Why Was This Conference Different From All Other Conferences?

I remember almost 19 years ago attending my first General Assembly (often referred to as the GA – the annual conference of Jewish Federations) in Montreal, Quebec. Some 6,000 people from around the world were in attendance and the programming (with multiple sessions taking place at any given time beyond the large plenary sessions) started at 7:00 a.m. and ended at 1:00 a.m. each day. It was packed with major scholars and communal leaders sharing their wisdom and insights about our collective Jewish future. To say the least, it was inspiring and exciting to be in attendance.

This past week I was in Vancouver, British Columbia for the International Conference for the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP). This was my first AFP Conference, and one of the few I have attended not sponsored by a Jewish organization. I wanted to learn from others outside the Jewish world about their experiences, new fundraising tools and techniques, and potential new ideas. There were certainly differences from Jewish conferences as the schedule started at 8:00 a.m. and ended at 4:00 p.m., the role of the volunteer leader was rarely mentioned, I was the only person in attendance who works at a Jewish Federation, and every session started and ended on time.

Some highlights:

The opening plenary speaker was Scott Harrison, founder of Charity: Water. Mr. Harrison, a former nightclub promoter in New York City, decided at age 28 (after some challenging personal highs and lows) he wanted to work for humanitarian organizations. To change his life, he actually had to pay $500 for an opportunity to be a photographer with an organization called Mercy Ships (ships that dock in foreign countries to help provide medical care). What he saw on his two trips to Africa inspired him to found Charity: Water, a group that digs water wells to help needy villages on the continent.

The organization, founded in 2006, has been held up as a prime example of a modern organization achieving much of its popularity by raising money online with video, social media, and celebrity endorsements.

Mr. Harrison’s shared several reasons for his organization’s success: ability to demonstrate results, enable donors to understand what they are supporting, excellent branding, and believing people want to hear about your successes and failures.

The next morning I heard from Al Pittampali who wrote the book, Read This Before Your Next Meeting. His basic message – meetings are for decision-making, not for communication and status updates. He stated that meetings have become a “stalling tactic” since we spend much of the time providing reports and not enough time bringing different voices together to actually resolve issues. As Peter Drucker said, “we either meet or we work…you cannot do both.” And according to Mr. Pittampali, real work does not happen in meetings – in fact it “insulates us from getting the job done.” His TED Talk style presentation made me think about how to improve our own meetings.

Liz Wiseman, author of the bestseller, Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter provided her insights on how to make those around us better at what they do. Her inspiring talk provided great “food for thought” on how I lead and the role(s) that I play. In her talk she spoke about two types of people – “diminishers and multipliers.” Diminishers seem to micromanage, talk a lot, criticize others, and are closed to ideas. While multipliers empower others, develop trust, listen, have clear goals, and challenge their peers. To be most successful, leaders must shift away from having all the answers to begin asking the right questions. This will get people thinking in new and different ways and allow their input to be heard.

Other sessions I attended focused on reaching the next generation of donors, empowering governing boards and committees, and how to effectively communicate the impact of one’s organization.

The final presenter was hockey great, Wayne Gretzky. How cool is that? He inspired the audience by talking about his own charitable endeavors, including a program that introduces hockey to some of the most disadvantaged communities in North America. He certainly understood his audience by talking about the important role professional fundraisers play in our communities. Gretzky stated, “Fundraisers are not people to run from; instead, they are people we should embrace and thank for raising awareness and creating commitment for such important causes. You are the heroes of charities.”

Although the conference programming felt lacking, I gained a great deal from my experiences and developed new contacts. I also better understand the challenges at Federation in explaining who we are and what we do. We are not an organization focused on one specific cause (like water wells in Africa). We are, instead, focused on something less tangible – but no less important -- building a vibrant, welcoming, educated, caring and connected Jewish community for generations to come.

Thus, the conference reinforced to me that successful fundraising requires authenticity, passion, communication, and intuition. And every day my job, and that of my professional colleagues, is to help you understand: Why your philanthropy matters… Why it matters today and into the future...And how you improve and make a difference in the success of our Jewish community – for you, your family, and so many others.

Best wishes to you and your family for a meaningful and joyous Passover holiday. Enjoy your first seder this evening and Shabbat shalom.


PS - There will be no Marc's Remarks next week in observance of the conclusion of the Passover holiday.


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