A CHIEF EXECUTIVE’S VIEW
Focus May Be the Most Important Skill in Fund Raising
By Yosef I. Abramowitz
“Hey, sexy,” my new executive assistant’s voice blared into the phone to Sandy Cardin, executive director of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation. “Are you ready to speak with Yossi?”
Barbara Burg’s unrepentant chutzpah didn’t bother Mr. Cardin at all — in fact, he knew her well, as do many of the people our organization works with, since she spent more than a dozen years working at the United Jewish Appeal.
But Barbara’s background is not her only asset. She has been our organization’s secret weapon, and essential to the reorganization of our fund-raising operation — one that puts me, as CEO, at center stage.
The year before Barbara came, I’d become the Murphy Brown of Jewish life, burning through several assistants who failed to tame my impossible schedule, creative impulses, idealistic inclinations, spontaneous visioning, and unwieldy to-do list. Barbara, with her powerful voice, no-nonsense grandmotherly manner, New York attitude, and disciplinarian aspirations seemed to crave the challenge.
“You are mine,” she often calls out in a voice that is half Arnold Schwarzenegger, half Liza Minnelli. “Sit!” she directs, and I, who have stood up to presidents and prime ministers, KGB agents and Ethiopian gunmen, Palestinian militants and Israeli generals, hesitantly take my place, as we go through our latest incarnation of my to-do and call lists.
I keep wrestling with the evolution of my own role within the organization. In the early years, my passion, informality, and quick-moving pace defined not only the way I work, but also the culture of the charity. And it served us well in our first four years of lightning growth.
Thankfully, however, the board realized that the pace of growth and the way in which I was managing the organization was unsustainable in the long run. They stepped in. They could see that I, as a 37-year-old CEO, was not yet equipped to deal with the situation. I felt like Houdini trying to wiggle out of chains underwater, and that I was going to drown and take the organization with me. But then a new supporter came forward to point out that I don’t always have to contort and struggle to throw off the chains. I simply had to find and use the right key and learn to focus on specific fund-raising tasks.
One of the keys was understanding the importance of relationships. Marcella Kanfer, a bright and energetic business-development professional, had joined our organization a year earlier and successfully led many of our most ambitious endeavors. Her family happens to run GOJO Industries, a major manufacturer of skin-care projects, and, as it turns out, a company that is willing to provide pro bono management advice to a select number of charities. Marcella arranged for us to be one of the company’s beneficiaries.
The first two things that her father, the company’s chief executive, Joseph Kanfer, taught me were how to manage people who reported directly to me and the importance of getting an executive assistant. GOJO then sent us three consultants, led by Mr. Kanfer, to meet with key staff and board members to start a 12-month strategic-planning process, which I have come to appreciate as an elaborate exercise in developing focus for the organization and its leadership. The consultants posed a very simple set of questions: What is the purpose and vision of the organization and how is it going to accomplish that vision? The consultants helped us make some tough organizational choices, including hiring an outside business consultant, even though our cash was quickly dwindling.
Marcella and I interviewed half a dozen business-planning consultants and chose someone who had the expertise we needed — he has previously worked with educational multimedia companies that had a lot in common with our group’s mission. He focused our managers for several months, as drafts and redrafts of sections of the strategic plan began to emerge and take shape. Even though the pressure on us was nearly unbearable at the time — we had to manage our projects and devote serious time to planning — I was filled with hope that salvation was around the corner. The key was the plan.
Then disaster struck. The first week in September 2001, when we were going to finish a strong draft of the plan for the board, our consultant literally disappeared with our files. Poof. No sign of him, no working phone numbers, no working e-mail. And we’ve never heard from him since. I felt like a character in a Greek tragedy, especially when we realized we didn’t have our own copies of the documents. It was going to take us time, which we didn’t have, to reconstruct the work.
Then September 11 hit, and I realized that if we faced the threat of drowning before, we were about to be overtaken by a tsunami. I had to move quickly to pull some rabbits — big rabbits — out of my CEO hat.
There is nothing like a crisis to inspire executive focus. I took several risks and drew on a handful of my most important relationships.
Anonymous donors — people whose passions, goals, and commitment to excellence I have come to appreciate and internalize as my own — came through with a major multiyear operating grant. I was unable to hold back my tears when they stepped forward.
I called a friend who is affiliated with a family foundation. We had forged a lifelong bond years ago during a difficult campaign we had waged together to encourage a Jewish nonprofit group to become more financially transparent. “Think of me as an angel in case you are ever in trouble,” he said to me many years ago. We met during his next visit to Boston, where he provided tough-love strategic advice and no promises that his board would back our grant request.
Meanwhile, we hired a chief operating officer and she reorganized our charity and cut costs. Two months later, when my friend called with the good news that his foundation had made a sizable operating grant, I knew our organization had turned a corner.
In a span of several critical months, I had raised more than $850,000 in general operating money. The rabbit was multiplying, as rabbits with partners do. And I, as CEO, had arrived, magic wand in hand.
Martin Kaminer, my board chair who lives on e-mail, sent me a rare snail-mail letter saying, “I don’t think anyone would have bet that in a few short months the organization would be on solid footing with a strengthened board, re-energized development effort, staffing levels rising on a funded basis and a financial-control system that exceeds what most board members have at their own companies.” The letter hangs today above my desk.
As an organization, we learned a valuable lesson by fire: Focus, focus, focus. And when we focused on planning and relationships, we succeeded. We now have a stronger, smarter organization, three additional board members with development expertise, many projects that are doing well, a dominant chief operating officer, a $3.3-million budget, a CEO who has been battle tested, and a visionary strategic plan.
With this change of focus, a funny thing is happening: At a time when the economy is bad and domestic Jewish fund raising is handicapped by Israel-related causes, our organization’s development efforts seem to be defying gravity. The sheer number of conversations, meetings, and proposals that I have been able to focus on in the past several months has at least doubled because my time management has been brought under martial law. And the depth of relationships and potential size of the grants are in a different league.
After Barbara Burg sent out one particularly stern e-mail warning my colleagues to cease walking into my office unscheduled — a cornerstone of our fast-paced organizational culture and a feature I enjoy — she explained to me, “Look, the organization needs you to raise lots of money. You gotta focus,” her finger wagging at me as if I were a boy who got caught playing ball instead of doing his homework. “After we raise gazillions of dollars, you can do what you want.”
Since that is not going to happen quickly, I am working hard to adapt to my new role, to assimilate new habits, and to listen to the key voices of my board, our consultants, our staff members, and our donors who counsel me to focus on our strategic plan and a handful of key organizational and philanthropic relationships.
“So, how was your call with Sandy?” Barbara asks, hand on her hip, very self-satisfied that she made me follow up. “It was fine,” I responded. “We were just catching up.”
Barbara smiled, pivoted, and marched back to her desk to set up my next call.
Yosef I. Abramowitz is chief executive officer of Jewish Family & Life, a charity in Newton, Mass., that seeks to stimulate interest in Jewish culture among Jews. He can be reached at CEO@jflmedia.com.
From the issue dated October 3, 2002