How do Jewish charities spend almost $100 million a year on parties?
It starts with a sushi spread for a couple hundred people and a full open bar in the Cotillion Room at The Pierre, on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. Then a waiter in a tux rings a bell, and everyone parades into the grand ballroom where they eat a three-course chicken dinner and ignore the elaborate video presentation.
A celebrity guest, perhaps Dr. Ruth or Elie Wiesel, might say a few words. At the end of the night, hundreds of fat programs printed on heavy stock are forgotten on the floor.
Some weeks, there’s a Jewish charity gala every evening at The Pierre or the Waldorf-Astoria or The Plaza. That costs a lot of money. The Forward’s ongoing investigation into the financial data of 3,600 Jewish charities has found that groups report spending $95 million a year on fundraising events.
That includes $5.6 million spent by UJAFederation of New York alone, the biggest spender, and $4.9 million spent by the Anti-Defamation League. Sixteen organizations in the Forward’s database spent more than $1 million in a year on fundraising events; 200 groups spend more than $100,000 a year.
Other top spenders include the National Museum of American Jewish History, which spent $3.3 million; Friends of the Israel Defense Forces, which spent $3.2 million, and the American Jewish Committee, which spent $2.3 million. Of the five groups that spent the most on fundraising events, only UJA-Federation responded to a request for comment.
Despite the extravagance, the events bring in real money for some charities. UJA-Federation brings in around $50 million a year on the $5 million it spends on events, according to Mark Medin, the group’s senior vice president. “From our perspective, number one, fundraising galas, fundraising events, are very lucrative ways to raise money,” Medin said.
Most groups don’t raise as much as UJA-Federation, though many rely heavily on fundraising at events. Event income alone for all groups taken together comes to $139 million — and that doesn’t include donations made through the events.
Still, the $95 million represents a huge outlay of charitable dollars. The 15 groups that spend the most on fundraising events in a year paid $34 million all together — more than the combined total expenses of the 1,025 smallest Jewish groups.
For some groups, those expenditures amount to only a tiny fraction of the total dollars they spend in a year. The $5.6 million that UJA spends on fundraising amounts to just 2.6% of its annual expenditures. But for other groups, the dent is much larger. The ADL’s $4.9 million on fundraising events in 2011 was 10% of its total expenditures. And a group called American Friends of Rabin Medical Center spent $300,000 on fundraising events in 2011, 28% of its total expenditures.
Despite the costs of the galas, the people who put them on defend them as fundraising tools and as ways to connect with donors.
“We believe that we’re building, developing, strengthening our community,” said Rachel Sternberg, senior vice president of the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, which spent $1.2 million on fundraising events in 2011. “We don’t only use them in one way.”
If Jewish galas feel old-fashioned, there’s a reason: Jewish charities have been holding them for more than a century.
The first modern Jewish fundraising gala may have been a banquet held in 1849 in New York City, according to Jonathan Sarna, a professor of Jewish studies at Brandeis University. The Hebrew Benevolent Society, a Jewish umbrella fundraising group, held the gala with a related group called the German Hebrew Benevolent Society. Daniel Webster, the famous antebellum Massachusetts senator, sent a letter regretting his absence.
Mordecai Noah, who ran the Hebrew Benevolent Society, had hit upon a fertile blend of charity and extravagance. “Noah understood that charity is not just about altruism,” said Sarna, who has written a biography of Noah. “It’s also intertwined with status and honor.”