Vancouver's Jewish High School Examines all the Options in Effort to Secure Permanent Home

The concept of a permanently established Jewish High School never took hold in Western Canada the way it did in other Jewish communities across the country. After 53 years of trying, Vancouver's Talmud Torah High School (VTTHS) is two-thirds closer to its goal of establishing a permanent home, successfully raising $12 million in an overall capital campaign valued at $18 million.

The VTTHS, which currently resides on leased property, lives with the ever present threat that once their lease expires, the future of the high school may also be in jeopardy. Population growth within the local Jewish community is also a factor, with the school simply outgrowing existing infrastructure and facilities.

"This community has been promised things in the past that haven't materialized and this time we are going to do it absolutely right," comments Ari Shiff, one of the driving forces behind the initiative. "We're not allowing any backsliding."

Although their early fundraising efforts showed promise, Shiff and his compatriots soon recognized that the VTTHC needed to broaden its horizons. A connection with the BIG Online Fundraising Support Centre led him directly to a local consultancy with considerable experience in Jewish community donations and culture. They helped VTTHS craft a focused strategy, while BIG Online assisted in the effort to identify and source new opportunities.

Besides employing professional consultants and adopting powerful electronic tools, Shiff began to look at US foundations as a source of financing, a tactic he believes is often overlooked by Canadian-based charities.

"I suspect there are many US foundations that can and would give in Canada if the project was presented in such a way that it was of interest to them," he notes. "Unless it states in their bylaws that they can only give in the United States, they're free to give anywhere. It's also worthwhile remembering that U.S. dollars go further in Canada."

Shiff doesn't restrict his efforts either, approaching foundations in different cities and with different donation backgrounds. "We're not just speaking of Jewish foundations. There are many foundations that support education as well."

Another opportunity, suggests Shiff, stems from geography and Talmud Torah's promise to become the only permanently established Jewish high school west of Winnipeg.

"Vancouver is at the edge of the country, but there are a lot of institutions in the East that we could develop connections with. We simply have to uncover what those connections are and make a case for why we should be supported."

In addition to targeting foundations, the VTTHS campaign focuses on major donors, but with a twist. "Traditionally, most campaigns in the Jewish community heavily targeted the big donors only …We wanted one that came from grassroots support and treated the average member of the Jewish community, or the community at large, with respect."

Genesis of a High School
In early 2001, Vancouver Talmud Torah merged with the Vancouver Jewish High School, creating a combined facility offering a complete Jewish education from preschool to Grade 12.

Shiff's strong desire to see this temporary arrangement become permanent evolved from personal experience. His wife went to elementary school in Vancouver, but when she reached high school age was forced to attend an institution in California to continue her Jewish studies. The Shiff's didn't want their four children to experience that same type of dislocation.

"We took up the challenge that week and initiated a campaign to prove that there was indeed a strong interest in establishing a permanent Jewish high school in Vancouver."

Shiff, his wife, and their colleagues began searching for quantifiable support for the initiative by conducting a school wide survey of students and parents. The effort helped determine just how many families wanted their children to receive a high school level Jewish education. Almost 75% of students surveyed - from nursery school through grade 7 - demonstrated overwhelming support and interest in the project.

One of the other ways in which Shiff and his colleagues proved out long-term support was to launch a campaign encouraging every member of the community to make a donation, no matter how small. With an impressive 84% backing of the parent body, this pilot campaign raised approximately $300,000.

According to Shiff the money raised from this particular initiative was secondary to the overriding objective of engaging the local Jewish community and demonstrating to at least one prospective donor that demand for the project was high. "The point of that campaign wasn't about the money - it was about active participation."

With another six million dollars to go in their capital fundraising campaign, Shiff expects to continue using BIG Online as one of his main resources. "BIG Online contains a comprehensive North American database of funding sources and we will be looking into every possible source of funding. Current efforts have already produced results, with several foundations making generous donations."

BIG Lesson: Canadian non-profits and charities would be well advised to look to the United States as a potential source of funding. Think hard about how you can make a case for funding from U.S.-based donors and make a trial effort. You've got nothing to lose and a lot to gain.

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