Endowment: A Strong Base of Funding for the Future

The importance of having endowment funds is critical to sustaining and growing our schools, especially schools in smaller Jewish communities which have limited donor bases. Endowment is a different kind of giving. Endowments open doors not only to existing donors but also to those donors who believe in the future, those that do not want their money spent on the day-to-day operations, but who want to help the institution grow and thrive.

Offering an endowment program is a way to identify new supporters who are interested in the school yet may not have ever made a gift before. Instead, these donors are ones who want to leave a bequest or start a fund that is earmarked for a certain aspect of the existing school program that speaks to them, or maybe for a new program that would expand the school’s offerings. These are benefactors who are looking to the future and who are thinking about the lean economic times.

We all remember well the recent downturn in the economy. Luckily, at N. E. Miles Jewish Day School in Birmingham, Alabama, we had our endowment to see us through this fiscal crisis. Being able to draw from our endowment helped us maintain our operations without using current dollars. We all must be prepared for the next one. The best way to do so is to begin an endowment, for those who have not, and for those schools that do have an endowment program already in place, to grow and safeguard the investments.

Cultivating new donors is an exciting ongoing event. What a great opportunity to spread the word about the amazing and important work of our day schools. We meet face-to-face, a coffee, a lunch, a chance meeting, and we tell our story! It is all about relationship building and telling the story. Bringing new friends to the school for an event is a transformational experience in building the relationship. And we keep in touch—a holiday card, a mazel tov on a simchah, a newsletter, and other opportunities that arise.

There are a number of frameworks to oversee the building of an endowment program. One design is in the form of a development committee of the board. This committee is run solely by lay members, members who are intentionally chosen because of their expertise in finances. Another design would be to implement a professional position of director of development, someone who oversees the strategic plan of the development committee. In Birmingham, we started our endowment with both of these pieces in place. Now in addition to our development committee and part-time director of development, we rely on the Birmingham Jewish Foundation in many ways.

Our day school is fortunate to have the expertise of the Birmingham Jewish Foundation to help our school with management. We co-mingle our foundation funds with the BJF, which means they manage our assets. When the economic downturn occurred, we were able to rely on our foundation assets, because our BJF has managed them well, including a spin rate calculated to smooth out the ups and downs.

Lisa Engel, president of The Birmingham Jewish Foundation, writes that “the Foundation has enjoyed a strong working partnership with the N.E. Miles Jewish Day School since the beginning of its endowment. In addition to housing the Day School’s endowment, we support the Day School in numerous other ways such as targeted grants from our Unrestricted Fund and Designated Funds that are set up to support the school. We believe that the Foundation’s integral relationship with the N.E. Miles Jewish Day School provides an ongoing stream of operating funds today and also a strong base of funding for the future!”

Last year, we drew $60,000 from our NEMJDS Endowment Fund at the Foundation. In addition, we had access to more monies from the various NEMJDS designated funds, also held at the Foundation. Birmingham is not a large Jewish community; presently, we have approximately 1200 families. We have worked hard over the years to build our foundation, which today has $3.5M, with known expectancies in the neighborhood of an additional five to six million.

Even though we rely on the Birmingham Jewish Foundation in many ways, we are very cognizant that we have a very important role in our ongoing relationships with our donors, in cultivating new donors and in focusing on the strategic vision of our endowment. Our volunteers and the professionals must be committed to continually evaluating and growing the endowment program. Donors that make endowment gifts expect their funds will be managed well, and therefore will be available for years to come. Thus, it is very important to have a knowledgeable and strategically visionary endowment committee which will continue to review investment policies, regularly assess investment allocations, and ensure that the best financial practices are being utilized.

Day schools have a wealth of opportunities to validate to donors that their gifts have well met their intentions. It is a thrilling opportunity when we invite donors to the school to enjoy an event that is related to their gifting desires, to see their name on the L’Dor v’Dor donor wall, to interact with students on projects their funds supported, or to be publically recognized at Kabbalat Shabbat, some of the many ways of saying thank you. Acknowledging the impact of a donor’s gift on the mission of the school supports core values of our institution: family, enabling all members of our “family” to share in the richness of our school; mentschlichkeit, validating the value of choosing to do the right thing with a loving heart.

Not only are we not a large Jewish community, we are not the most wealthy Jewish community. What matters most is that we are committed to keeping our Jewish community vital and thriving. We are so very fortunate to have friends of our day school who know the importance of this cornerstone institution in our community.

My hope is that all of our day schools will one day have the conversation that I was fortunate to have in 1997. “We are going to give the school $1M!” You are going to do what? “We are going to give the school $1M today!”

Receiving a landmark gift as this one is a story in itself. However the story that is more meaningful is the determination of how this gift will continue to grow our school, make it thrive. What do you do with $1M? Well, you bring a diverse committee together as a think tank. And we did. The result created an endowment fund appropriately named The Judy and Harold Abroms Center for Academic Excellence, a “center” without walls.

For over sixteen years of its existence, the Center has brought new levels of excellence and creativity in our program. Because this Center’s purpose is to enhance our mission and broaden our scope, our students are exposed to opportunities which our general operating budget would not allow. We have expanded our arts programs, funded trips, created ulpan classes for students who entered after kindergarten, developed programs with the science museum, connected virtually with other schools as well as virtual classes from Israel, to name a few of the exciting programmatic additions. This Center reflects the impact that endowments have on the life of our schools.

Endowments breathe life into our schools. They allow us to dream, to vision, to see the future. An endowment is tantamount to planting trees, the supreme act of hope for the future. Endowments support the core values for our school for our students who will soon take their place among the Jewish leaders of tomorrow. They are our hope for the future.♦

Lynn W. Raviv is director of development at N. E. Miles Jewish Day School in Birmingham, Alabama. ravivlw@gmail.com

Lynn W. Raviv
Size Matters
Knowledge Topics
Finance & Budget, Fundraising & Development
Published: Summer 2014