Peter Willner will be stepping down this summer after 12 years as national executive director of the American Friends of The Hebrew University. During his tenure, AFHU increased its annual fundraising from $18 million in 2002 to $500 million by the end of 2013; last year the group raised $50 million. Willner spent more than 30 years in executive positions in the nonprofit sector, the Anti-Defamation League and UJA-Federation of New York. The Jewish Week caught up with him recently for a discussion about the philanthropic landscape in the Jewish community and the so-called “brain drain” of Israeli academics. This is an edited transcript.
Q: How has economic uncertainty affected gift giving since the financial crisis in 2008?
A: We are dealing with the ultimate discretionary dollar, and the crisis impacted every one of us. If you take a look at Jewish giving, all of us took a drop, but the [friends groups of Israeli] universities came back faster.
Why the quick turnaround?
Because we are a designated giving organization. Donors can give to scholarships or to brain research — we can match people’s interests to the university, and that has been successful.
The late [demographer] Gary Tobin made the observation that Jewish donors — especially when the young — want a relationship with Israel and want a good news piece. They want to designate their gift and to give to something that is not political or religious. The Hebrew University fits that bill.
What challenges do Jewish nonprofits face in attempting to recruit young Jewish professionals to the field of fundraising?
It’s one of the biggest challenges facing the Jewish community today. There is a dearth of high-quality professional fundraisers. In terms of the Friends of the Hebrew University, I find the issue is not one of salary but one of our expectations of new hires. We need to make the field more attractive and do better training when we bring them in.
Is there a difference raising money in the Jewish community?
It’s a unique field. Contributors are very smart and well educated. We are looking at people who are sophisticated on a professional level. I think when we hire people to do fundraising; we throw them in with expectations that are unrealistic. We have a responsibility to put them through an ongoing staff development program to upgrade the quality of their skills. We need to keep our staff knowledgeable about what they are promoting and to learn new fundraising techniques to deal with different donors, reach out to foundations and write grant proposals.
At AFHU we bring our staff in from our regional offices at least once, but preferably twice, a year for in-service education so they learn what is going on in the university and how they can do their job more effectively.
Given that Israeli universities receive government funding, what role do the “friends” organizations play?
The government provides 70 percent of our operating budget and we — the friends — provide the additional 30 percent to help deal with research projects, provide chairs for professors and raise money to help the university recruit faculty back to Israel.
Why do they leave?
In Israel to become an assistant professor you must do your post doctorate work overseas, for example Harvard in brain research. After that, Harvard may offer them a faculty appointment for more money than they will make in Israel, along with state of the art research laboratories. But they want to return to Israel and are willing to take a lower salary. Unfortunately the university does not have the money for upgrading the quality of their laboratories or to provide research assistants.
Our goal at AFHU is to provide the funding to upgrade these labs and assist with the problem of “brain drain.” In 2014, the Hebrew University is recruiting 50 new faculty members at an average cost to recruit them and equip their labs of $1.5 million per faculty member.
Have you started to see money baby boomers inherited from their parents?
It’s the greatest transfer of Jewish wealth in the history of American Jewish philanthropy and we are just starting to see it.