It's not every day that a former president comes to speak to the local Jewish community. But President Bill Clinton did just that last week to headline the official launch of the 2010 annual campaign of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.
With his well-known wit and rhetorical finesse, he drew an important parallel between his post-presidency work through the William J. Clinton Foundation and the mission of Federation.
While Clinton's foundation is a relative newcomer to the nonprofit world -- part of what he called an "explosion" over the past decade -- the Federation, in contrast, has been in the business of serving those in need for 108 years.
Clinton delivered a powerful message about the growing importance of the nonprofit sector to step in places that either stump or stymie government and the private sector.
And it's about more than just raising money. The real question, he posed, is: "How do you propose to turn your good intentions into real changes in other peoples' lives?" The "how" question "has got to become the obsession of people like you and me who work in nongovernmental groups," he told the gathering.
It's a question that appeared to resonate with both the professional staff of the Federation and the some 750 supporters who came to hear Clinton, major donors who devote their time and resources to support the work of Federation.
"We clearly need to think about how we can be more efficient and more effective with the dollars that we raise," Ira M. Schwartz, Federation's CEO, said, reflecting on Clinton's remarks.
The question is especially relevant in such a tight fundraising climate. This has been a challenging year for all organizations, including Federation. With several major gifts coming in this year, the campaign has managed to fare better than many of its counterparts around the country; it's down 3 percent, compared to a 10 percent decline at federations nationally.
Last year, Federation allocated some $20 million dollars to a multitude of social-service and educational programs, feeding both hungry mouths and hungry souls at home, in Israel and in the former Soviet Union. Many of the local Jewish institutions and programs that make up the essence of our community benefit from --and often rely heavily on -- dollars from this central body.
As the 2009 campaign draws to an end -- and next year's campaign begins -- the needs continue to grow. Now is the time to remember the importance of giving to the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.
As Rabbi Shira Stutman of the Federation, reflecting on the spirit of Chanukah, said at the campaign event: "It would be easy for each of us to take our metaphorical candles and go our separate ways." But Federation is more than that, she said: "We are and should be an unquiet place, working together and as individuals to make this world a better place."