They call it F.U. — tongue in cheek. It stands for Fundraising University, a new initiative of Jewish Federations of North America. F.U. is a year-long fundraising learning project for mid-career fundraisers from Jewish Federations throughout North America (JFNA). Nineteen people were selected to participate.

“The 19 were selected through an application process and they all are professional leaders of their fundraising teams,” explained a JFNA staff member involved in Fundraising University. “They will be participating in this year-long professional development project which will focus on advanced fundraising skills and management skills. Our goal through this program is to reach a larger audience, as all of the participants lead a team of fundraisers in their Federations.”

The group has gathered in New York this week, Monday through Thursday, to kick off the project. As Executive Director of the Birmingham Jewish Federation in Alabama, I was asked to be part of a panel discussion on their opening night. With me on the panel were the Federation CEOs from New York and Montreal, two impressive colleagues.

The sizes of those Jewish communities dwarfs our small deep south Jewish community of just 5500 Jews. Being from Alabama, where teams from our state have won the last four college football championships, I used a football analogy to help the 19 participants relate to Birmingham.

“If the New York Jewish community was a 100-yard long football field, Birmingham’s Jewish community would be about one fourth of a yard,” I explained. Nonetheless, I suggested, Birmingham can serve as an incubator — a small community that develops and tests new ideas that can then be replicated on the national level. This is a role we have played in relation to the larger Federation movement during the 31 years I have been Birmingham’s Federation director.

The discussion covered lots of interesting topics — the main one being how the Federation movement is changing and what it might look like in the future. John Ruskay, CEO of UJA-Federation of NY, one of the world’s largest Jewish organizations, was a tremendous resource on the panel. He gave a series of penetrating perspectives that framed the issues we were talking about. And, in several instances, he created a framework for me, through our Birmingham experiences, to plug in examples.

John contended that for Federations to remain relevant they must nurture and enhance their ability to do those things that Federation alone can do — i.e. rallying communities in times of crisis and uniting Jews from all sectors around large and urgent issues, such as when Israel is at war or the recent devastation and trauma created by Hurricane Sandy.

In Birmingham, I said, our Federation most recently affirmed its uniqueness by providing leadership to our Jewish community, the Alabama media, elected officials and the community in general regarding the visit to our state of notorious anti-Semite Louis Farrakhan, head of the Nation of Islam. Only the Federation, I suggested, had the influence and resources to mobilize so many people around a single issue.

We also were asked what makes great fundraisers. John, one himself, talked about the skills involved, including a comfort with “hanging out” with donors and building relationships. I dropped the other shoe by talking about intangibles beyond the skill set: Passion, relentlessness, being immune to rejection, having x-ray vision to see what’s in a donor’s head and heart, and a love of and fascination with fundraising, among other attributes.

We also talked about communications strategies. I explained that like most things, Federation work can be broken down into components. In Federation work, in my mind, there are three: Do, Tell, Sell. We must ask ourselves what it is that we are doing — both as a Federation and through the agencies we fund? Is it of value? Is it compelling? Is it effective? Then, we must examine how we tell it. Do we tell the story in an easily-understood way, that donors and others can digest and retain? Do we tell it imaginatively and dramatically? And, finally, how do we sell it? Is our asking for money creative, effective, sensitive yet forthright? Do we build relationships year-round, so that when “asking day” comes it flows naturally from the ongoing relationships that fundraisers have built with donors?

After the program, I wound up in the hotel bar with about 10 of the participants, all of whom were impressive. They were highly intelligent, serious, passionate and committed to the cause. I sat there thinking that the future of the Federation movement is strong, and in our national organization, Jewish Federations of North America, and its leader, President & CEO Jerry Silverman, we are in good hands. F.U. has great possibilities.
Thank you, JFNA.