Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Competition is not a dirty word, even in fundraising

[I first published the following post more than five years ago; I still believe it.]

I disagree with pretty much every other shul rabbi I have ever met. I don't think that competition is a dirty word.

I don’t believe that properly-run Chabad centers, Kollelim or Batei Medrash will ever take a dime away from other properly-run Torah institutions. (I say "properly-run" as opposed to those which thrive on lashon hara, dishonesty or other unacceptable approaches.)

I have been a rabbi in a community with far more synagogues than we needed, and I have been a rabbi in a community in which Chabad entered a vacuum of institutions. I know what serious budget deficits are. To me, those deficits, and the consequent damage to a Jewish community, are not a result of competition.

I say this for three reasons:

1. The Free Market is good for a community
In the absence of competition, synagogues and schools and communities and, yes, rabbis, become comfortable. We become lazy. The same pattern of events year after year, the same classes, and innovation dies a silent death.

Introduce new institutions, and suddenly there is incentive - whether pride or finance or otherwise - for thinking up new ways to serve the community.

2. Ask more, and you’ll get more
Many boards are afraid to ask people for money. They think that repeated requests will seem like “nickel and diming” people. They think that people will give less, not more, if solicited more frequently.

But many people would give more, if they were on the right giving schedule.

If people are used to an annual fundraiser and a Kol Nidrei appeal, then that’s when they will give. If I am asked only twice per year, and each time the “norm” is $250-$500, then I’ll give the norm and get away with $500-$1000 per year, an absurdly small amount of tzedakah.

But if I am asked for meaningful tzedakah on a monthly basis, each time for a well-explained, well-founded cause, then I will become used to giving on that monthly basis. And I’ll end up giving much more.

So if a Chabad comes to town and hits people up for Gan Israel, a Sefer Torah, a new building, a pre-school, whatever, that will accustom people to reaching into their pockets more often. And that’s something I can use to my institution’s advantage, too, by getting into that schedule of giving.

3. The true “good of the community”Finally, I don’t think that the good of my institution is necessarily the same as the good of the community.

Let’s say we have an existing school, and it serves the community moderately well. Then a new school opens and it siphons off students, endangering the existing school.
My gut instinct is to be critical, but - might the new school be better for the community? Perhaps children might receive a better education there?

Let’s say my shul is the only bastion of Orthodoxy in my town. And let’s say a kollel opens up and draws my serious congregants into their sphere, and ultimately into their minyan. And let’s say that weakens my shul, to the point that my shul becomes a shadow of its former self. Who am I to say that this isn’t better for those who join that kollel?

Of course, you could easily argue the reverse.
You could easily argue that we need to stick together, and not build institutions to meet everyone's personal preference. I have certainly argued this point of view, in many different contexts.

You could easily argue that the associated strife in a case of school or synagogue competition will outweigh any spiritual gain. We may have better-educated children, but what will they be learning about Jewish communal life?

You could easily argue that drawing more observant families away from a school or synagogue will weaken the chance of exposure to observant Judaism for the remaining families. What happens to a minyan when all the people who like to discuss divrei torah leave for a different shul?

I won’t argue against any of those important points. But still, I wonder - how much of our fear of competition is fear for ourselves - our comfortable rabbinate, our supply of tzedakah, our own institution's good - instead of fear for the good of our communities?


  1. One could question claims by an interested party that his cause or organization has priority. In itself, getting there first does not count. People ought to have choices in giving, and should do their own due diligence investigations and make their own decisions.

    I've often heard negative comments about "breakaways". What could be healthier than a submerged or ignored group breaking away to organize on its own principles?

  2. Competition isn't just about money. Is the community big enough that there are enough people to run the current institutions plus some more? Are there enough people to support another daily minyan, or will an attempt to start a new minyan kill the existing one and not result in the new one being successful? In a place with a recognized Rabinic authority will a new authority diminish the effectiveness of the current leadership?

    I didn't invent the concept of Hasagat Gvul.

  3. Bob-
    Depends on whether the principles are positive (We want to create X) or negative (We hate them), no?

    All true.