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.

It is hard not to be impacted by the young people from Parkland, FL and their actions and advocacy for safer gun laws. They have certainly been impressive. The March 24th March for Our Lives in Washington and throughout the U.S. will hopefully continue to influence this debate.

Several times since February 14th, I have asked myself the question “What can I do?” On the gun issue, history has shown that marching and advocacy efforts en masse have often had little impact due to the power of the NRA. Perhaps this time will be different.

The jury is still out whether the economic focus by companies that sell guns – Dick’s Sporting Goods, Walmart, and REI to name a few – that have changed the minimum age to 21 in order to purchase an AR 15 will have an impact. The same is true for airlines, hotels, and banks that are no longer offering financial discounts to NRA members.

I wrote to Scott, my retirement advisor, to inquire how much of my IRA – and the more than $500 million that their firm has under management – is invested in companies that manufacture guns. Like many firms managing retirement investments, they invest in a variety of Index Funds (Mutual Funds) that include many different companies. And they invest with the goal that their clients’ retirement funds will grow, and not to achieve social change through investing.

So during the past week, Scott had sent me a number of articles on socially responsible investing. And I am not alone in my questions. A recent article in Sunday’s New York Times business section was specifically about retirement funds that divest from gun stocks. Apparently, Blackrock, the owner of the I-shares exchange traded funds, is in conversations with gun manufacturers and is exploring creating funds that exclude gun manufacturers and retailers.

The field of socially responsible investing is growing. But the more screens you have, the more fees investors will incur. And the returns are often not as great. In terms of guns, how far do you go? No gun manufacturers? How about gun sellers like Walmart, Dick’s Sporting Goods, REI, even with their recent change in policy restricting all gun sales to persons over 21?

Scott also shared that they tell clients that when they buy various asset classes via index funds, it is likely to include stock in a few companies that clients don’t approve of. He suggests that they can calculate a rough percentage of overall returns from these companies and clients can use this amount as a contribution to gun control advocacy groups.

What about synagogue endowment funds? At the same time that many of us are calling our financial advisors about a “gun screen” to our retirement funds, shouldn’t Synagogue investment committees make similar inquiries to their investment advisors and consultants? I realize that not every synagogue has an endowment fund. But many do and are in differing amounts from $100,000 to several million.

Imagine if synagogue leaders came together to divest their endowment funds from gun manufacturers!

Such social change is not just on the backs of synagogue leaders and congregants. But a group of progressive minded organizational leaders can and should set the example. If such an action became contagious , the economic impact of other organizations following this lead – Teachers and Public Worker retirement funds, university endowments, even the Reform Pension Board (the retirement fund for Reform rabbis and other Reform synagogue employees), just to name a few – would be tremendous.

Xerox is the first company I can remember that became a verb for the action it was best known for. For Baby Boomers, when Xerox’s duplicating technology became a staple in many offices, anytime you needed to copy a college paper or materials to be distributed at a meeting, you had to go “Xerox”. Even after Xerox’s patent ended, and the office copier was made by Canon or another company, “Xerox” rather than copy became the active verb.

As a quick aside, I just read an article that Xerox is in the process of being bought by the Fuji Film Company.

Of course, my daughter introduced me to Venmo. Not being of the writing check generation, she would owe me money for her cell phone or something she purchased using my credit card. She became frustrated when she wanted to pay me back through Venmo, and I was still preferring cash or check. This is how she and her friends pay each other back for food, treats, and other purchases they incur conducting the business of being friends and being social.

So with her encouragement, I downloaded the Venmo app. Entered in my bank account information. When my daughter pays me back through Venmo, once I receive a message that “Dani paid me $50”, all I have to do is open the app and with two clicks, the $50 is deposited in my bank account the next day.

Venmo is a company owned by PayPal. It was created by a couple of college freshmen at Penn who sold the company in 2012 to Braintree for $26 million. A year later, PayPal acquired Venmo for $800 million.

And now we are seeing ads everywhere for Zelle, a similar company owned by a number of banks – Bank of America, CapitalOne, among others. Makes sense! This is how Millennials, and even some parents of millennials, are conducting the business of their lives.

It was not too long ago that synagogues were only accepting dues/annual commitment payments by check. Then congregants wanted to reap the benefits of credit card mileage plans. And as organizational leaders became concerned about credit card fees, electronic fund transfers – “EFTs” came on to the scene, typically with no fee involved.

PayPal will soon be making Venmo available to not-for-profit organizations, and houses of worship, too.  It has been in a Beta test for a while. And initially, it may just be available to institutions that currently utilize PayPal as a payment option.

Venmo is really like an EFT. The money comes out of one bank account and ends up in another bank account. Once of course it makes the journey from the Venmo app on one’s phone. And you do have the option of paying with a credit card to take advantage of mileage programs – for a fee that typically runs between 1.8% and 3%.

Millennials are the generation now beginning to join synagogues. When Venmo, or Zelle, becomes available to not-for-profit organizations, your synagogue should incorporate it as a payment option. A financial transaction with the synagogue – “Venmo the Temple” – should be similar to the other financial transactions in their lives.

It depends.

Temple Ner Tamid is a 480+ family congregation in Bloomfield, NJ – about 12 miles west of the Lincoln Tunnel. When Rabbi Steven Kushner becomes our emeritus rabbi in June, he will have been our rabbi for 38 years.

Two years ago, he shared with the congregation his retirement plans. It wasn’t a shock. Synagogue leadership was aware of his plans and a Transition Committee had already been formed and involved in the planning of this important announcement. We consulted early on with the Central Conference of American Rabbis (“CCAR”) and the Union for Reform Judaism (“URJ”). We created a calendar of focus groups/parlor meetings to engage a critical mass of our community in a conversation about our synagogue’s strengths and weaknesses and our hopes and dreams for the future.

The rabbi’s retirement was really a natural occurrence. There was no crisis in leadership – no warring board or staff factions, no board meetings where people almost came to blows. And no serious financial challenges. There could always be a bigger endowment fund, so the congregation is not so reliant on dues and religious school tuition. And all of these issues were raised by congregants in our focus groups.

Our Transition Committee analyzed intensely the feedback from the 200 people who participated in focus groups. We read literature about transition and organizational change. We spoke to synagogue leaders who had engaged interim rabbis for 1-2 years before hiring a permanent rabbi, and those who were intent on hiring a permanent rabbi. And over the course of many weeks, we had some very intense discussions about hiring an interim or permanent rabbi.

The Transition Committee decided to move forward with conducting a search for a permanent rabbi. While we had issues, none were that critical. And we felt that engaging an interim would put our future on hold for a year.

Also, the way the search process works through the CCAR, should our search committee have been unable to find the right candidate for a permanent hire by the end of the calendar year, we would then be able to engage in a search process for an interim rabbi in the early months of 2018.

There are never any guarantees when you hire anyone. This is true when hiring a permanent rabbi or an interim rabbi. Especially such a critical position for a synagogue that has had one spiritual leader for nearly four decades. Like any work situation, there will be a period of adjustment. It will take time for leadership, staff, and congregants to get used to a new person on the Bima, a new sermonic voice.

I guess that is what people said 37 years ago when Rabbi Kushner came to our community. And things worked out pretty well, and we are confident that, in July 2018, our synagogue will continue to be a vibrant sacred community with Rabbi Marc Katz as our spiritual leader.

And there are synagogues that go the permanent rabbi search route where the person hired in fact becomes the “unintended interim”.

I am not advocating that conducting a search for a permanent rabbi is right for every synagogue. Read this and read this about interim success stories.

It just seemed right for us!

At any time. And most often when you least expect it.

When I was a teenager, my dad had shared with me that my grandfather – my dad’s father-in-law – had pestered he and my mom to buy cemetery plots with my grandparents, right next to each other at their synagogue’s cemetery on the Jersey Shore. In the 1970s, $200 per plot seemed like a lot of money to my dad. I am not sure if he went ahead and purchased the plots as a favor to my grandfather, or that he was just planning ahead.

It is good I remembered that conversation when my dad passed away a dozen years ago.

And it is also good that I was a part of a synagogue community. One call to my rabbi set into motion a funeral service, connection to a funeral home, Shiva (more cake than you could ever imagine), and community support.

Two years ago, our synagogue had a campaign to sell plots in its cemetery. The $750 price was about to double. And, remembering that conversation with my dad, it seemed like a good step in terms of end of life plans and one less thing for us, or our children, to think about down the road.

Recently, a tragic death of a young man in our community caused me to think about all of this again. His parents had been members of our congregation. And as with many people, as soon as their last child completed their B’nai Mitzvah, synagogue membership was no longer a priority.

A friend of the family – also a former congregant – called our rabbi to see if the funeral could be at the synagogue and if the rabbi and cantor could perform the funeral.

No one ever expects to outlive their children. Taking care of arrangements is hard enough to do when an elderly parent passes away. When you don’t belong to a synagogue and you experience the death of a loved one, you can call a funeral home for help and guidance. Knowledge of the loved one and the family will most likely be minimal.

Our synagogue was the site of this family’s funeral for their son. And the clergy performed the service. One view is this was the right thing to do for a family in need. This would be one important message to share with congregants.

An opposing view has to do with what are the benefits of synagogue membership. The grieving family chose to no longer be temple members. Does helping a family in need set a precedent for others still living in the community but who made this same conscious choice to no longer affiliate?

Then there are the practical, “bean counter” issues. The custodial staff had to set up the sanctuary and social hall for the several hundred people who attended, and then broke it down and cleaned it up later that day. What about the clergy’s time to prepare and conduct the service, to console the family?

What happens next week when calls and asks the rabbi to help him burry his mom or dad?

Clergy might do a baby naming or a bris “on spec”, that such engagement with a young family might lead to membership. Is that right? But what do you do when former congregants call and ask the rabbi or cantor to perform a wedding? Or a funeral?

There are no easy answers here.

I don’t think so.

Whenever there has been a change in the U.S. tax laws, I always consult with my accountant for a better understanding.  Arthur, who also happens to be my brother-in-law, always has the ability to explain such impact in understandable terms.

So, at last month’s family Hanukkah gathering, I posed the question to Arthur, and listened, with many other family members, to his explanation.

Arthur explained the increase in the estate tax exemption from $5 million to $10 million. For many years, there has been an industry created through various trust instruments – by accountants, lawyers, and financial advisors – for very wealthy people to avoid paying the estate tax. Now, at least some of those people might not need to seek such help. I asked Arthur about SALT, state and local taxes and the new $10,000 limit.

“Elections have consequences”, Arthur said.

There has been much written how the 2018 Tax Reform might impact charitable giving. In my mind, the jury is still out on this. We don’t really know. In terms of our synagogues, and really all houses of worship, I don’t think the primary reason people are fulfilling their dues – annual commitment obligations has much to do with tax deductibility. Belonging to a synagogue does foster in us, hopefully, a greater sense of community as well as responsibility through dues/annual commitments. I would like to think that people fulfill such financial obligations due to a religious belief, or for some even a higher belief, that being a part of a community has meaning.

It is for this reason that I believe that synagogues, and all houses of worship, may see minimal impact in terms of decreased charitable support.

Here are other reasons as to why there might not be anything to worry about:

  • Beginning in February, many congregants will see an increase in their take home pay.
  • People with children attending private school will now be able to utilize $10,000 for tuition from their 529 College Fund.
  • And of course congregants who are high earners will have a lot more disposable income.

More ominous articles are predicting that due to the SALT maximum deduction of $10,000, not as many people will itemize and simply take the standard deduction. And that this would affect charitable giving. But today, there is even a movement in some local townships in New Jersey for people to donate to the local municipality the same amount they would pay for property taxes. And this may catch on in other communities.

Maybe congregants approached for a significant gift to a capital or endowment campaign might have some hesitation. Such reasons might be more psychological than due to tax reform. I have read numerous studies regarding the reasons why people make major gifts. “Donative Intent” is always chosen more frequently than “tax deductibility” as a reason for such gifts.

But tax reform is new to all of us – not yet a month old –  and the jury is still out. Keep making the case as to the synagogue’s impact to touch people Jewishly and help them feel a part of a community. Fundraising success will continue and there won’t be any “doom and gloom”.

Our various newsfeeds these past few months have been dominated by the reports of sexual harassment and assault. In business, in media and in politics. We wake up each day in anticipation of what the news will bring. Who else will be accused of taking advantage of their authority and power?

Jewish communal and non-sectarian organizations and synagogues – all houses of worship – are really no different.  Rabbis have been dismissed from their congregations and expelled from their professional organizations. Agency CEOs, too. Think of the Catholic Church.

Societal pressure as well insurance companies have strongly encouraged – even required – organizations and synagogues to provide an annual seminar/training to staff as to proper behavior. But is such training ever mandated for board members? For donors? Even the Jews in the Pews?

I was thinking about a number of instances in my own career:

-Early in my career, I found myself in a living room where a program for donors is being held. I am chatting with the organization’s CEO when a board member, who is also a $100,000 contributor, walks into the room and asks “Is there a Chippy in the other room?” I remain silent leaving it to the CEO to respond. He simply changes the subject;

-Joe, a past president, and a World War II veteran, is the Chairperson of the Capital Campaign. He greets me and my boss Jake with firm handshakes, and my colleague Becky – a young woman in her 30s – with a very big smile, an encapsulating hug and then blows in her ear;

-I ask Angela, a member of our Admin team to bring an envelope of checks to the Finance Department. She returns to our work area and shares with me that in the elevator on the way back Lee, a staff member from the Finance Department, had fondled her breast. Angela asked him what gave him the right to do that, and he responded he liked to touch her.

Of course, mainstream views of sexual harassment and assault have changed over the arc of one’s career. Maybe having more life experiences today, I would have the guts to speak up to the $100,000 board member in front of the CEO.

Joe was admired by everyone, staff and board members alike. Today, I would I hope I have the courage to tell him privately that such behavior is totally inappropriate. The recent news stories about President George H.W. Bush reminded me of Joe. He was a wonderful partner in our work together. But there are those in leadership positions today in organizations and in synagogues who still treat women – young women, in particular – inappropriately.

Angela’s experience prompted me to walk down to the Finance Department and speak with Lee’s boss, Scott. This is before organizations were providing any staff training about this issue. I told Scott he needed to speak to Lee about what is appropriate behavior. Or I would.

Staff must certainly lead by example for board members. And male staff must be quick to speak up when behavior by either colleagues or volunteers makes for an unwelcoming work environment. We all have to “speak truth to power” so that everyone we work with is treated justly and with dignity.

#CyberMonday to #GivingTuesday – lots of time on our computers or phones!

It will be interesting to see the results from #GivingTuesday for 2018. I am amazed by past results. Last year, more than 40,000 not-for-profit organizations and houses of worship participated in raising $168 million – $54 million more than in 2015.  There were more than 1.5 million donations with an average gift of $166.

I am sure the 2017 results will be even better with more organizations and more people participating.

If you were to average out the dollars raised to the 40,000 organizations last year, that would be only $4,200. Colleagues who I have spoken with in the past few days have reported mixed results. $20,000 for a camp with a goal of $10,000, $145,000 for a national organization supporting education initiatives in Africa, and $200 for a national organization whose constituency is local community groups. Organizations that did well in terms of dollars raised and the number of gifts seemed to integrate the use of email and social media, particularly Facebook.

My Facebook feed was inundated with posts from friends involved in various organizations. There were videos from donors that told an organization’s story. Even a few Facebook Live posts. When you think about it, such reach is really in the millions!

I also wonder how many emails were sent out on Tuesday asking people for philanthropic support. Since #GivingTuesday started in 2012, I hadn’t really stopped to determine how many requests I receive. So, I decided to save all of the emails in my mailbox on Tuesday requesting a contribution.

I received 39 requests for contributions from 23 different organizations. One organization sent me 5 emails throughout the day. And there were a handful of organizations that sent me 2 and 3. Senator Bernie Sanders’ organization, Our Revolution, which is a 501 c4 organization – so there is no charitable deduction – also sent me a request.

Of course, my synagogue sent out two requests.

It is also important to keep in mind that today is the last day of November. And while Hanukkah is just 12 days away, there are still 32 days to December 31 – and numerous opportunities to help your synagogue have a very strong cash month.

Remember, December is always the best month for not-for-profit organizations – and synagogues – for cash. Many people do wait for the end of the calendar year to take advantage of the tax deductibility of charitable giving. Beneficiaries – your synagogue – still need to provide the vehicle and opportunity to make this happen. Happenstance and luck won’t work here.

And who knows what will happen with the new tax cuts being debated in the Senate this week and the impact on charitable giving.  Stay tuned.

My recent Blog outlines a game plan which will work. You still have some time to organize and plan and implement. Use pictures, stories about how the synagogue has touched congregants’ lives. Even a 30 to 60 second video. All you need is a paragraph or two of copy. And a couple of links to an online donation page.


Thanksgiving is in just 9 days. We take a break from the typical hustle bustle of life and experience enjoyable times with family and friends and of course good food – and lots of it. And then on Friday morning, when we open up our email and our USPS mail, it starts:

The barrage of requests for contributions from many worthy causes.

If you signed up for a newsletter from a not-for-profit, you know that you will have at least 4 emails beginning the Friday after Thanksgiving and ending on December 31 asking for a contribution. And if you are already a supporter of that organization, there might be more than 4.

Many organizations drop their end of year mailings to arrive just after Thanksgiving. Some even before, the idea being so it doesn’t get lost among the holiday cards, and other organizational requests. Some even send a second mailing mid-December.

So what should synagogue leaders do?

Maybe you don’t want to be a part of this donor barrage. But, as a number of my mentors have preached to me, the mantra should be “If you don’t ask, you don’t get”. There is no need to be embarrassed about asking congregants for money. Many of them have outstanding dues/annual commitments. There are tax advantages for making payments and contributions in December. That combined with the very real budgetary need for cash, contributions, and the satisfaction of commitments calls out for action now.

Here are 5 ideas you might consider:

  • Invoice on November 27th. Maybe not the usual invoice. Add in some “warm and fuzzy” text about how quickly the year has gone. That Hanukkah starts in December 12th and will be another opportunity for celebration with family and friends and as a community. Encourage payment by December 31 to take credit on their 2017 taxes.  And always allow congregants the opportunity to make their payments online.
  • Ask Congregants to consider paying with gifts of appreciated stock. The synagogue will have to have a brokerage account. For congregants, gifting appreciated stock is one of the most effective means of tax savings available. Donors avoid capital gains and paying tax on such a gift. And congregants are able to take a charitable deduction for the full market value of the stock at the time of the gift.
  • Have an email campaign through December 31. I know, everyone else is asking and you are hesitant. Congregants won’t know that the synagogue needs the money unless you tell them, and ask. Send out 4-5 emails: one the week of November 27th (participating in #GivingTuesday is an option). Use 30-60 second videos of congregants who share how the synagogue has impacted their lives. Don’t forget to include a link – a couple of times – that allows and encourages online giving.
  • Boomers 70 and 1/2+ can contribute through an IRA distribution. I get that this is a selective group. But for congregants who are in this demographic, this is a really good deal that benefits them and the synagogue. For congregations who utilize IRA distributions as charitable contributions, such distributions aren’t included as income, so they are not taxed. And they receive the benefit of a charitable contribution as well. So send out a couple of email blasts between Thanksgiving and December 10th to remind such Boomers about this option.
  • Make A Plan, Do Something, And Don’t Be Afraid To Ask! You have to create your end-of-year campaign plan today. As Thanksgiving is on 11/23, you have an extra week for implementation.

Don’t wait until December. Do something now!

If you needed to raise the dues level for next year’s budget, what do you think?

Jane, the president of a synagogue in a Midwestern university town called me recently. Besides Hillel, Jane’s synagogue is the only game in town. They have a few hundred families. There is a Conservative as well as a Renewal Minyan, and other times Reform is the worship mode of choice.

Jane shared with me that they need to build a couple of classrooms and upgrade the grounds to deal with a serious drainage issue. Many congregants are employed by the University, as professors and in various administrative roles. And a number of doctors.  Current dues are $1400 for a family, and $900 for a single person, and have been at this level for several years. 35 % of the congregation is on dues relief. The synagogue does not have any real history or a comprehensive building campaign of any substance. They have been able to build up a building fund to cover half of the $1 million projected expenses.

Jane said she believes the leadership can raise $300,000 and will be okay with taking out a mortgage of $200,000 to cover the rest. She wants the dues increase to cover the mortgage payment, approximately $12,000 additional to annual operating costs.

How high can the dues go?

If the dues levels were raised by $100 and $50, that would cover the mortgage payment. Jane thought there might be some people who would complain about such an increase, but she could live with that. I asked some questions about annual raises for staff, health insurance (only the rabbi is covered), and what would happen if at some point a new roof was needed, or a new HVAC system – how would the synagogue be prepared for these challenges.

For many people like me, $1400 is a good deal. $1500, too! At synagogues in NY-NJ suburbia, dues are hovering in the $3000 range.

Projecting annual costs and income streams from dues, religious school, and fundraising is both an art and a science. Being able to figure out a synagogue’s annual costs in terms of staffing and its programmatic agenda and sharing that with the congregation should hopefully allow you to present a number for dues that won’t be overwhelming or cause many ill feelings.

I also suggested that Jane call a handful of synagogues that are in college towns within a 3-hour drive, and find out their dues levels. No sense in a comparison of synagogues of similar size in areas with very different economic and competitive forces.

Of course, my fundraiser’s gut made me ask Jane about the possibility for a capital campaign, for either the whole $1 million, or for the $200,000 for which they intended to secure a bank loan. The businessmen and entrepreneurs who were the congregants in the 1970s and 1980s have sold their business and either moved away to warmer climates, to be closer to children and grandchildren, or have passed away. There are handful of people who can give $5,000 or $10,000 who she will be approaching. But a comprehensive campaign just won’t work in their synagogue community.

Adding operating costs to cover mortgage payments that in turn impact dues is not the best way to go for not-for-profits. Capital expenses traditionally come from a comprehensive capital campaign – whether it be at a college, hospital, church or synagogue.

Synagogues can raise the level of dues, but not dramatically. And it is always good practice to engage congregants in a discussion about the reason for the increase, through focus groups and town halls, in addition to emails and other written communication.