A Plaque in the Bathroom? Really?

Maybe there is some truth to the story my former boss once told me. He said the best place to post a plaque acknowledging a significant contribution was in the Men’s’ or Ladies’ Bathroom. It would be hard for people to miss it.

Maybe he was right, but most might think – including me – such a move lacks class or decorum.

Recently, I read with interest a New York Times article about the renovation challenges at the main concert hall at Lincoln Center. David Geffen, of music and Hollywood fame, gave a naming gift of $100 million. The renovations are now on hold for a variety of reasons, including fundraising challenges. The cost to complete the project significantly exceed Mr. Geffen’s generous support. And, when I read between the lines in this article, Mr. Geffen’s generosity, and the fact that naming of the project has been given to him, might have scared off other prospects from being supportive in line with their capacity.

Here is a case study to consider:

You are the synagogue president. The rabbi calls to say that Rob and Debbie Levine want to contribute $10 million to your synagogue. Their one request is that the Sanctuary becomes the Albert and Sadie Levine Sanctuary, after Rob’s parents who recently passed away. The sanctuary is in need of some sprucing up- chairs to replace the pews, new carpeting, lighting, a new sound system and painting. The rest of the synagogue is in very good shape. Maybe all of that costs $2 million. Leaving you with an $8 Million Endowment Fund to secure the synagogue’s financial future.

The synagogue has a Tree of Life in the lobby where congregants make gifts of $180, $360, or $540 to buy leaves of various sizes. And there is plaque on the wall by the front door from the capital campaign from 5 years ago listing donors is several giving categories when the synagogue raised $3 million to renovate classrooms and offices and install a new HVAC system. The synagogue bulletin sent by email each month lists all of people who made tribute gifts. And the October Bulletin always lists alphabetically those who contributed to the High Holy Day Appeal.

No other room or area has a name attached to it.

The Levines have been congregants for 20 years. The synagogue and the community are important to them. They felt such strong support when Rob’s parents recently passed.  Two years ago, they sold their regional chain of high-end furniture stores, that his father has started, to Berkshire Hathaway. They have done well and want to give back.

Do you honor their request?

All of our congregations should have such problems.

In an earlier blog, I wrote about the push-pull of the egalitarianism of congregational life and the elitism of fundraising. Maybe it is counter intuitive for the Levines to want such recognition because of the synagogue’s low-ley nature and hamishness. But they are feeling generous, and they asked.

A few questions to ponder:

Do you tell the Levines that naming rooms in the building is not a part of the synagogue’s DNA, or culture?

Will you bring this to the board of trustees and have an in-depth discussion about naming, egalitarianism-elitism, and the pros and cons of naming gifts?

Do you think the Levines’ generosity will inspire others to be generous in their giving to the synagogue?

I welcome your thoughts.

2 Comments on “A Plaque in the Bathroom? Really?

  1. Thanks for addressing this important topic, David! I strongly support the idea of recognizing large donations with naming opportunities. The health and stability of a temple are wholly reliant on donations. Whatever the philosophical bent of a majority of congregants, the temple staff, programs, and infrastructure must be supported with raised income. Do you have information that would lead you to believe that naming opportunities harm a temple’s ability to retain and grow its membership or increase donations in general? It seems counterintuitive that fundraising successes, like a large donation to name a building/room/office, would do anything but encourage others to provide support. As a seasoned and successful fundraising professional, do you support the idea of offering naming opportunities to donors?

    • Hey Mark,

      There is no real data for the question you are asking. Naming is an important part of recognition. But it also has to be related to the culture of the organization. If nothing is named within a synagogue building, it would be a big step to jump right to naming a sanctuary, the playground, the building, or even the campus. It might be common practice at the synagogue two towns over, as evident by their several successful capital campaigns with plaques all over. But the lack of naming, for many, may be viewed as an attribute and a reason why they are a part of this synagogue, rather then its neighbor.

      Now the $10 million potential gift in the story I have shared gives one food for thought. But if you just accept the money without any real discussion related to vision and culture, there is a chance that the minhag of the synagogue will change.

      Thanks for raising the question and apologies for taking a bit of time to respond.



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