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Featured Non-Profit Interview: David Cohen

Interview by George Williams, Communications Specialist - Planned Legacy Inc.

Executive Director, Jewish Foundation of Manitoba
Learn more about The Jewish Foundation of Manitoba...

Planned Legacy: When did you take on your position as the Executive Director of the Jewish Foundation of Manitoba (JFM) and how did it operate at the time.

David Cohen: I accepted the position in 1991, after being in the investment business for 30 years. At that time, the JFM endowment fund had accumulated $10 million in assets. Before my appointment, their method of fund raising was to arrive at the office every morning and open the mail. If there were checks in the mail, they were deposited in the endowment fund. There was no marketing, advertising or active solicitation. The money that did come in came from people who had heard about the JFM by word-of-mouth. I found this odd. People do not just give you your money. That's just not how you do business.

Tribute allows you to interactively recognize donors, volunteers and corporate sponsors while also promoting your capital campaigns, fundraising initiatives and planned giving programs.

Planned Legacy: How does the JFM operate now? Has the Endowment Fund grown?

David Cohen: The nature of what we do is as an endowment fund. The endowment fund has now grown to over $43 million. We are dealing with long-term gifts, perpetual gifts. We say to the people, if you want to give something this year, that's great, if you want to give something next year, if you want to leave something in your will, that is also great.

We don't have permanent commitments annually for distribution purposes. We only distribute what is available to us based on our investment returns. We deal with grant applications. We also help people set up their own funds. This allows them to honor the memory of a loved one and perpetuate that person's name, giving a living gift back to the community. I am in the process of doing that right now.

I'm setting up a scholarship fund in memory of the mother of two children who was very involved in charitable causes. The children were looking for something they could do to memorialize their mother. They didn't know what to do. This way they can help people less fortunate than themselves and at the same time every year they will be honoring their mother with a letter to the recipient along with the scholarship in her name.

Planned Legacy: What goals did you set when you became Executive Director at the JFM?

David Cohen: I wanted to get our message out to the public, increase community awareness. We also needed to strengthen donor relationships, expand our donor base and increase the size and frequency of major gifts. The Endowment Book of Life helped us accomplish these goals and led to creating continuity in our giving programs from one generation to the next. It also allowed us to communicate with multiple generations of donors simultaneously. We were able to recognize donors in meaningful and innovative ways, which they appreciate, and we were able to enhance the JFM's profile with the professionals (accountants, lawyers and financial planners) who interact with our donors on a regular basis

Planned Legacy: When did you implement the Endowment Book of Life and how successful has it been?

David Cohen: With the help of Planned Legacy Inc., we implemented a customized version of the Endowment Book of Life about four years ago. In 2001we had 225 Signers (participating donors), with another 55 Signers slated to join the program in 2002. From only 10 of the 225 Signers to date, the Endowment Book of Life has already generated over $1.5 million in legacy gifts and an additional $500,000 in cash. This does not take into account future legacy gifts to be realized from the remaining 270 Signers, future cash gifts generated from Signers due to their enhanced relationship with the JFM, or future cash gifts and legacy gifts generated by increased community exposure

Planned Legacy: Does the Endowment Book of Life produce a solid return on investment?

David Cohen: Calculated conservatively our Return on Investment (ROI) equates to approximately 40-50 times our initial investment. Additionally, the program has reached the point where it now has the critical mass of Signers it requires to become a self-generating fund development solution. We expect it to grow exponentially.

Planned Legacy: How did you come to implement the Endowment Book of Life?

David Cohen: I regularly attended fund raising trade shows looking for new sales and marketing ideas. In 1993, I met someone who had developed a successful fund raising program entitled the Book of Life, which targeted her Jewish community.

Her program focused on the religious sector of the Jewish community. She was interested in tying her program to the Jewish religious experience. Her concept was based on the fact that in the Jewish faith the main holidays are Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and that in the Holy Scriptures there is reference to being inscribed in a Book of Life. She also conceived a Book of Life Signing Ceremony to honor contributing donors and to strengthen her relationship with them. The Signing Ceremony took place in the short time frame between the two major Jewish holidays.

Participants in the program were encouraged to talk about themselves in a paragraph simply because they seemed keen on doing so. The paragraphs were placed in the Book of Life and contributing donors would sign them at the Signing Ceremony, which normally took place at someone's home. The increased exposure generated by the Signing Ceremony led to word-of-mouth advertising for the Book of Life, attracting more participants.

I liked the idea but was wary of narrowing the market to the religious sector only. A realistic analysis of our target market determined that there were approximately 5000 Jewish family units. Out of those 5000 units, only 500 had some commitment capacity, and of those 500 only 200 really took a strong interest in charity. Focusing on the religious sector would have severely limited the ability to grow our endowment fund.

In order to attract more of our target market, I thought that the program would be more effective without a minimum gift amount, and that people would be more likely to participate if they were not required to inform the JFM of their specific gift amount. Donors would be making a moral commitment based on an honor system.

My Board members initially balked at the concept of an honor system and they were wary of the idea in general. They were concerned that they were going to spend money developing a program that did not have a proven return on investment.

Our experience indicated that only one or two per cent of all people who promised to leave an endowment actually failed to do so, and only because they had honestly forgotten their commitment. More importantly, the relationships that the Endowment Book of Life and the Signing Ceremony would help us to establish with potential donors provided us with an opportunity to expand our donor base.

I saw great value in the donor relationship aspect and I convinced the Board to go ahead with it despite their reservations that I couldn't guarantee a return on investment.

Planned Legacy: What were some of the challenges you faced in fine-tuning the system?

David Cohen: Our main goal was to make a connection with more people in our target market so we had to reduce some of the barriers to giving that are pre-installed in some programs. We decided we would not to ask for an outright gift, nor would we ask for a minimum gift. That would have eliminated too many potential donors.

I thought that setting a minimum gift would offend some people in our market. If donors had to prove they had given the minimum amount, their perception might be that you didn't trust them. We decided that if someone said they were going to leave a gift through a life insurance policy, for example, we would get them to sign their story, saying something along the lines of "I, <NAME>, make a moral commitment to include the Jewish Foundation of Manitoba in my Will." Rather than ask for any minimum amount, we asked people to do what they thought was right.

We also had to do something about getting the actual Endowment Book of Life seen and read by more people. I liked the fact that people could browse through the stories in the Endowment Book of Life, and saw its inherent ability to generate more donors, but we had no central location where he could place the actual book so that it could be viewed by both community members and the public at large. Even if we could find a place for it, we wondered how the book would survive. The book would be damaged or destroyed by hundreds of people turning its pages.

We solved the problem when we moved to our new location at the Asper Jewish Community Campus in Winnipeg in 1997. We negotiated for space on the main floor of the most highly trafficked area of the Campus, which also houses the Rady Jewish Community Centre, the Gray Academy of Jewish Education, Jewish Child and Family Services and the Jewish Heritage Centre of Western Canada. The new location allowed many people to see the book, but it did not solve the problem of allowing readers to view the stories in the book. For that challenge we used an idea I had seen in a shopping mall - interactive kiosks.

A touch-screen kiosk could feature all the donor stories in the Endowment Book of Life, while at the same time displaying information about the JFM's community initiatives and successes. It allowed us to preserve the actual physical book while simultaneously increasing community exposure with the kiosk.

Visitors to the Asper Jewish Community Campus and donors now use the touch-screen kiosks to read the donor stories and learn about the JFM and its various programs. The hard copy of the Endowment Book of Life remains safe in a glass case, also in a highly trafficked area of the campus. The pages in the actual physical book are turned on a weekly basis to display different donor stories.

We also arranged for the information that was displayed on the kiosk to be displayed on the JFM Web site. This allowed us to continue with our policy of letting donors and the public at large see how their money is being spent. Community is no longer defined by geographic boundaries and the Internet essentially turned everyone's home computer into a kiosk. Signers and their relatives in different parts of the world can now view their stories and read about the JFM's initiatives and successes. This helps us establish connections to the JFM within families.

The final aspect of the concept to be refined was the Signing Ceremony, where contributing donors gather to sign their paragraphs. We found that some participants were not satisfied with writing only a paragraph about themselves; they wanted to tell a story - about their backgrounds, their family history and their life. Others wanted to write a special tribute or dedication to their loved ones. All wanted more room to write their stories. The paragraph concept evolved into encouraging people to write stories up to 800 words in length. On the kiosk and Web site, the stories also feature photographs.

The Signing Ceremony was an excellent method of establishing strong donor relations and word-of-mouth advertising by bringing donors and their friends and family together, but we he wondered if we were missing an opportunity to reach out to a broader audience. We decided that the Signing Ceremony would also be a public celebration.

The enhanced Signing Ceremony worked to build an emotional bond between the JFM, the contributing donors, their family and friends, and the public at large. Donors signed their stories as part of their commitment to the JFM, but they were encouraged to invite friends and relatives to ceremony. The ceremony included entertainment open to the public, as a method of bringing everyone together and saying "Thank You" to the whole community. We sent out specially designed invitations to the Signers and their guests and announced the Signing Ceremony and the concert in the local papers and in our newsletter.

Planned Legacy: What were some of the difficulties you faced when implementing the Endowment Book of Life?

David Cohen: The first thing I had to do was recruit a committee. I went to talk to people who I thought were going to help me, and the first thing I said to them was, (a) you've got to buy into the concept and (b) you've got to become a Signer. We could do all the mechanical things required to implement the program, but the committee had to be special. They had to be not only Signers but also marketers of the program. I needed salespeople. First of all, (a) I had relationships with these people, (b) they had familiarity with the JFM already, they knew about who we were and what we were doing, and (c) they could understand where we were, where we had to go, and why.

Once we had the committee formed they became marketers of the program, but we also had a number of practical issues to work through, such as: the logistics of writing and presenting the donor life stories; organizing the Signing Ceremony and transferring the donor stories to the interactive kiosk and Web site. The committee also had the pleasant dilemma of accommodating the unexpected number of participants in the first year of the program.

The committee went out to recruit people for the first Signing Ceremony in 1997 and we had 66 or 68 people. That was the hard sell. Nobody even knew what they were getting into but they wanted to support the JFM, they wanted to do something in their Will. These were people who probably had some affiliation or some knowledge of the idea. The next year there were 48 more Signers. The third year we had 55 more, and the fourth year we had another 50 something more. We were getting between 50-55 people each year.

As people came aboard throughout the first year, my assistant, Marj Wiebe interviewed the new Signers and wrote their life stories. This worked to strengthen relationships with the initial Signers. The power of the story writing process became apparent immediately. Several donors were so moved by the experience, that, after writing their life stories, they contributed cash gifts totaling $500,000, in addition to their bequests.

The committee also came up with the concept of having the donor stories mounted on custom-designed story plaques, so that the Signers could take their stories home with them after the Signing Ceremony. We wanted them to have a permanent recognition piece. Not only are the story plaques an additional recognition piece for the Signers; they also serve as a reminder to them of their commitment to the JFM; as a subtle marketing vehicle; and as a conversation piece in their homes.

We arranged to have two copies of the original donor stories printed on special parchment paper. A photographer was hired to take pictures of the Signers as they signed the first copy of their story. This copy was also mounted on a story plaque for display at the Signing Ceremony. The second copy of the story was signed at the Signing Ceremony. This copy was then placed in the hard copy version of the Endowment Book of Life.

Something we learned early in the process was the cost of organizing the first Signing Ceremony. Besides booking entertainment and renting a hall a year in advance, we spent money on food costs, developing and printing donor stories, photographing the Signers and creating special invitations for the ceremony.

The first Signing Ceremony featured 68 Signers, each of whom were sent formal invitations encouraging them to invite four family members or friends to the attend the ceremony in their honor. This not only recognized donors in front of their friends and family, but also served as a powerful marketing event for the program. A large number of future Signers come from the guests that attend the previous year's Signing Ceremony.

The concert portion of the Signing Ceremony took place after the formal ceremony, and was designed to bring together the public with the Signers and their guests. This worked to create community exposure and awareness and to stimulate donor participation. The concert portion of the evening was free to the public for the first two years of the program.

We wanted to thank the public and get our message out at the same time. It was a good way to make the program known in the first few years. We started charging $10 per person after the first two years. The program was established and people knew about it. We thought we could at least defray some costs. The $10 charge didn't have any effect on the size of the audience. A few people said 'well last year we got it for nothing.' But sometimes when you get something for nothing, it's worth nothing, and you don't know if people are going to show up or not. If you buy a ticket you're probably going to come. If you get it for nothing, what do you care if you come or don't come? So we decided to charge. The first year we charged for tickets we picked up $6,000. We also had our fund manager sponsor 50 per cent of the total cost of the event.

Planned Legacy: How exactly does the Signing Ceremony work?

David Cohen: Signers and their guests arrive at the entrance to the Signing Ceremony hall, where all the donor stories are displayed on story plaques. The hard copy Endowment Book of Life is also on display. Having all the stories available for viewing and reading is part of the donor recognition process, but also serves as an additional marketing tool for the program. People arrive at the entrance to the hall, see and read the displayed stories, and start to think about participating in the program themselves.

Signers and their guests are then asked to take their seats at a prescribed time, and according to a pre-arranged seating plan. This is important, as many Signers want to be seated near their friends. A light lunch of salads and sandwiches is served with wine, followed with a speech by one of the founding members of the program. A guest speaker then gives a talk about the value of giving and relates their talk to the initiatives and accomplishments of the JFM.

After the initial speeches, selected Signers are asked to read their life stories. This process creates a strong emotional aura and a feeling of belonging in the room.

All Signers are then asked one-by-one, by name, to come to the front of the room and stand behind parchment copies of their stories. Once all Signers have gathered, the stories are signed in unison, and a toast is made. This also has a highly emotional effect on many of the Signers, many of who have never before been recognized for their contributions.

After all stories have been signed and the Signers reseated, a closing speech is given by a high-ranking member of the JFM, thanking the Signers for their endowments. This is followed by the entertainment portion of the evening. The Signers and their guests are ushered into the concert area, where they have specially reserved seats, and members of the public who had bought tickets to the concert, join them. This joining of the Signers and their guests with the public results in networking and word-of-mouth advertising which creates a desire to participate in the program in both members of the public and in fellow community members.

The final stage of the program involves transferring the hard copies of the donor stories to the original Endowment Book of Life, and formatting the stories and photographs for placement on the interactive kiosk and Web site. The latter task involves an additional cost to the JFM, but this cost is offset by the fact that the interactive kiosk, when placed in a high traffic area, acts not only as additional donor recognition, but also as a powerful outreach vehicle for the foundation.

People are attracted to the kiosk and ultimately to our organization. They read the stories, tributes and dedications of the Signers and also read about the initiatives and successes of the JFM. It is a soft sell. But it works.

Planned Legacy: The Endowment Book of Life has now been operating four years. Have you been able to determine an average gift size? What do you predict for the future of the program?

David Cohen: What will we get from Signers when their estate is distributed? Is it going to be an average gift of $10,000? Many people say we should factor it at $50,000. I don't want to factor it at $50,000. At a nominal amount of $10,000 dollars, that's a minimum of $2.8 million from our 280 Signers to date. Our experience so far is much better than that. What really is most important about the Endowment Book of Life is the ability it gives us to get our name out in the community.

People know about us. People in the community know about the Endowment Book of Life. They say, "Oh yeah, the Book of Life, I know about that," or I'll hear them say things like, "He's a Signer." The increased exposure that has resulted has allowed us to create hundreds of relationships with potential new donors and future Signers. We needed a way to get our message out to the public and the Endowment Book of Life allowed us to do that.

We have had an excellent response and we have achieved exceptional social and financial results.

About the Jewish Foundation of Manitoba 

The Jewish Foundation of Manitoba (JFM) was first envisioned by Joseph Halprin, Abe Werier and Sam Werier, as an institution that would ensure the future of Winnipeg's Jewish community and support its causes. The JFM was established on January 14, 1964, with the support of 108 leading Jewish citizens and a founders' gift of 258 acres of land in Middlechurch, Manitoba.

The JFM now manages an endowment fund of over $43 million. This endowment fund is expected to grow substantially in the coming years, in large part due to the implementation of the Endowment Book of Life.

The JFM's mandate is to receive capital gifts and endowments, which remain intact in perpetuity; to invest these gifts, and to distribute the annual income back to the local community, as well as to national and Israeli causes. The income from these funds supports an array of organizations and individuals involved in education, arts and culture, health and social services, Jewish life and recreation. 
Donors can direct the income from their endowments to designated causes or give the JFM discretion to disperse the proceeds where they are most needed, in the form of grants or scholarships. The JFM administers various types of funds, which allows its donors flexibility and creativity in making their philanthropic decisions. Prudent investment policies ensure that the distribution potential of every fund is maximized. The endowment fund allows people to honor the memory of loved ones in perpetuity and enables them to give a living gift back to the community. 

For more information please contact:

The Jewish Foundation of Manitoba
Suite C400-123 Doncaster Street, 
Winnipeg, Manitoba R3N 2B2
Voice: 204.477.7520 Fax: 204.477.7527
E-mail: [email protected]

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