When the search committee of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey interviewed Jason Shames for the position of chief executive officer, they were impressed with how well he understood and was excited by their strategic plan. The leadership of the federation had decided that changes in the way the venerable charity did business had to be made, and Shames understood the suggested changes and was able to lay out a timetable of suggested implementation.
A year later, “he has implemented all of those initial steps,” said Jayne Petak, the federation board member who chaired the search committee.
“The changes he has brought to us have been very, very positive,” she said.
For Shames, the stakes in changing the way the federation operates are high.
“I’m frightened to death that the Jewish communities of America ““ not just us ““ are not going to have the time to do the work that needs to be done to move us forward for the next 50 or 100 years,” he said in an interview at the federation’s Paramus offices last week.
“My generation, my kids’ generation are very different” from the older generation of donors, who remember the crises of the mid-20th century, from the eve of the Holocaust through the Six Day and Yom Kippur wars, Shames, who is 41, said.
“In its heyday, the federation could send out a message to support the UJA Federation campaign and didn’t need to give reasons why. The brand name carried the day.”
Shames believes that “Jews are great at supporting Israel when there’s an emergency and a crisis. Jews are great at supporting local institutions when there’s an emergency and a crisis.” But absent that crisis, “it’s more of a challenge to raise funds – and I don’t want to see that kind of a crisis,” he said.
What the Jewish communities of northern New Jersey and around the world face is not an emergency, he continued, but “we have ongoing challenges,” pointing to the needs of social services and Jewish education and the need to maintain and expand a community that offers affordability, accessibility, and inclusive Jewish services.
Shames’s entire career has been in the world of Jewish federations, but he believes that to cope with the challenges, “federation has to adopt a corporate business-like model.
“In 2009, for-profit corporations were spending over 10 percent of their budget on marketing, meaning advertising. Federations were spending, maybe, 0.01 percent,” he said. “Running a not-for-profit is not the same. It’s a lot more challenging.”
Shames believes that becoming more corporate – investing more in marketing and research and development -ultimately will pay dividends to the federation, making it more successful at its core mission, which is raising money for Jewish communal needs. In the short run, however, in “an era of increasing costs and stable revenue,” it’s hard to make that shift.
So Shames has been soliciting contributions from core federation supporters to fund new projects that aim to make the federation more successful in raising funds down the road. These “above the line” donations are in addition to donors’ regular gifts to the federation’s annual campaign.
One of the new projects, the “emerging philanthropists” initiatives, is aimed at “the next generation of major donors.
“We’re trying to identify people in their 40s and 50s who have the capacity to give. We will be approaching them, and engaging them on their terms,” Shames said.
The other project is a marketing survey of the northern New Jersey Jewish community.
So far, said Shames, the federation has raised $100,000 for the effort, and is looking for another $75,000 to $100,000 to make it possible.
“The people who are giving to us now are incredibly charitable. But their peers who aren’t – how can we engage them?
“What we need to do is to learn how people in our donor base respond to different messages. We have to do some real sophisticated work here to figure out if people are more inclined to give to a plea to help Holocaust survivors or if they are more interested in supporting sending kids to Israel.
“We need to understand the philanthropic marketplace better. We need to understand what they want to support.”
It has been a dozen years since the then-UJA Federation of Bergen County and North Hudson undertook its 2001 population study, which covered a smaller catchment area then today’s federation, which is a result of a merger with the Jewish Federation of North Jersey. The marketing study “will tell us where people are living, what programs and services people are interested in, and whether people will support Jewish programs and services and, if so, what type.”
Shames said that in the last year federation has increased its volume of solicitations, particularly with telephone calls, direct mail, and email. “We’re doing it in larger volume. We just are not getting the response we should like. We need more people who support federation.”
One problem, he said, is that the federation has drifted away from the old-fashioned direct solicitation of donors by volunteers, in part because “there are far less Jews in this community who are willing to go to their neighbors and peers and say ‘you need to contribute.’ We’re struggling with the insufficient number of volunteer solicitors to cover the open commitments in any given year,” he said.
Shames had researched the problem before he came to Paramus, when he worked at the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington. “In 2010, we had half as many people asking the same number of people for money as we did ten years earlier,” he said.
Now, in northern New Jersey, “We’re cultivating a campaign leadership group to bring more people into the tent to make these asks.”
Personally, he enjoys soliciting donors. “But there’s a balance between how much solicitation lay leadership should be doing and what professionals should be doing. Right now it’s too professionally driven. The challenge is to get people to understand that to ask another Jew to help other Jews is not a bad thing.”
Not that asking always works.
“There have been people who used to be major donors who stopped. That’s a tough turn-around. I called a woman six times. She never called me back. I don’t take it personally, but I know for those people it is personal. They have a personal issue with federation and for whatever reason they walked away. Unfortunately, those who are getting hurt are members of our community.”
It is a community that Shames has come to appreciate in the year that he has lived here. “Northern New Jersey is one of the best places to live a Jewish life,” he said. “We have a lot of infrastructure and a lot of Jewish opportunities here.
“The challenge is getting the people to understand the case for giving in a community where the infrastructure has always been there and it is easy for us to seamlessly identify Jewishly. People might argue – why do you need my money, we have three JCCs, 80 synagogues, and 11 day schools.
“The answer is that there’s always more we can do. Tuition assistance at day schools is a challenge, social services is a severe challenge, maintaining the nursing homes is also a challenge. Even though the buildings are there, it doesn’t mean our community doesn’t need to support the services that are provided within the buildings.”