Dreaming Big: Ensuring Your Synagogue’s Financial Future

We want our synagogue buildings to be welcoming places. What is the message that is conveyed when there is an on-going leak from the ceiling in the sanctuary on rainy Shabbat evenings?  Or a building that was built in the 1970s or 1980s that really looks like it was built in the 1970s or 1980s.

And you don’t want the costs of membership to stop people from ever coming in the front door.  Or for that matter, to be the primary factor in people leaving.

Today, there is a great deal of buzz about having an endowment fund. A great idea! Many colleges and universities have such a fund for scholarships and to supplement annual operating budgets. Hospitals and other not-for-profit organizations are also focused on building their endowment funds for similar purposes. Articles I have read encourage charitable institutions – including synagogues – to strive toward building an endowment fund that generates 15-18% of its operating budget.

At first blush, such funding challenges may seem daunting.

Whether you need to raise funds to give your building a facelift or to establish an endowment fund, you just can’t begin raising money tomorrow. Synagogue leaders need to have a vision of the future. What are the dreams you – volunteer and professional leadership – have for the building? What are the dreams you have for new programming for which available funding is the only stumbling block?

You should be able to write such a vision on two pages. (Email me and I will be glad to send you a sample vision statement.)

Engaging congregants in such a conversation about the future of your synagogue is the key component to a synagogue’s success in raising the necessary funds to make the dreams of the community a reality.

Remember this formula: 90% of the funds that you will raise in your campaign will come from 10% of the people. So for the hypothetical 500 family synagogue, 50 families are central to the engagement effort.  You are not counting on these 50 families to write a huge check to the synagogue tomorrow. You don’t need to ask for money during this phase.  You have a hunch based on their giving to synagogue, other charitable organizations, their job and position in the community, that they have significant – $100,000 and up at the top end and $25,000-$50,000 at the bottom- capacity. Right now, you just want to invite people to be a part of the conversation about the synagogue’s future.

The rabbi’s role is also essential at this early stage. The more the rabbi is meeting with congregants with giving capacity to share with them the leadership’s vision for the future and asking for their advice and input the better.

At synagogue meetings and workshops I have led, I have often told the story of a $15 million capital/endowment campaign many years ago at Temple Emanu-El in Birmingham, AL. Two years before anyone was asked for a contribution, Rabbi Jonathan Miller devoted a great deal of time just meeting with those congregants whose giving would significantly jumpstart a comprehensive campaign and set an important example for the rest of the community.   He didn’t drop other important responsibilities to do this.  Time was on his side and he made such cultivation gatherings a part of his rabbinate.

This engagement phase is not just about reaching out to congregants with significant capacity. A critical mass  – reaching out to half your congregation’s membership would be an achievable goal – should be involved. You can accomplish a mass outreach effort through parlor meetings or focus groups.  The URJ’s “Cultivating the Future” details such a process you might follow to accomplish this.

Planning and engagement are really essential cornerstones to any comprehensive campaign. The more time devoted to this before asking for financial commitments, the better the campaign will be in terms of the dollars raised. And those who subsequently participate in the campaign will have stronger emotional commitments to the synagogue community as well.

As always, your comments and questions are welcome.

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