competitive standpoint, the landscape is really changing if you look at the development professionals,” Seserman says.

“There was a time when volunteer leaders raised most of the money in the community. The organizations were supported by a handful of professionals. Today you have well compensated, six-figure development professionals all over the place. You have six-figure development professionals in many of the institutions. The fundraising professionals in the community probably outnumber the federation professionals three to one.”

These development professional don’t only compete with federations, they compete with each other, he adds.

“So it’s just a very competitive fundraising environment and it’s confusing for donors. Donors want to be supportive but they don’t understand why they’re giving to you to give to all these organizations when all these organizations are also soliciting them directly.”

At the same time, donors increasingly want a more direct say in how their charitable dollars are spent.

Nancy Gart says that while many older donors remain satisfied with the old umbrella solicitation method, younger ones are growing more comfortable with the multiple solicitation model.

“Younger donors and bigger donors tend to want to be able to control their philanthropy and manage it in a way that they can relate to,” Seserman says. “They don’t want to give to a black box that then does something else with their dollars.

“For both federations and United Ways, their bread and butter is what we call the unrestricted gift. You give to a pot, that pot gets leveraged. It’s a very righteous gift, part of Maimonides’ second level of giving, next to helping someone be self-sufficient. It’s an anonymous gift. Neither the donor nor the recipient knows where it’s going. But it’s not a practical gift in the 21st century.”

JEWISHcolorado aspires to serve as a nexus of both approaches to giving. After three years of planning, led by Gart, and sorting through at least 10 different structural scenarios, the organization believes it has come up with “a more sustainable and rewarding business model.”

The “rewarding” part, Seserman explains, has to do with making the former federation a more fun place to work and volunteer for — hence, a more attractive entity for donors.

“One of the sadder parts in Jewish life, I think, is that when you serve in a leadership role, whether it’s professional or volunteer, you often experience as much tsuris as you do reward. That’s really not right.

“I think the federation, by its nature as the umbrella organization, was trying to be everything to everybody but it ended up being not meaningful enough to anyone. Because of that, we were like Complaint Box Central.

“We were looking for a model that would be more joyful to volunteer in, to donate to, to work in, where it’s clear what our role is in the community vis-à-vis the other organizations.

“One of the things that we feel most excited about is while people may like or not like exactly what we’ve come up with, we feel like we’ve got a little strut back. Now we can tell our story and it’s differentiated and fresh.”

“Total financial resource development”

A CENTRAL component of JEWISHcolorado’s new approach will be to respect and facilitate the donor trend toward directed giving.

“To some degree we saw that coming,” Seserman says. “We created Total Choice Tzedakah years ago. That was an effort to understand this donor need and develop what might be called in a business sense an outsourced fundraising model.”

In that model, he explains, “you can have development professionals resident in federation, raising dollars for agencies in addition to federation. What we’ve seen is that there are a lot of good things about it but also a lot of not so perfect things about it.”

While the current approach of JEWISHcolorado might not be perfect, Seserman feels it’s closer to that goal than previous models.

“Instead of referring to the annual campaign or endowment, we call it total financial resource development. It’s all fundraising, all flavors and forms, including the annual campaign, both unrestricted and restricted, as well as endowment legacy gifts, both unrestricted and restricted.

“The annual campaign is stronger to the degree to which it is more unrestricted.

“On the endowment side, what we know is that the largest gifts that come in from planned giving are very restricted. That’s where we’re competing with centers of arts and culture, universities, hospitals — broad community organizations that Jewish donors also support.

“We want the Jewish community in the consideration set for the largest gifts that Jewish donors will make in their lifetime or maybe after their lifetime.”

It will require the federation’s fundraisers to be able to present a comprehensive, if rather complex, array of donor options and packages, not unlike the old Fuller Brush salesman who seemed to have a different brush for virtually every need in the household.

“The mission got more complex whether we liked it or didn’t like it,” Seserman says.

“You have to ask whether this gives you more ability to succeed in that complex environment or less. It’s not as simple as it once was.”

Among the “total financial resource development” choices offered to donors, however, must be the traditional unrestricted gift — that is to say, the gift that the donor will entrust to JEWISHcolorado for disbursement as it sees fit.

“You can’t magically match donors’ desires with communal needs in the world,” Seserman stresses.

“We need unrestricted dollars to fill in needs for those who don’t have a voice for themselves, like the elderly in the Former Soviet Union and some of the most needy people in our community as well as the Jewish world. There’s not necessarily an organization advocating on their behalf.

“Practically, [unrestricted dollars] are also the lifeblood of any organization for sustainability. The business model of organizations is dependent on unrestricted dollars to fund their operations and overhead.”

Or, as Gart succinctly puts it: “We have a broader view of the entire community and its needs.”

“An umbrella entity for our community”

WHILE changing the organizational infrastructure and combining fundraising efforts are substantial changes in themselves, changing the organization’s name is huge.

Seserman, who worked in the corporate branding field before entering the non-profit world, is asked whether it’s risky for such as established body as the Allied Jewish Federation to suddenly wrap itself in a totally new identity.

“There is inherent risk in what we’re doing,” he acknowledges, “but there was arguably more risk in staying still. What we found is that people understood the federation but almost half the community felt it wasn’t effective enough.

“On the foundation side, people understood what the foundation was in terms of being important but they didn’t understand what it did.

“We had two strong names that were important organizations but one was thought of as being not that effective and the other one nobody really understood.

“In the end, some people might not like the federation even though they might not know why they don’t like it.”

The new name, based on the words “Jewish” and “Colorado” — denoting the basic facts of who and where — is simple, to the point and modern, much like its new blue and green logo which depicts a stylized umbrella and menorah.

“JEWISHcolorado as a name is very broad and inclusive and likable,” Seserman says. “We think we’ve stumbled into a really creative way to talk about federation as an umbrella entity for our community.”

And that metaphorical umbrella, he hopes, will only grow larger.

“What we’ve always done,” Seserman says, is to make grants to causes with demonstrated needs — the old word “allocations” has gone out the door along with federation and foundation — and support traditional federation “value added” activities like the community shaliach, JCRC, Israel National and Overseas Center, PJ Library and a host of camping and scholarship programs.

What JEWISHcolorado hopes to do in the future is to endow some of those programs, even perhaps some pulpit rabbinical positions in Denver-area synagogues.

It also hopes to be able to forge more strategic alliances with area Jewish organizations such as its new relationship with the Colorado Agency for Jewish Education, in which CAJE ceases its own fundraising activities in return for JEWISHcolorado funding and budgetary oversight.

Under that arrangement, the CAJE board remains in control of its own programming, but does not need to retain an expensive executive director or CEO, and it no longer needs to pay for its own development efforts.

JEWISHcolorado, meanwhile, faces less competition in fundraising and is free to use CAJE activities and accomplishments in its own development efforts.

There may be as many as 10 area organizations — a “Coalition of the Willing,” in Seserman’s words — in line to set up similar arrangements with JEWISHcolorado.

“In fact, right now we’re having a challenge working through the list that’s been created of the organizations that are seeking us out,” he says. “We haven’t even gotten to be proactive yet.”

THE realization of such visions as more community strategic alliances and endowed professional and rabbinical positions, as well as other ambitions, rests on whether the JEWISHcolorado experiment succeeds.

Since the reorganization and renaming was only rolled out last October, Seserman says that the jury is still out.

“Something like this will probably have to be a three to five year effort before you can really have metrics,” Seserman says. “Any change like this, profoundly evolutionary change, takes some time to work through.

“What we’re seeing, generally speaking, is a lot of positive support.”

Adds Gart: “It has opened a lot of doors for us to have conversations with people who are interested in what the changes are and the impact of them.”

“My gut tells me that it’s going to succeed, but it’s not an overnight kind of success,” says Seserman.

“What we’re seeing from most of our current donors is support and generosity and love. Most of our current donors are supporting us at the same level or greater, whether they understand this fully or not.

“Among some of the fence-sitters or newer donors or non-donors, it’s creating avenues for us to talk to them about some of the things that we’ve always done but now can talk about more clearly, like our programming, and just to have a renewed, fresh conversation.”

Copyright © 2014 by the Intermountain Jewish News

Chris Leppek

IJN Assistant Editor | ijnews@aol.com

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