Dear Fundraising Expert,

I’m a rabbi at a small Orthodox shul where everyone knows one another. It is difficult to get families to increase their giving when many of their friends may not be. Many people can’t afford to make big gifts. My congregants generally aren’t impressed by the size of others gifts, so status isn’t really a motivating factor. How can I convince members to make bigger gifts?

Sincerely,
An Orthodox Rabbi in the Keystone State

 

Dear Orthodox Rabbi in the Keystone State,

The issues you are facing are surprisingly common in many American synagogues. Some shuls operate the same way, year in and year out and lack a robust culture of giving or innovation, a select few have really embraced the most contemporary and sophisticated fundraising methods. The first and most important rule of fundraising is that people won’t give if they are not asked. We all have busy lives and plenty of priorities pressing for our attention. Don’t assume a congregant has thought about giving more and decided against the idea. Perhaps the idea hasn’t even occurred to them. Congregants and donors must be reminded of the legitimate needs and asked for their support. They must be told how their donations will make a difference and where the money will go.

Tzedekah, of course, is a serious obligation in Jewish law and Jewish tradition. In addition, it is highly likely that members of an Orthodox shul consider their congregation a very important part of their lives. Harnessing this attachment and the desire to give is part of your responsibility as a religious leader. As the clergy, it is incumbent upon you to speak from the bimah about support for the congregation, and to meet with members individually, gently nudging them to up their gift amounts. The clergy should also set an example as a donor and publicly announce his support.

When bolstering a culture of giving, there are certain steps a congregation should take. One is to create honor categories for the annual and High Holiday appeal. Additionally, saying thank you may be the most important part of the fundraising process. It is too often overlooked. Creating honor categories is a way of systematically saying thank you and offering donors the public honors they justly deserve. I also recommend that all nonprofit boards develop and adopt formal gift acceptance policies – and post the policies on your website. Such steps build trust and send the signal that your congregation is serious about fundraising, financial transparency, and doing bigger and better things in the future.

Congregations across the Jewish spectrum are facing unprecedented challenges. It is not just that fewer Jews are affiliating with synagogues, but that people are truly experiencing and living their lives in different ways due to the digital revolution. Funds are needed to meet congregants where they are, to offer a meaningful experience that rises above the din and touches their hearts and minds. As the clergy, by asking for help, you will truly be leading. 

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