Sunday, October 9, 2011

The Taking Shul: The Challenge of Shul Fundraising

Yom Kippur ended a few hours ago, and I'm giddy. This is no surprise – I'm always giddy after Yom Kippur. Sugar and forgiveness are a potent combination.

But I've been mulling a serious topic for a while now, and I want to put some preliminary thoughts down on 'paper'. The topic is Shuls: Giving and Taking.

Story #1 – At one point early in my rabbinate, I needed to raise funds for a community project. I approached someone for help, and was surprised to be turned down flat. Why? As he explained it, he was saving up for a particularly large expense – but, more, he had never been in my office before. He had learned at dozens of classes, davened at plenty of minyanim, but he had never been in my office, and so he didn't feel our relationship was at a point at which I could ask him for help. [Yes, I learned a lot from this encounter.]

Story #2 – A woman in our shul received a tzedakah box from Chabad, to be used for any tzedakah she chose. She commented to me something along the lines of, "See, they aren't always taking. Why can't our shul also give sometimes?" [Of course, we regularly raised funds for ARMDI and other Israeli causes, as well as our local Federation campaigns, Jewish Family Service, Jewish Day School, and Benevolent Fund... sigh.]

The parties involved were regular recipients of the shul's "giving" through davening and classes and aliyos and shul-sponsored kiddushes, but they saw the shul as a Taker rather than a Giver. This makes life difficult for synagogue fundraisers, since one of the most basic rules of fundraising is to make even the Taking feel like Giving [as in "We're giving you an opportunity to do something great"]. Instead, even the shul's Giving doesn't feel like Giving!


1. One part of the problem is that the synagogue does spend so much time Taking: Taking the time, effort and stress of volunteers, in addition to the money required to run a shul.

2. Another part of the problem is that people view the shul's Giving as automatic, since anyone can enjoy the benefits without paying for them.

3. Another part of the problem is that even when a shul Gives, it does it in the form of Taking. Shuls recruit would-be recipients, advertising their 'gifts' and campaigning to get people to take advantage of these wonderful opportunities. "Please come to minyan!" "Come to a shiur!" "Participate in our youth programs!" "Hear this speaker!"

Tell me this: If you need to sell me on your gifts, are they really gifts? The result is that people feel the shul is Taking even when it's Giving.

4. Yet another part of the problem is that when the shul rewards a member's Giving, as in a Thank You call/note/meeting by the Rabbi and/or Synagogue President, it's more likely to be seen as an individual doing the the thanking, rather than the shul as an institution. The result is that the institution Takes, while individuals offer reward.

5. And yet another part of the problem is that shuls don't have products to sell for fundraising, so that fundraising often involves selling what should be their gifts. Schools are forever generating projects to endow. Various types of tzedakah-based organizations perpetually acquire and dedicate new equipment in honor of donors. Shuls, on the other hand, can only raise dues, or charge for their 'gifts' – aliyos, classes and programs. [Cookbook fundraisers and the like don't count; they raise a tiny percentage of the funds a shul needs.]

The upshot: The shul is not seen as a giver, because 1) It takes so much, 2) Its gifts are taken for granted, 3) Its gifts are seen as just another way the shul takes, 4) The institution takes, while its individual leaders are the ones who give back, and 5) it ends up selling its gifts, instead of giving them away.

This is the problem. Solutions will need to wait for another post…


  1. The shul or other organization could do an annual report for members and outside contributors, detailing what the money taken for tzedakah and operations accomplished concretely.

  2. ...and the effects of the contibutions of time and energy.

  3. Bob-
    Indeed, the shuls I've been involved with have had annual meetings at which they published their financial records as well as what the committees had accomplished.
    I also published results for the Benevolent Fund; you can see articles on that here.

  4. The overwhelming majority of funds that go through a Shul's coffers are not characterized as Tzedaka (or the way you refer to it 'giving'). A shul is a communal organization that offers programs (minyanim, shiurim, location for smachot etc.) and is inherently taking. The majority of the money that goes to a shul is a similar nature to a tax (a community agrees to support common offerings that you need as a society).

    Comparing the 'giving' of a shul (offering shiurim/youth groups) to an act of true giving (the tzedaka boxes of chabad that you reference) doesn't make any sense.

    Both are good things to do, but if you don't differentiate between peoples achraiyos (to support their own community) and tzedaka, you will always get similar responsed to the sentiment you have been hearing.

  5. "Indeed, the shuls I've been involved with have had annual meetings at which they published their financial records as well as what the committees had accomplished."

    Does this mean that some people are objecting to these accomplishments?

  6. Mike-
    Thanks for commenting, but I'm not clear on what you are saying. I compared the Chabad tzedakah box with a shul raising funds for causes in Israel, or for schools, Federations and Jewish Family Service...?

    It doesn't need to mean that, no. It's just a report on what the efforts of volunteers (and professionals) are accomplishing.

  7. I meant, does the challenge described in your article itself flow from some dissatisfaction with the known results?

  8. Bob-
    As I see it, the challenge comes (at least in part) from the way people perceive the shul as taking and not giving.

  9. In the course of making his appeal the president of my shul mentioned that only half of the members had paid anything toward their dues. I decided, with some effort, that I would be grateful that I could afford to pay in full when the annual bill came, rather than feel like a sucker for paying in full. But I must confess that the latter thought did at least cross my mind. And probably would have stayed there had I not listened to R. Kahn's shiur on hakkarat hatov on my way home from work the day before. And I think that community institutions that give the impression of accepting free riders will tend to meet resistance.

  10. Mike S.
    Yes, and this is a big problem for schools. When we see families get scholarship subsidies when they also take extensive vacations, it makes us wonder why we're paying full...

  11. At our synagogue, the Board members and other volunteers call all of the congregants shortly before Passover and the High Holy Days to wish them a good chag, as well as to listen to them if they have any feedback for us.

    Then, when it comes time to make the annual call to ask for a donation, we don't hear, "How come the only time you call is when you need money?"

    Of course, there are also phone calls when someone is sick, in mourning, has a simcha, etc. You are right that those can be seen as calls from individuals rather than from the synagogue, but somehow in our synagogue the culture seems to be to view these calls as coming from the community, which is made possible through the efforts of the synagogue and clergy.

  12. Susan-
    Thanks for commenting. I always called people pre-Shabbos/Yom Tov, but having board members call does have additional significance. Also, the point you make about cultural perception is key, I think.