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Bridging the gap among cultures: interview with Brett Lalonde, vice-president of the Jewish Community of Florence

We consulted with the Jewish Community to develop their start up in terms of fundraising and organizational development.
Beyond the initiatives related to funds, the hybrid model developed to set up the Development Unit saw the active engagement of the governance together with a group of young volunteers selected among the Community members upon a call for applicants.
The initial training and volunteering collaboration had the purpose of creating a solid group of dynamic volunteers who could manage the Community’s fundraising activities.
Two years later, the group counts five operational participants who  are actively committed to developing a multi-target and multi-vehicle fundraising initiative to support the Jewish Community. A significant part of the Board of Directors itself, too, is actively engaged into the whole process.
Of course, the best has (always) yet to come, but the basis was laid.

Enjoy this interview with Brett Lalonde, who is currently Vice President of the Jewish Community of Florence.

Brett, first of all I would like to let the space to introduce you. You are from Seattle, it’s a long way to Florence!
Would you tell us some more about you?

Like many young American students, I came to Florence on a study abroad program to learn Italian and it was on this trip that I met my husband and decided to continue my studies in Italy, first at the American University of Rome where I studied International Relations, and then at the University of Florence, where I studied Languages and Foreign Literature.
I must say that it wasn’t actually our plan to stay in Italy, we had always envisioned ourselves moving back to the United States together after University, but at that time we both found jobs in the fields we were interested in and it become increasingly difficult to leave that lives that we were building here.

Judaism has always been an important part of my life, in various degrees at different stages, but ever-present.
In fact, one of the first places I came to in Florence was the Jewish Community, where I immediately felt at home.
Over the years, raising a Jewish family in Florence, the Jewish Community became an increasingly central part of my life, starting with the Jewish School, and then the Temple and the Community as a reference point for the Jewish holidays. At a certain point, I decided that I wanted to get involved and I looked into volunteer opportunities, and in 2020, I decided to run for the elections for the Council of the Jewish Community of Florence. In these last three years I have worked to improve internal and external communications, trying to find new ways for people to stay connected.


We consulted with the Jewish Community in Florence starting from a contact message where you asked us about possible lines of development for the fundraising initiatives led by the Community. At that time, you were mostly engaged on major donors, but you thought your activities needed a boost and, most important, a more organized structure.
I remember that among our first questions for you was about how your governance were onboard, so we started talking from this perspective and then broadening the conversation to the whole organization. You are the one responsible for taking your Board … on board, just to use the name of this blog.
Can you tell us your starting point to raise your idea of a well-structured development and took the responsibility to stimulate the other Board members to engage in such process?

My first mission after the new Council was installed was to analyze how fundraising activities were organized and carried out; the basics in terms how donor data was maintained, how relationships were being cultivated, how we engaged with our donors, and what channels of communications we had with them. My goal was to understand what was working well, and what areas needed improvement.
What I found was that the Community had been very successful over the years in raising money through foundation grants, with a good network at a local and national level, in particular thanks to Opera del Tempio Ebraico, a foundation dedicated to restoring and preserving of Jewish monuments in Florence, Siena and Monte San Savino, and thanks to an internal staff member, who is now the secretary of our Community, who had a lot of experience researching and obtaining grants from bank foundations and funding from public amministration. At the same time, it became clear that for the Jewish Community, donor relations, in particular retaining current donors and keeping them engaged in our organization, was an area that needed improvement. What we were missing, at an operational level, was coordinated effort and internal manpower to actually carry out the actions needed to engage with individual and private donors, basically we were missing communicators.
At the same time, there was also generational change underway: within the Community there was a group of tech-savy “millennials” with strong communication skills seeking ways to be active and involved in the Community. As you said, getting the Board…on board was key, but even more importantly was building a bridge between the board with the next generation of board members, so engaging tomorrow’s community leaders in the process: broadening the conversation in both directions, with the board, but also with future board members.


In the introduction to this interview, it was mentioned the hybrid model of our consultancy aimed to set up a Development Unit within the Jewish Community in Florence. You told me that there were several enthusiastic, proactive young members that we could have involved into the process offering them an opportunity in terms of training and taking part to a consultancy path we were about to start, so we arranged a call for applicants delivered by the Community.
We were – and still are – really impressed by the proactive and skilled approach of that group, that started as volunteers and increasingly became fundraisers and communicators.
What was the feedback you received about this way to frame the development of the organization?
This active group of young members of the Community became the development unit. Each team member of this unit contributes specific skills: in addition to myself, there is another team member who is a native English speaker who curates the translations, there is another team member who is a social media manager and expert in professional management of Facebook, Instagram, Whatsapp and other social media as well as webmaster and site builder, there is another team members who majored in intercultural studies and brought experience in crowdfunding. Within this development unit we also have a board member who is active in writing thank you letters.
At the same time, the training that we did with ENGAGEDin was with a wider group of participants who responded to the call for applicants that also included the currenty secretary, a member of our Culture Committee, our vice Rabbi and and broader group of participants who are now part a of wider pool of resources that the development group can count on: for example, one of the participants thanks to her expertise in Excel helped us map our constituents, another participant thanks to his expertise in finance and economics helps us when we need to come up with a business plan for a specific project. So while we created a development unit, we also created a wider pool of resources within the organization with a wide range of specializations that we can count on when we need them, a sort of circle that encompasses the development unit.


Among the participants at both the assessment and training session there was the whole Board of the Community. We were aware that most of them was quite far from fundraising in terms of personal history and competences, but we appreciated their – I mean: your – will to contribute to development. You raised up many ideas and suggestions that were, from our perspective, concrete signals of an engaged, or eager to participate, Board of Directors. What happened then? Are your Directors still engaged in the process?

The entire Council and all employees of the Jewish Community participated in the training, the idea was to get as many people within the organization on board as possible. I think that each board member and each employee brought out of the training an important “take away message”: that we all have to be involved in this process, fundraising is not a one-man show. Since then, part of the board has become involved, specifically with writing thank letters, this is a small but extremely significant sign, and with the employees we have been able to define specific procedures e that positively support the fundraising activities.


You are a perfect mix of two different cultures and, most important as far as this blog concerns, two different approaches to fundraising. What did you bring from being the one that started this peer-to-peer engagement process? What worked best and what didn’t?

I can start by saying that in my personal experience managing two cultures is not easy! In terms of communications, translating the message is never enough, our communications have to be declined in different ways in terms of tone, pitch, approach and timing.
One example is the project to raise money for the restoration of our Synagogue. One example is the project to raise money for the restoration of our Synagogue. We found that our American audience was more familiar with GoFundMe and were more inclined to accept it as a safe and valuable tool, many American donors already had accounts and regularly donated through crowdfunding platforms, where some of our Italian donors were reluctant to use these.
There is one funny episode that I can tell you about regarding a project that got off to a “rough” start. We had set up a stand in the garden of the Synagogue during a cultural event with hundreds of visitors and we were asking people to leave their names and email addresses for our mailing list. To attract their attention, we printed out a huge QR Code on front of an oversized t-shirt that said “SCAN ME” and once scanned, it brought users to a Google form where they could leave their contact information to sign up for our newsletter. Then we had one of our board members wear the t-shirt and mingle in the garden with visitors, asking them to scan him. Well, unfortunately, our timing was off, because we were just coming out of the lockdown in Italy and at that time people automatically associated the QR Codes with the “Green Pass” (the European equivalent to the U.S. vaccination card) and many people mistakenly thought that our board member was on safety patrol sent out to check people’s green pass status. If the project were done today, it think that it would be successful, but at that time it had the opposite effect. Obviously this was not a cultural problem, but one of timing.
Going back to your question about culture, on a more general level, in America professional fundraising is a well established industry, but I feel like this is taking off in Italy too, especially in terms of establishing a fundraising “culture” with private donors. In the past, our organization has relied predominantly on funding from bank foundations and government funding, but we are now trying to shift the focus to increasingly include support from private donors as well. This has entailed a major change in our organization’s mindset, we’ve had to restructure ourselves to accommodate this new role that private donors play in our Community. The training and consultancy we did with ENGAGEDin helped our organization to prepare for this cultural change so that we, as an organization, could better manage donor care and cultivate relations with individual donors.


To conclude, would you let us know your plan in terms of fundraising and development? What are you working – and going to work – on?
Like many organizations in Italy, we are facing rising operating costs, and at the same time, we are dealing how to fund new capital projects – two, in particular that have surfaced in the past two months, one regarding the restoration of the tower of the Synagogue in Florence and the other regarding the repair of damage to the Synagogue in Siena following the recent earthquake last February. Both the Florence and Siena Synagogues are part of our Community’s “jurisdiction”. We have been quite unlucky as these two major problems both require significant capital investments and they have both emerged at the same time. We are actively mobilizing two campaigns to fund both of these emergencies.

For Florence, the cost of the restoration work is estimated at just over 80k. We will receive approximately 40k in funding from Italian bank foundations and 20k from the company that manages our our Jewish Museum, but in addition to this we have decided to bridge the difference by launching a fundraising campaign on GoFundMe with the goad of raising the remaining 20k from individual donors (this goes back to what we were saying before about changing our level of attention to individual donors and the shift including private donations in our fundraising mix).
For Siena, the situation is more complex, the work is estimated at over 300k. We are currently in the process of carrying out preliminary research and planning our fundraising strategy.
Our fundraising goal of raising at least 20k through private donations, to provide a quick update, was very successful: we ended up raising 28k in private donations and we were able to cover the entire amount needed to move forward with the urgent restoration work.

Brett Lalonde is currently Vice President of the Jewish Community of Florence. Originally from Seattle, she has lived in Italy for more than 20 years. She works for a Florence based tech company that operates in the area of Online Brand Protection where she manages Domain Recovery service that operates in several European countries. As a board member for the Jewish Community she has worked apply her skill set and knowledge of new technology to improve internal and external communications, finding new ways for people to stay connected. She has led a range of fundraising activities including building relationships with donors, maintaining donor data and communications, organizing a yearly Sustainer Program, crowdfunding for specific projects, as well as organizing fundraising training for tomorrow’s community leaders.

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