Plaques on Every Pew

A tour of a synagogue building really does tell you a lot about its culture of philanthropy.

Of course it also tells you a lot about the synagogue’s history as well. When I start working with a synagogue on a strategic planning or fundraising project, the building walk through on my first visit with the president or rabbi is always very helpful. I am continually looking at the walls. Is there a naming plaque as you enter the lobby of the building or on a particular room like a classroom? How has the synagogue handled the recognition of donors to past capital campaigns?

Reading recently about synagogue High Holy Day Campaigns prompted my thinking on this topic. Sometimes for such annual campaign efforts, donors are listed on the synagogue’s website. There may even be what I will call a flexible plaque that changes every year, and that lists all contributors to the High Holy Day Campaign.

As an aside, for synagogues that offer congregants an opportunity to list loved ones in the Yizkor Book, for a contribution, this, too, is a form of donor recognition. Maybe there is a distinction in the font size so that you can tell who contributed more. Maybe the giving levels are noted. I have a hunch that most often there is no such distinction as everyone making a contribution of any size is recognized in a similar fashion.

And there are many synagogues that utilize their websites on an ongoing basis to list donors as contributions are received.

Back to the building tour. Usually it is in the lobby or foyer by the entranceways where one finds the big plaques with the listing of many donors to prior capital campaigns. Often, the names are listed by giving category. Again it may be the font size of the listing that distinguishes the size of gifts.

I have seen plaques on everything-from the classrooms to the pews in the sanctuary. At the other side of the donor recognition spectrum, I even saw just a framed alpha listing of all of the donors to a recent capital campaign. It seemed to be hidden in the corner of the lobby in front of a sanctuary.

What you don’t want is for such plaques to have a similarity to Yahrzeit plaques. My preference is for such plaques to have more of a look and feel like a piece of art. You know it is a plaque with a listing of donors. But is has more of a look with some pop rather than that of solemnity that one often finds with Memorial plaques.

Synagogue leaders, particularly in more progressive synagogues, take great pride in their egalitarianism. Aren’t we all made in God’s image? Everyone is welcome. If you can’t pay the full costs of dues/annual commitment, you can ask for dues relief. And in some synagogues now, you get to pay what you want.

Contributing to the High Holy Day Appeal or for the listing in the Yizkor Book, or to the capital campaign is optional. But if you do, you will have a special listing.

The challenge here is that fundraising is an elitist process.

As long as synagogues have a need for any kind of fundraising beyond dues/annual commitments, this tension will continue. Good fundraising practice calls for donors to be recognized. How extensive is such recognition is related to the congregation’s “culture of philanthropy”.

2 Comments on “Plaques on Every Pew

  1. Good article. Our Temple uses an additional idea. When you enter for the High Holidays services,there is a table with envelopes in alphabetical order and you are given yours. Inside is a page called “Good Will Offering with tabs to turn down with various amounts. These are collected by the ushers. Those who do not pick up an envelope received it in the mail. It is probably done elsewhere but,I can say for myself I am prodded to make a donation I might not have made (in addition to the high dues and other contributions we make throughout the year).

    • Thanks so much, Ree for your comments. That sounds like a pretty big organizational effort on the part of the synagogue’s staff to organize all of the envelopes so that the right letters end up with the right people. It also sounds like it is a part of the culture of giving and philanthropy at your synagogue. Most often this is when such efforts are most successful.



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