June 20, 2019

Para Los Niños and Heschel Day School perform at The Federation’s Sukkot celebration

Ending hunger in Los Angeles is a pretty ambitious goal. Yet The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles is staking its identity on a new campaign, titled “Fed Up With Hunger,” that launched in September during the High Holy Days. Spreading the word through reusable shopping bags, strategically placed banners and a full calendar of events, Federation leaders are hoping that this obviously urgent and highly visible target will capture a new spirit at The Jewish Federation and help usher in a revitalized identity for the umbrella fundraising organization, one that will endure into the 21st century.

The campaign’s immediate goal is to ensure reliable sources of food for the 1.2 million Angelenos who don’t know where their next meal is coming from (see story on next page).

But accompanying that goal are others that have to do with the organization’s future — rethinking how people view Federation and revamping how Federation operates and relates to the institutions and people it serves.

This campaign attempts to transform Federation from a top-down benefactor into a collaborative community organizer — one that can rally Angelenos around a compelling social cause and then harness that energy into giving back to the community.

“One of the things I tried hard to do here in the last couple years is bring in a generation of new and younger people in the Jewish community, and for them this resonates,” said Stanley Gold, who finishes his two-year term as Federation chairman in December.

“Our hope is that people will get engaged in this and then come through our doors and see our myriad activities, which they will then find attractive and become engaged with us.”

Breaking An Old Model

The Fed Up With Hunger campaign uses a distinctive, urban graphic style in its marketing, both traditional and electronic, and focuses on a single issue — one of universal appeal — rather than Federation’s traditional mix of ads highlighting a wide array of causes. It disregards boundaries and assumes that everyone shares common interests, and unites social service agencies, synagogues of all flavors, social groups and public policy organizations to work toward one goal, all within a Federation framework, while still leaving contributing organizations autonomy to put their own stamp on the effort.

Armed with a new, Obama-era understanding that grass-roots mobilization produces not only action but also significant revenue, The Federation’s aim is to engage the masses and in the process refocus Federation on a much larger group of contributors, rather than just on the big donors.

The risks, however, are numerous. Federation invested $375,000 to create the campaign, producing shopping bags, posters and multimedia material and hiring Jewish marketing expert Gary Wexler to shake up longstanding modes of operating. No additional Federation staff was hired for the program, but existing staff has diverted time and energy to the project.

Some in the Jewish community question whether the campaign might pull public attention and dollars away from other worthy causes, and it is not yet clear that everyone recognizes the Jewish origins and sponsors of the overall campaign, or that people drawn to Fed Up With Hunger will then translate their interest to supporting Federation in general.

In addition, while the campaign aims to pull in young people through new branding, at the same time it could encroach on the familiarity that has long been comfortable for the organization’s traditional major donors, many of whom are from an older demographic. Currently about 80 to 90 percent of The Federation’s revenue comes from its top 10 to 20 percent of donors.

But the old model hasn’t been working recently, as large donors have been hit hard by the economic crisis and smaller donors have not been stepping up. Over the last several years, Federation’s annual campaign had been flat or declining, even before the economic crisis hit.

Only 18,000 Jewish households — out of an estimated 200,000 in Los Angeles — are currently Federation supporters, and Federation leaders hope to use this campaign to reach out to far more households, tap into their Jewish consciousness and, ultimately, their resources.

“I think it is fair to say that while we value our large, important donors, we have skewed older and older in terms of our donors, and unless we figure out how to engage a new generation of Angeleno Jews, we’ll ultimately become smaller and smaller,” Gold said. “This is an attempt to broaden the base of our support.”

Getting the Word Out

Changes started in September 2008, when Wexler began to hold focus groups and retreats with Federation staff and lay leaders. In April, the organization launched Give Life Meaning, a rebranding that distilled Federation’s mission and spread it across the city through posters designed by a Latino artist that juxtaposed urban grit with Hebrew calligraphy. Posters, in sunset hues, now hang outside 40 synagogues and in Westfield malls.

Fed Up With Hunger was born from the desire to give more meat to the Give Life Meaning campaign. It was launched in September 2009, when synagogue rabbis were asked to speak about the issue over the High Holy Days and to hand out 42,000 black reusable shopping bags displaying Fed Up With Hunger’s chalky, dissonant logo. While the bags — which contained high-gloss literature on the initiative — were intended for people to use for their own shopping, most people filled them with requested grocery donations and lugged them back to shul. Indeed, this year synagogues collected more than 105,000 pounds of food for SOVA — up 40 percent from last year’s High Holy Days food drive — and another 75,000 pounds for other food banks.

For the campaign, Federation has partnered with the leading Jewish food resource programs: MAZON, Jewish Family Service’s SOVA Community Food and Resource Program as well as the Southern California Board of Rabbis. It has also given these and other organizations a fair amount of independence in creating their own Fed Up With Hunger events.

Programs in September and October brought the neighborhood needy into sukkahs for a hot meal, and shoppers at the Northridge Farmers Market stopped into a sukkah to donate purchases. More than 400 people packed 35,000 just-add-water meals for area food banks in an event organized by Temple Ahavat Shalom in Northridge and The Jewish Federation’s Valley Alliance. Around 70 people biked up to 100 miles through the Santa Monica Mountains to raise funds and awareness for Fed Up With Hunger in an event organized by JconnectLA, a grass-roots organization for young professionals.

The Board of Rabbis hosted an interfaith hunger summit for 150 leaders from Muslim, Christian, Jewish and other faith communities, as well as students from Catholic and Jewish high schools, extending Fed Up With Hunger’s reach well beyond the Jewish community. And dozens of synagogues have hosted their own events and food drives under the Fed Up With Hunger banner.

Some of these events have, as hoped, brought in some of the coveted hipster crowds. More than 600 peopled rocked at a Sway Machinery concert at Wilshire Boulevard Temple in September, a pre-launch event where people received the black shopping bag.

At one of the quirkier events, around 1,000 people picnicked at Hollywood Forever Cemetery for a screening of “Ghostbusters,” bringing along 5,000 pounds of food for SOVA. Most of the attendees had heard about the event through Facebook and Twitter — establishing an electronic presence has been key to the marketing for Fed Up With Hunger.

Federation jettisoned its staid e-newsletter, Federation in Focus, in exchange for The Wire, a blog where anyone can post text or video — from lay leaders and staff to people who attend events. Give Life Meaning has its own Web site (givelifemeaning.org) with an alternative feel, in contrast to Federation’s corporate looking Jewishla.org.

David Israel, director of Web, technology and publications at Federation, produced a two-minute video with a Beastie Boys soundtrack, with hand-drawn scrawlings calling on viewers to donate $7 to feed one person for one day. An online contest offers an iPod nano to the person who forwards the video the most.

Another video message, starring actress Debra Messing, has attracted Hollywood to the cause as E! Online posted a link to the video. Bloggers and Tweeters such as Josh Flagg, MentalFloss.com, Perez Hilton, Sarah Silverman, Alyssa Milano and Marlee Matlin have highlighted the campaign. For now, Web traffic remains low — about 15,000 viewers a month — but Israel has plans for other star-studded videos that he hopes will go viral.

“We knew we wanted to reach out to younger people, and we knew what kinds of sites young people respond to and what charitable organizations they play with,” Israel said.

Exploiting a Good Cause?

But can this success also stem from, in part, exploitation of a good cause? Is using a cause like hunger to rope in Hollywood or attract a hipster crowd taking advantage of people’s good instincts? Is Federation selling its soul?

“The question came up immediately. People asked if this is just manipulation for marketing purposes,” Wexler admits.

For him, the answer was clear on Sukkot, when he stood with 500 people on Skid Row at a dinner where students at Para Los Niños Charter Elementary School invited in students from Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School and clients from Chrysalis, an agency that helps homeless people find employment.

Wexler marveled that his marketing idea had materialized into an event that could touch people’s lives, both in the Jewish community and in Los Angeles’ urban core.

“It came from a marketing problem that we were looking to solve, but marketing is at the center of everything in making changes. If the result is something good, it’s not mercenary. It’s good, and we can feel proud of it,” Wexler said. Marketing requires everyone in an institution to turn inward to determine what they want to project, he said, which can lead to substantive changes and impactful results.

Eric Schockman is CEO of MAZON, which supports hunger-relief agencies. He helped develop the campaign and said he has no qualms about its marketing origins.

“I think the purity of action and the deliverables will be very clear as Federation continues in its rollout of this campaign — and the proof will be in the campaign. If this is just puff, then I think people will see that,” Schockman said. “But, in my gut, I believe, and I know, that there is a very strong sense among the lay and professional leadership of getting back to our mooring and anchors as Jews.”

To move the project from the realm of marketing into the realm of actually feeding people, Federation Associate Vice President Andrew Cushnir, who oversees Federation’s operations to serve the vulnerable, created a task force that ultimately came up with the Blueprint to End Hunger. The plan, posted on the Web site, lays out a course for raising public awareness and resources, effectuating political advocacy and increasing volunteerism (see story, Page 13).

Reframing Federation

Focusing on one message is a popular trend in nonprofit marketing, according to Steven Windmueller, dean of the Los Angeles campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and a longtime expert on communal issues.

“This is a pattern we’re seeing, certainly among young Jews who desire to identify with a particular project that has universal appeal that might be seen through a Jewish lens,” he said.

Carol Koransky, executive vice president of The Jewish Federation and executive director of The Jewish Federation Valley Alliance, thinks that giving constituents one idea on which to focus can open a portal to the wider array of Federation causes, such as social services, Israel advocacy, Jewish education and community building.

“Sometimes you hear that people can’t wrap their heads around everything we do, so this lets us shine a light on part of what we do in a way that makes it comprehendible,” she said.

Federation officials say that if this singular approach works with hunger, they may try it with other issues in the future. But is Federation well poised to sell itself as the leader of this kind of initiative?

“The question is whether there is enough historical credibility on the part of Federation to be seen as a grass-roots, bottom-up form of institution-building, because historically Federation worked on a more top-down sort of principal, the collective voice as opposed to the grass-roots voice of the community,” Windmueller said.

And translating involvement in Fed Up With Hunger into broader Federation support has to be a longer-term goal, he said.

“It’s a learning curve for the person who comes to bring food and isn’t totally sure who is sponsoring this, and for The Federation in terms of figuring out how to reach that person. It might need multiple numbers of these kinds of experiences to create the ‘aha’ moment,” Windmueller said.

Jay Sanderson, who takes over as Federation’s top professional in January, said he is willing to stay the course to realize these long-term goals.

“It is clear to me that hunger is an issue that is resonating with agencies, with our lay people and with the community at large, so we will be continuing the hunger initiative,” he said.

Sanderson said he will evaluate both the marketing and substantive metrics of the project, and wants to be sure that the focus on hunger does not divert too much attention from things like Jewish education and Israel.

“The tightrope we have to walk is when we identify with an issue so strongly, we have to make sure we continue to tell people about all the other things that Federation does to support the community,” Sanderson said.

Federation hasn’t set cash goals for this campaign, though it does expect — and has begun to see — a bump in donations to hunger organizations and in volunteerism. The more important markers are abstract.

“Ultimately, it’s got to be evaluated on what kind of volunteers it brings in, what kind of advocacy comes out of it, and not on how much money it brings in but on how many people does it involve in raising that money,” Wexler said.

And more than that, he said, “What kind of spirit does it give, what kind of creativity does it produce? It can set a model not just for Federation but for the nonprofit world of how we can be doing business differently.”

One clear immediate effect has been on staff morale, with all Federation departments and dozens of agencies involved in the planning.

“I can’t think of anything we’ve done that I have seen so much excitement about,” said John Fishel, president of The Federation, who ends his 17-year tenure in December. He saw the way staff, across departmental lines, was given a chance to dream about possibilities and then to work together to come up with a doable vision.

“It showed people possibility,” Wexler said. “We could think differently and do things differently. It galvanized and motivated many people on staff who started to see that relevant, current trends were being brought in and enmeshed with Federation thinking and practice,” he said.

And the campaign seems to be resonating further out. People are not just donating the $7 the video asks for; they are giving $40 or $50 or $100, Wexler said.

“You have to take risks. Anything new can fail, but the Jewish world and the nonprofit sector has to start taking those risks, start putting themselves out there and trying new things … and saying how do we evolve and do things differently. Because if we stay in the same thinking, we’re dead,” Wexler said. “There were many points in the development of this campaign where people said ‘That is not how we do business,’ but we’re not looking for what is safe and true. What is safe and true is constantly evolving new ideas and trying them out.”

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