Asking Others for Tzedakah: Is It Really Worse Than Root Canal?

If you were to ask synagogue leaders how they feel about asking others for Tzedakah – a charitable contribution – not many would say it is something they love to do.  “It is worse than root canal!” might be a more typical response.

Yet, we all know it is certainly a necessary thing to do and perhaps an obligation of being a synagogue leader. For many congregations, the average dues income at most is 55% of the operating budget.  The budget has a fundraising line item.   Whether that number is $25,000, $50,000 or even $100,000, an action plan to raise those funds would certainly be helpful and prevent a lot of scrambling as the fiscal year draws to a close.

September is the time of year when Jews are most apt to give Tzedakah.  There is a reason why every North American and Regional Jewish organization has well-organized direct mail and e-philanthropy efforts starting just before Labor Day and extending through Sukkot.

This is the time of year when synagogues have a captive audience. I am not just talking about attendance. Rather, congregants are thinking about synagogue. They are remembering their loved ones and seeking community.

This year, Rosh Hashanah begins on September 16th.  While that date seems so far away, it really isn’t.  Synagogue leaders will soon be scattering for well-deserved summer vacations. It is important right now to put a plan in place for your synagogue’s annual campaign so it happens in an organized fashion and you are not scrambling to do something as Labor Day approaches.

Here are some campaign components to consider:

Giving Circle: Is there a group of people – 10,25, or 50, depending on the size of your synagogue – that you could ask in person to contribute $1000 or more over and above the current dues/annual commitment they are contributing?  Put together a small committee of veteran leaders who love your synagogue who will approach this group and ask each person for special support.

You will need to create a case for giving. Write down all of the wonderful accomplishments that have happened at your synagogue in the past year as well as the exciting programmatic agenda for the coming year. This positive and upbeat story can guide your conversations.

Celebrate their special support. List their names in the monthly newsletter, on the website, or on a special plaque in a common area during the Days of Awe. You can even have a special event for this group that might be as simple as a get together in someone’s home for dinner with a special speaker or a concert by your Cantor.

High Holy Day Direct Mail: Right before Labor Day, send out a personalized letter to the entire membership. If you have had an annual campaign effort in the past, ask those who have contributed before to make an increased gift (10-15%). For those who haven’t contributed to a past annual campaign effort, ask them for $100.

If you have never had such an effort, review the membership list and divide it into two groups. Those who you believe have the capability to contribute $500 over their current annual dues/commitment, and those who do not have such capability. Ask the first group for $500, and ask the second group for $100.

Such a letter should tell a positive, upbeat story about your synagogue. Keep away from the “doom and gloom”.  People give to dreams, not to dire causes.  Here is a letter that I like.

Board Telethon:  To supplement your direct mail effort, at the board meeting that occurs either during the High Holidays or right after Simchat Torah, devote 30 minutes in the middle of the meeting to a board telethon. If your synagogue has had such a High Holy Day Appeal effort in the past, just call people who contributed in the last three years who have not yet contributed. You will need to give board members a script to follow as well as individual sheets with biographical information and giving history of the people being called. Be sure to remind board members to bring their cell phones. By the entire board doing this in a concerted effort as part of an official meeting, board members will feel supported and encouraged to do something that they don’t really want to do.

E-Philanthropy: You can send out an email reminder about the High Holy Day Campaign the day after Rosh Hashanah. If your website has the ability to accept on-line donations, be sure to have a link to this page in the body of the email. You can mention how great it was to be with everyone at Rosh Hashanah and you look forward to greeting them next week at Yom Kippur.  And then remind them about the High Holy Day Campaign.  If you do not yet have on-line donation capability, just encourage them to send in their checks.

By doing any –and preferably all -of the above described fundraising thrusts, your campaign will see positive gains.

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2 comments on “Asking Others for Tzedakah: Is It Really Worse Than Root Canal?
  1. Laura Schwartz says:

    Hi, David,
    One thing I’d recommend before putting on a Board telethon is to do a little “askophobia” training, some role playing, maybe guided by members who are experienced sales people. I have a script prepared by an amazingly successful Princeton Univ. development staff member, which is really good. I’ll scan it and send it to you. I’m going to use it (with God’s help) to train our Board before it’s time for them to make their HH calls.

    Laura Schwartz, Congregation Beth Chaim.

  2. Victor S. Appell says:

    David, another great blog post! I especially like what you have to say about giving circles. We need to think thougtfully about who can give that additional support to our congregations. And you are right, we need to celebrate them. How honored they would feel to be treated to a concert just for them, or a lecture by the rabbi or a local scholar. Great ideas!

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