Who The Folk?! Evan Stern

While fundraising for a cause may come naturally to some people, for others, the act of asking for donations can be uncomfortable, no matter the circumstances. However, Adath Jeshurun’s newest Development Director, Evan Stern, brings a whole new perspective to the process and how it fulfills the act of doing a mitzvah. Find out about Stern’s job, his path to Adath and his passion for building relationships through fundraising in this week’s Who The Folk?!

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What does your job as development director involve?

I work with congregants, clergy and staff to ensure the financial well being of the synagogue for current and future generations. We have the Adath Foundation, so my work with the Foundation has to do with endowment funding. We also have an annual giving campaign and annual fundraising efforts that support the synagogue.

Adath has a really healthy culture of giving and a lot of people at the synagogue are involved in this enterprise of raising the funds to do the synagogue’s work, and that includes young people and our oldest congregants and everybody in between, but mostly I work with our board, with the staff, clergy and with a core group of volunteers who are really hands on with fundraising for the synagogue.

Have you done a job like this before where you were involved with different fundraising efforts?

I come to Adath from a position at the Minneapolis Jewish Federation where I worked on the annual Community Campaign. Jewish philanthropy is somewhat distinct from other types of fundraising in that our strength is the efforts of volunteers. While a university or a hospital might do all of their fundraising with the work of professionals, a synagogue or a Federation raises money with the help of skilled and passionate volunteers. So my work at the Federation really prepared me to do that at Adath, where at Federation a lot of the fundraising is actually done by community members and your job is to support them and prepare them and make sure they have what they need to succeed in their fundraising efforts. The same thing is true at Adath.

What led you to become a Development Director in the first place?

I went to the University of Minnesota and was active in Hillel. As a partner agency of the Minneapolis Jewish Federation, Hillel exposed me to the Federation model and Super Sunday. So I started volunteering at Super Sunday, and continued to be involved as a volunteer for the Federation’s Community Campaign, and over the years that volunteer involvement grew steadily and eventually led me to joining the organization as a campaign staffer. I mean that’s the short story. I went to Teko, I went to Herzl, I worked at both camps. I went on Alexander Muss High School in Israel. You know, community has always been a big part of my life. But really it was through Hillel that I learned about the Federation and that was kind of the direct connection that led to me looking at this kind of work as a career.

How have you liked working at Adath so far?

I have worked at Adath since January and I love it. Adath is a wonderful congregation and fundraising for a synagogues is a really meaningful job to be able to do because a synagogue is in the business of making people’s’ lives better, and so every time somebody makes a contribution to support Adath, whether it’s an $18 gift or $1 million gift, they’re doing a major mitzvah and I get to be a part of that, which makes my job a blessing and something that I’m really grateful to be able to do.

Do you find that as our society becomes more digitally engaged, it’s more effective to fundraise on larger levels through digital channels as opposed to in person?

The relationship is where our conversation happens, and a gift comes from that. Fundraising is fundamentally about relationships, so ironically in an era where more and more people are engaging digitally, and texting and snapchatting, that makes personal relationships even more important. That makes hand-written thank you notes more important. Even a phone call from one congregant to another, just to have a conversation about their shul is actually more effective and more impactful because unfortunately it feels like that’s happening less and less in our society today. These are not only the best ways to secure a gift, but they’re actually ways of connecting as one human being to another that seem to be going away. 

It’s hard because it takes more effort to get those personal meetings, but the dividends are so great from actually having a meeting with someone in person and you learn so much more about them and it’s just much more personal and much more important. And if you can do that, and not everyone can or wants to, but if you can do that then your chances of getting a meaningful gift are greater, but even more important, deepening someone’s connection to their congregation is also going to happen. Because it’s not just about the gift, it’s about being a part of a community.

What goals do you have as Development Director that you would like to see happen during your time in the position?

I would like to see 100 percent of Adath families giving to our annual L’Chaim Campaign. I would like to see the Adath Foundation grow to a $25 million endowment. Currently it’s valued at about $9 million, but my goal is to see it grow to about $25 million. And neither of those things will happen without my third goal, which is growing the capacity and the infrastructure of our members as fundraisers. We currently have a lot of really skilled and really invested members of Adath who help raise money on behalf of the congregation, but we need to grow the numbers of people who do that and we need to continue investing in their abilities because that’s how we’re going to get to that 100 percent participation in annual giving and growing the endowment to $25 million.

How can you inspire people to want to help fundraise if they are uncomfortable asking others to donate?

In the first place, people have to be fully invested as donors. So I wouldn’t ask you to ask other people to give if you haven’t consistently given yourself. You have to believe in it and believe in the act of giving before you can really think about asking anybody else to make a gift. So it’s not for everybody. Not everybody is cut out to do it. The key is for people to really see that the act of asking somebody for money is itself a mitzvah. It’s presenting somebody with an opportunity to do good. And doing good feels good, it’s rewarding, it’s righteous onto itself but it also pays dividends to the donor. And if people can really embody the attitude that asking others to give is a gift that you’re giving them, then I think people will want to do it and will succeed at it.

Favorite Jewish food?

Matzah ball soup.

Favorite Jewish holiday?

Passover. As a kid, I think it was just that I loved the food and being with both sides of the family. As an adult I’ve come to learn that Passover is all about kids. It’s all about teaching our kids and telling stories to the kids, and there are layers to it. At its core we’re commanded to retell the story of the exodus from Egypt, which is the beginning of us becoming our own nation and our own tribe in many ways. So part of the reason that Passover is so cool is because we do that. But we’ve done that now for thousands of years, so now there’s all of these rituals and all of these traditions. So there’s this second layer about the sages and the rabbis over time adding their own interpretations to the original story. And then most families have their own family stories and traditions, a third layer. So there’s these three layers of story, tradition and meaning that Passover encompasses and I just love that. I just think it’s beautiful.

Anything else people should know about you?

I’ve been working with friends in Makom, Adath’s young adult group, to plan a Shabbaton this upcoming weekend. I would like to invite young adults to sign up for reTreat Yourself: a magical, everybody-friendly weekend at Herzl Camp filled with praying, relaxation and learning. Registration is open through the end of the day on Aug. 22. Sign up here.


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