Action: Successful Synagogue Fundraising Strategies
by Jane E. Herman
3 Votes


With 900 member families congregating in a building designed 50 years earlier for 250 families, Temple Beth Elohim in Wellesley, Massachusetts was bursting at the seams. So in 2006 the congregation decided to erect a new, state-of-the-art facility on its existing property and officially launched a $25 million building campaign.

To involve the entire community, “we asked leaders—defining the term broadly—from across the membership spectrum, from committee chairs and religious school parents to youth group participants, for a gift of money and time,” says Development Director Paul Rosenstein. Congregant solicitors emphasized the community’s uniqueness, acknowledged each person’s importance to the congregation and to one another, and reminded potential givers of the impact all campaign participants could have on TBE’s future.

The community’s campaign opened with a nontraditional event: 60 families—each of whom had already made a commitment—hosted a dinner in their homes for fellow congregants, after which the entire 600+ group gathered at the synagogue for a dessert reception. Every temple member had been invited to become a dinner host; those who said “yes” received briefings about the building plans and finances. Now as “insiders,” Rosenstein says, they “became ambassadors for the building and the campaign, spreading the word and engaging others. Many families offered to host additional meetings in their homes, showing architectural plans and talking about the congregation’s vision.” After one such briefing, held at her parents’ home, high school junior Beth Fleming donated her bat mitzvah gift money. “This temple means a lot to me, my family, as well as many of my generation,” Fleming says. “We should all provide the financial resources for our new temple.”

By 2010, 86% of the membership had contributed nearly $22 million in gift amounts ranging from $18 to $2.5 million. Beth Elohim’s new facility opened on December 19, 2010.

For its 18-month campaign, 700-member Temple Emanu-El in Birmingham, Alabama pursued endowment and planned gifts while also embarking on an alternative fundraising strategy: offering members an opportunity to underwrite an expansive list of specific budget line items over a five-year period, including social action, teen programming, leadership development, camp scholarships, and the capital improvement fund. Some gifts supported day-to-day operations; others were “quite extraordinary,” says Jann Blitz, executive director of Temple Emanu-El’s Rabbi Grafman Endowment Fund. For example, one family underwrote a portion of the religious school budget line while initiating an endowment fund for the same purpose. By the time the family’s budget line funding ends in 10 years, the endowment will be large enough to replace it. And once the endowment is fully funded, the religious school will be named for the donors.

All in all, through a variety of strategies, the congregation raised more than $5.1 million. Donors appreciated being able “to give for today, for the long-term, or for both, and felt good that their gifts reflected their wishes and passions,” Blitz says. Best of all, “the congregation is now positioned for a fiscally sound, dynamic Jewish future.”

On a cool spring evening last year, four couples—all members of 1,530-member Temple Shaaray Tefila in New York City —gathered in the Upper East Side home of a fifth couple. Rabbi Jonathan Stein had invited this preselected group of committed, consistently generous congregants to a parlor meeting to “share some important information about the financial health of our congregation, my concerns, and our plans for the years ahead.” After some schmoozing and noshing, Rabbi Stein asked each person to share a moment of feeling connected to the congregation or what it has meant to be part of the synagogue community. One member told of singing at bedtime with her nursery-school-age child. When they sang “The wheels on the bus go ‘round and ‘round,” the mother asked, “Lilly, where do you think the bus is going?” “To the temple!” the child exclaimed. Living just blocks from Shaaray Tefila, her mother noted, Lilly had never taken the bus to temple. The story revealed how deeply the synagogue had become part of this family’s life.

Rabbi Stein then briefed the guests about the congregation’s deficit as a direct result of America’s economic downturn. In this intimate atmosphere, the invitees were asked to help offset the shortfall by raising their membership level (paying more than standard dues to offset adjustments to membership dues and fees for those with financial difficulties), increasing their annual appeal contribution, giving a new unrestricted gift, or making a designated gift with a multi-year commitment.

Seven parlor meetings later, Shaaray Tefila had received commitments of nearly $700,000, “significantly more than we anticipated,” says Ann Targownik, the congregation’s director of development. “We were moved by how these members stepped forward to help when asked.”

Targownik attributes this success to a number of factors: “The settings were intimate, personal, and comfortable. Both feelings and facts were recognized as important. The special circumstances justified asking for additional support. The rabbi’s presentation was comprehensive, clearly documented, but not complex. And members could choose from a variety of giving options.”

For a small congregation like 74-member Temple B'nai Israel in Albany, Georgia, a negative projected cash flow of more than $10,000 for 2010-2011 was a matter of critical concern. Realizing that the $1,000 the congregation expected to receive from upcoming High Holy Day ticket sales and memorials would cover less than 10% of what was needed, President Steve Fink called upon a friend to formulate a friendly letter highlighting the temple’s “First Annual Kol Nidre Appeal Drive.” Encouraging members to contribute at whatever level they could afford, the appeal emphasized the notion of giving as a mitzvah and stressed that “no amount is too small.” The congregation mailed the letter to every member household four weeks before Yom Kippur—and it brought in almost $9,800.

Then, on Kol Nidre night, Fink personally appealed to all those in the pews who did not attend board meetings and might not understand the shortfall’s fiscal implications. Detailing the synagogue’s revenue and expense figures, membership costs, and negative cash flow, he concluded by asking: “Don’t you think that we owe it to our children and grandchildren to continue what our forefathers have done for us?” Worshipers contributed an additional $2,400, resulting in $12,100 in new funds—an amount above and beyond what the congregation needed for the year.

“If you ask people for money in the proper manner,” Fink says, “you will most likely receive it.”

What follows are 10 tips from professional fundraisers on how to make the most from future temple campaigns.

  1. “Planning is an essential first step,” says David Altshuler, president of the fundraising consulting firm David Altshuler Company, Inc. “Mobilization and training of a leadership team represent an essential second step. The actual work of fundraising should come third, but organizations often fail to optimize the results of their work because they ‘jump the gun.’” He suggests that leaders “construct a hypothetical pyramid of giving and identify prospective donors who are qualified to be asked for a gift at each level. If this exercise helps you fashion a scenario with real names and plausible numbers, you then can decide to dip your toe in the water and test whether what sounds plausible to you makes sense to some of your prospects too.” Rob Berkovitz, a former financial specialist for the Union for Reform Judaism, emphasizes that “in order to make sure your financial goals are in alignment with your project plans, it’s important first to determine congregants’ total capacity to give.”

  2. Create a fundraising vision. “A campaign is not just about raising money,” says David Katowitz, a former financial resource development specialist for the Union for Reform Judaism. “It’s an opportunity to envision what the synagogue should be as a sacred community in five years’ time, the typical timeframe for strategic planning. If funds are being raised for new construction, besides the building looking nice, what would it mean to have a new building? How would it enhance the worship experience, help strengthen community, and/or stimulate new programming?” Once your goals are defined, says Altshuler, “it is crucial to explain clearly the vision of the future that synagogue programs will animate and express this vision as a choice—more than an obligation—for members.”

  3. Educate clergy, staff, and lay leaders on the art of inspiring people to give. “You can have a compelling case,” says David Mersky, managing director of the fundraising consulting group Mersky, Jaffe & Associates, “but if no one tells the story passionately and persuasively, or believes that money can be raised, the fundraising endeavor is unlikely to succeed.” Therefore, says Altshuler, leaders should “frame fundraising requests as invitations to invest in the synagogue’s programs and services, and be completely transparent in how the funds will be expended.”

  4. Create a welcoming temple environment from day one. “There is no substitute for person-to-person contact,” says Targownik, “from the point where someone inquires about the synagogue to helping new members get involved by providing personal contact with clergy, key leaders, educators, and staff.” Katowitz concurs. “If the only time people hear from someone on the temple board is a telephone call or letter asking for a contribution, they will be justified in feeling the synagogue is only interested in their money. Personal relationships with synagogue leaders—especially clergy—can go a long way.”

  5. Engage the community in conversation. “The more people feel engaged in conversation about the community’s future, the better the environment to ask for money,” Katowitz says. “The more time spent sharing temple leaders’ ideas about the synagogue’s future and involving a critical mass of members in personal conversations about how to make the congregation a more vibrant spiritual community, the better the chances of fundraising success.”

  6. Match make: “People give to people,” says Blitz, “and so at Temple Emanu-El in Birmingham we have congregants ask other congregants to support our synagogue’s initiative.” For its post-High Holy Day annual phonathon, Temple Shaaray Tefila in New York not only selects, trains, and provides scripts for those soliciting donations, but also matches phone callers to those receiving calls. “People who have moved from the nursery school community into synagogue leadership roles are excellent at reaching out to those in the nursery school community,” Targownik says. “Past presidents are the best at calling long-standing members. And top donors are best matched with appropriate callers.” Mersky also advises “thinking through a strategy for each individual with whom you want to have an open, honest conversation, treating every donor individually based on [his/her] needs and interests, conducting ‘150 campaigns of one,’ and making the asking a face-to-face

  7. Request a specific amount. “Ask for a specific contribution based on the person’s financial capacity as well as what he/she may have given to other Jewish and community organizations,” Katowitz recommends. “This requires researching everything you can about a potential donor, including his/her profession, Jewish connections and involvement, and past financial contributions to the synagogue as well as other philanthropic institutions.”

  8. Make giving easy. Include your congregation’s url on all communications and encourage online donations.

  9. Acknowledge donors wisely. “Every donor,” says Altshuler, “should be acknowledged and thanked for giving. Means of recognition can include notices in publications, public announcements at synagogue events, and, of course, personal notes, calls, and visits from synagogue leadership.” Targownik says that “handwritten notes make a difference, and a personalized note from the rabbi acknowledging tzedakah rather than a simple ‘thank you’ can inspire future giving.” Robert Evans of the fundraising consulting firm EHL Consulting Group advises using “the rule of seven”—expressing appreciation seven times in seven different ways—“for all donors, especially those who make the largest commitments.” Katowitz recommends acknowledging donors in accordance with the culture. In some synagogues individual plaques are displayed throughout the building; in others, one small plaque is hidden in a corner of the lobby. In some temples donors are recognized in decreasing order of contribution; in others, the list is alphabetical.

  10. Consult Union for Reform Judaism publications and experts. The Union publication Give As God Has Blessed You: Rethinking Financial Commitment in Your Congregation reframes congregations’ financial commitment and suggests ways to fund your congregation. Cultivating the Future: Long-Range Planning for Congregations helps synagogues identify long-range goals and establish a framework to achieve them. Developing Your Future: A Guide to Developing a Planned Giving Program in Your Synagogue guides synagogue leaders through a variety of planned giving approaches. All can be downloaded free of charge at If you'd like more information, or to follow up with a specific question, call the URJ Knowledge Network at 855.URJ.1800 or email Ask away.

—Jane E. Herman (JanetheWriter at, writer and assistant to URJ President Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie

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