Commentary : Donors Need a Sense of Belonging

Gerald Charles Lasensky is executive director of the Jewish Federation of Orange County and campaign director of the United Jewish Fund of Orange County.

Although I did not start out to be a fund-raiser, as the chief professional officer of a nonprofit organization, I find that raising money for the organization is one of my major responsibilities.

The demand for money for our community organizations seems to be limitless. More philanthropic dollars than ever before are going to support our causes, but still we are not raising money fast enough. There are limits to donated income, however. And although it cannot be the sole source of organizational support, it will be a major factor in financing for decades to come.

The philanthropic pattern for Americans is mind-boggling. Charitable giving in 1984 jumped to a record high of $74.2 billion, an 11% increase over 1983. Individuals contributed $61.5 billion (83%) of the $74.2 billion donated. Bequests, foundations and corporations accounted for the rest.

Most of the money (48%) was donated to religion. Health groups and hospitals were a distant second at 14%, followed by social welfare organizations (11%), the arts and humanities (6%) and civic and public agencies (3%).

How does all this relate to Orange County? According to the latest state figures, Orange County's population is 2.1 million residents dispersed within 26 cities. City populations range from 7,088 in for Villa Park to 233,500 in Anaheim. Therein lies the challenge for fund-raising in Orange County. Are we a combination of cities, a region or a megalopolis? Are we a community deserving of loyalty and support?

One of the keys to successful fund-raising is to motivate donors by offering them a sense of ownership. Good management also pays attention to the institution's users. The organization that does that will become more effective--and raise more money.

There is a plethora of fund-raising campaigns presently at work in Orange County. Despite some significant donations, such as the Irvine Co.'s $2.5 million last year (not including its 15-acre land donation for the Irvine Medical Center), Orange County as a whole does not have a very noteworthy record of giving.

That's evident in the record of the United Way of Orange County. It's the 11th largest United Way area in the nation. But it's 1985 per-capita giving in Orange County is one of the lowest at $8.56. San Diego, with a comparable population, gave $10.81 per capita, and in Seattle, whose population is 1.3 million, the per capita donation was $21.48.

Merritt Johnson, the United Way president, doesn't think that people in Orange County are any less generous. He cites the fact that the county has grown rapidly, and that "there are many people here without roots, who haven't developed the strong community feeling that exists in older, established communities of the East and Midwest."

There are some 700 nonprofit agencies and organizations in Orange County alone. Some of them are doing exceedingly well.

The Orange County Performing Arts Center is engaged in the largest philanthropic drive ever undertaken in the county--and one of the biggest private arts-funding projects in the United States. The $70.7-million Arts Center has thus far received more than $58 million in pledges from private sources toward the construction of the center's two theaters (the site itself was donated by the Segerstrom family), and another $63 million has been pledged for an operating endowment.

And UC Irvine established a record of $19 million in funds raised during 1984-85, compared with $4 million just five years earlier.

Bowers Museum in Santa Ana is planning an expansion that could cost up to $20 million, despite a report that the current climate was unfavorable to such a fund-raising effort, and the Irvine Co. and Newport Harbor Art Museum recently ordered a feasibility study on creating a seven-acre cultural center adjacent to the museum.

One key to the success of such drives will be how much sense of community exists between the organizations and the people they ask for money.

On Feb. 20, I attended a dinner in behalf of the United Jewish Fund of Orange County, sponsored by the Laguna Hills, Leisure World Region of the Jewish Federation of Orange County. The dinner was hosted by Ann and Jacob Entin on the occasion of their 55th wedding anniversary. It raised more than $150,000. The reason it was so successful is that Leisure World is a true community, and a sense of cohesion there results in a more generous philanthropic response.

The Orange County community as a whole needs to develop more cohesiveness. And heighten its social consciousness. Fund-raisers must make residents more aware of the community's needs. If they do that, contributions can increase dramatically. Fund-raising campaigns do not fail because too many people say no. They fail because too many people aren't aware of the need--and aren't asked.

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