Fundraising Just a Mouse Click Away

When Carol Vavra, a major and tactical airlift navigator in the U.S. Air Force, returns home from the Middle East at the end of July, her husband will have a surprise waiting for her.

Paul Vavra, a recently retired Air Force major and an avid classic rock fan, bought his wife a pair of tickets to a Rolling Stones concert for $760 on eBay. In the process, he made a substantial donation to the UJA-Federation of New York.

Last month the federation hosted its first auction on eBay. With about 200 sales of items contributed by donors, the auction raised about $115,000 for the organization.

The initiative reflects a growing trend among Jewish groups to move their fundraising ventures to the Internet, which they say has proven to be far more efficient than more traditional modes of solicitation.

Paul Vavra, who is not Jewish, says he didn’t plan to buy tickets for the sake of donating to the federation, but he’s glad the pricey purchase will benefit a worthy cause.

“I’d like to think that UJA-Federation is not going to stiff me,” he said with a laugh.

In addition to the concert tickets, up for bid were a behind-the-scenes trip to the Fox television show, “24”; tickets to “American Idol” and “Total Request Live”; seats at New York Mets, Yankees and Knicks games, and dining opportunities with historian Deborah Lipstadt and the “As the World Turns” star Anthony Herrera.

Various artworks, jewelry, fine dining and sports memorabilia were also available to the highest bidder.

Some items were even pricier than the Rolling Stones tickets: The day on the set of “24,” which included airfare, went for $16,600; a week at the Canyon Ranch spa in Tucson had a final bid of $14,600, and two tickets to the MTV Video Music Awards sold for $4,100.

“We thought it might be something new and exciting and different for us to do something on eBay,” said Bonnie Shevins, the UJA-Federation’s group vice president.

The auction was part of continuing efforts at online fundraising by the UJA, which has raised more than $1 million through its Web site in the past year.

“The eBay initiative is another notch in our efforts to develop e-philanthropy,” Shevins said. “It’s a really wonderful way of having people connect with us.”

Online fundraising has proven to be auspicious for other types of philanthropy as well. According to Shevins, when the federation launched a campaign to raise money for victims of December’s Southeast Asian tsunami, it raised about $500,000 online — some 15 percent of the $3.25 million total it raised for tsunami relief.

According to Gary Tobin, president of the San Francisco-based Institute for Jewish & Community Research and an expert on Jewish philanthropy and demography, the growth of online solicitation shows that Jewish organizations are willing to adopt less traditional modes of fundraising in response to changing social trends.

“The Jewish community has been relatively slow in developing online philanthropy, but there have been some remarkable successes,” Tobin said, noting, for example, that the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee raised millions of dollars online for tsunami victims.

Tobin says Jewish philanthropists have traditionally focused on working directly with wealthy donors capable of giving large single contributions. The move to online fundraising, he said, reflects a recognition that groups also can attract smaller donations from larger numbers of people with greater efficiency.

“People would rather do it online than go to another dinner,” he said.

According to Michael Charendoff, the president of the Jewish Funders Network, online fundraising is particularly appealing for organizations because it enables them to reduce fundraising costs while educating Web-site visitors about their work.

“I think there’s no question it’s a growing trend,” he said.

Charendoff noted, though, that Internet fundraising tends to favor organizations that are larger and have the resources to maintain an online campaign.

One group that has achieved particular success in online fundraising is the Jewish National Fund (JNF), which raised $1.4 million in fiscal 2004, making it the leading fundraiser among Jewish organizations. The Chronicle of Philanthropy last year rated the JNF the top fundraiser among environmental groups.

The JNF’s communications director, Serena Roffe, attributes this success primarily to the appeal of the organization’s mission and message.

“We have a very clearly identified mission and a very clearly identified product line,” she said. “Our message really resonates with people.”

Most of the JNF’s online fundraising comes from purchases of trees to be planted in Israel. The organization encourages sales through various initiatives, including personalized electronic newsletters and an affiliates program, which enables other Web sites to earn profits from sales by linking to the JNF site.

Another group with lucrative online fundraising programs is the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, which raised $1.04 million online in 2004.

“We just knew we had to have something better for the people who came to our Web site,” said Diane Dubey, the organization’s director of communications. “We’re really able to share with people the urgency of what’s happening. That’s very advantageous.”

While most contributions are direct donations, Dubey said, visitors to the fellowship’s Web site can also help the group raise money by purchasing e-cards or Israeli-made products.