Income: Out of The Box Thinking

I am often asked about non-traditional ways that synagogues can generate income.

Beyond dues and more traditional fundraising efforts like the High Holy Day Appeal or even a Gala. And “beyond the Bake Sale” thinking that I attribute to such efforts as importing corned beef sandwiches to sell to the community.  And beyond the nights staffing the food concession stand at the new baseball stadium that after a while gets old and a pain – to find volunteers and that income can be unpredictable if the game is poorly attended to do weather, or just by having a home team in a rebuilding year.

Years ago, Bingo was the way. In the 1980s and 1990s you would drive by numerous synagogues and see signs advertising Bingo on Wednesday nights. Of course Bingo, as we know it, is a form of gambling. This raises all kinds of issues for a lot of people. Today, I am startled in my travels, particularly in New Jersey, when I do see a Bingo sign in front of a synagogue.

And there are synagogues who rent out their building as it sits empty on weekdays to a pre-school or even a private school.

What some might consider “out of the box” thinking is what I am talking about:

  • Like entering a lease agreement with a cell phone company for them to place a cell phone tower on the synagogue’s property.
  • Like entering into an exclusive agreement with a caterer who will advance the funds to make improvements in the social hall and kitchen with the hope of attracting more B’nai Mitzvahs, weddings and other celebrations of members and non-members to the synagogue.
  • Or even the large synagogue that received a bequest of a 50% share in a downtown hotel in its city in an area going through redevelopment and an economic boom. Rather then sell their share in this endeavor and deposit the proceeds in the endowment fund, the synagogue’s leadership decided to form a for-profit organization, market investment opportunities of zero coupon bonds in $50,000 allotments with the goal to further the development of the hotel.

The cell phone tower raises community and environmental concerns. We all want better cellphone reception. We just don’t want a cell tower in the back of the parking lot or on the roof of our synagogue. You might be interested to know that this is a hot topic for churches. There are a number of churches who enter into an agreement to house a cell tower within the bell tower on the church, or that put a cell tower on the property that is disguised as a Cross.

Partnering with a caterer sounds like a good idea. I don’t know if there is any qualitative data on this, but weddings seem to be more likely to be held at venues like hotels or country barns than at churches or synagogues. Same is true for B’nai Mitzvah celebrations. For parents, it just seems easier to do it at a place where the details are taken care of. And besides, I have heard some awful stories of lawsuits between caterer and synagogue when the initial expectations, while well intended, don’t pan out.

And the synagogue’s hotel redevelopment: while well intentioned, I think it goes a bit far afield of the mission of the synagogue. Besides being a bit questionable about how the very significant bequest that should end up in the synagogue’s endowment fund is being used, according to investment best practices.

I would love to hear about any “out of the box ideas” that are working for your synagogue, or are ones you are considering.

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