Social Media and Jewish Nonprofits: Missing in Action?

by Robert I. Evans and Avrum D. Lapin

So much attention is focused today on technology and especially social media as a platform to inform, educate and organize. Not a day goes by without some mention of the dynamics of Facebook and Twitter, and even eJewish Philanthropy almost always includes citations about the power of technology for nonprofits. This has prompted us to conduct an unofficial survey of a number of Jewish nonprofits, investigating how they are utilizing social media and how it enables them to meet the demands that they and their leaders are facing. The picture is not entirely positive.

The bottom line, as summarized by Jim Gelles, of Membership Management Services, developer of MM2000, a synagogue software system used by more than 200 congregations: “most of the Jewish world seems frozen in the 20th century when it comes to being technologically advanced.”

The Third Annual Nonprofit Social Network Benchmark Report reported in 2011 that 92% of U.S. nonprofit organizations have a presence on one or more social networking websites. This does not come as a surprise. However, what shocked us is the alarmingly low rate of Jewish nonprofits that have embraced social media as viable communications and fundraising enabling opportunities.

In the last decade, online social networking has expanded beyond being used solely as a tool for individuals to connect to/with each other. Instead, nonprofits are transitioning to using Facebook and Twitter as ways for organizations to build a donor base and market themselves to supporters. In terms of driving and growing fundraising potential and results, social networking may well be the next frontier!

However, there is still a great deal to be learned about just how effective a tool Facebook and Twitter can be.

Our recent survey demonstrated a significant lack of human or dollar resources invested by Jewish groups into Facebook and Twitter. Very few synagogues even seem to have any presence on Facebook or Twitter, although they all have websites, many of which are reasonably interactive. Robyn Cimbol, director of development at New York City’s Temple Emanu-El, noted that her congregation was probably the first Jewish congregation to have a website but today they have no specific plans to foster Facebook or Twitter activities, citing other pressing priorities and no apparent demands from their 2,800 member households. “We have limited staff resources and capabilities for this,” she noted, “but we are gearing up ultimately to recognize social media as one communications opportunity,” she told us. She did emphasize that “a number of staff members do use Face Book … to communicate with specific constituents but it is not used Temple-wide.”

Facebook reports that 89% of 1.3 million U.S. nonprofit organizations boast a social networking presence, offering opportunities potentially for fundraising. However, fundraising on Facebook is still a “minority effort,” despite recent gains.

Some organizations are opting for a modified social media fundraising approach. According to Robert Strickler, the Donor Pages Product Manager at DonorPerfect Software, an increasing amount of non-profits is turning to what he calls a “donor driven” approach. His firm has developed Donor Pages, an online “friend to friend portal” where an organization recruits its supporters to set up a website where they can reach out to family, friends and colleagues and personally ask them to donate. A platform like Donor Pages would be especially useful for synagogues, he notes, where membership serves as a “viable community which could set up pages and fundraise within their own personal networks.”

“Using a page like this gives ownership to the online social fundraising experience,” says Strickler. “We find that this tends to be effective because it operates on a more personal level.” He added that DonorPerfect has over 200 clients, both large and small, using donor pages, and that some have raised millions of dollars through the system. However, of these, only about 10 or 12 are Jewish organizations, and he said they are not yet fully utilizing the program.”

Despite the lack of nonprofits actively fundraising using Facebook, some data speaks to how viable an option it is. According to this year’s Nonprofit Social Network Benchmark Report, four out of five nonprofit organizations find social networks a “valuable” fundraising option, yet they cannot exactly quantify why. This may be because only 9% of Facebook-using nonprofits measured a hard “return on investment” (i.e.: money raised or supporters recruited) for their social network usage. Therefore, estimates of fundraising successes via social media are hard to quantify.

Two organizations we contacted talked passionately about their experiences using social media. Avi Halzel, Head of the Denver Jewish Day School, noted that all of their events are publicized and communicated through Facebook, with a goal of reaching all of their audiences. “There is no real extra work for us,” he noted, because “we believe that this builds community and this is one of our key goals.” “While we cannot quantify income directly from our Facebook activities, we believe it’s working.”

“Our goal is one or two tweets and Facebook postings every day,” he added, “and we work hard to coordinate our messages accordingly.”

At Beth Tfiloh Congregation and Community Day School in Baltimore and its close to 1000 student PreSchool-12 day school, social media has become a high priority, especially to connect families and alumni with dynamic school activities. Mandi Miller, the director of development, predicts even much more significant attention to Facebook and Twitter in the coming months, especially as they look to their critical annual Spotlight Scholarship event in June. “For the past few years we have experimented with different ways to use Facebook and Twitter, recognizing that the major costs are staff time.”

Her acknowledging that devoting resources, especially of staff time, towards stewardship, maintenance and expansion of the online community and other outreach efforts, seem unacknowledged generally. Just like fundraising through direct mail, meetings or phone calls, the same rules of stewardship are just as critical. Most nonprofits have no specific budget for technology, including social networking, despite the fact that no organization can manage today without staying current with technology. Miller also points out that volunteers can serve as a very powerful resource to expand the organization’s use of social media.

The power of resources is evident in what the Nonprofit Social Network Benchmark Report calls Master Social Fundraisers, nonprofit organizations that have raised more than $100,000 on Facebook. Quite surprisingly, with 30% of these agencies having an annual budget of $1-5 million, they reported at least $100,000 received in financial support. Distinguishing this group of agencies is that they report they had two or more people on staff dedicated – at least part-time – to social networking.

Last week, the Jewish Futures Competition was announced by the Jewish Education Project and JESNA’s Lippman Kanfer Institute, in partnership with UJA Federation of New York. Perhaps some candidates for creative projects will be tempted by the $1,800 prize money to suggest dynamic ways that the Jewish community’s nonprofits can advance utilizing Facebook and Twitter arenas and thus capture more participation and dollars … perhaps even functioning on a par with non-Jewish nonprofits that seem to be light years ahead of them.

Robert I. Evans, Managing Director, and Avrum D. Lapin, Director, are principals of The EHL Consulting Group, of suburban Philadelphia, and are frequent contributors to EHL Consulting works with dozens of nonprofits on fundraising, strategic planning, and non-profit business practices. Become a fan of The EHL Consulting Group on Facebook; TWITTER: @EHLConsultGrp

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  1. says

    While I have no doubt that this is an accurate reflection of what’s happening in most of the Jewish nonprofit world, it’s important to note that in one sector of the Jewish community – the world of Jewish start-ups and emerging organizations – the use of social networking sites is just about ubiquitous. Almost every single one of Natan’s 2012 grantees has a presence on both Facebook and Twitter, and most are very active on both platforms. Reaching people through social networks and new technologies is integral to their work.

    This is an(other) area where the start-ups are ahead of the Jewish communal curve, and they can teach the rest of the community a great deal about what works and what doesn’t in this new communications arena.

    Felicia Herman, Executive Director
    The Natan Fund
    Twitter: @natanfund FB: /natanfund

  2. says

    Social networking is important to Jewish agencies if it is used strategically and reflective of mission. Some of the Facebook postings that I have read just make no sense when they are purely social in content, e.g. “it’s Friday – what are you doing over the weekend” or “what are you serving for the Super Bowl”. I don’t expect such silly comments from the organizations which I support. However, when good articles are identified or a story about a communal issue is posted, it makes sense given organizational mission and can keep a lot of people informed.

  3. says

    While many Jewish institutions are slow to evolve with the technology, we at are quite proud of how we use social media. We have built a Jewish community that brings Judaism to people where they are and knows no geographic boundaries – thanks to social media. While we don’t use social media for its own sake, it’s a very powerful tool that allows us to bring our mission, vision, and values to fruition.

  4. says

    Measuring “return on investment” on social media may be hard to do, which is why many social media strategists are now discussing “return on engagement”. Without engagement, there are no people who come to programs, volunteer their time, or donate their funds. Thus, the relationships really are the foundation of everything else.

    What has fundamentally changed is that empowered with these tools, individuals are seeking information, experience and connection in different ways. Thus, if you just add Facebook and Twitter as new “bullhorn” communications, you aren’t going to get very far. The prevalence and power of these tools — and their effect on society — means we need to be discussing much deeper implications and opportunities.

    While the Jewish community’s reluctance to change and evolve may have been an asset to preserving our heritage in the past, it may be one of our greatest challenges in our current era where change is the name of the game.

  5. says

    Interesting article with findings that surprised me. I am the digital marketing manager at the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia. I see no mention of Federations which I think by and large are using social media to reach out to volunteers and donors in an effective manner. For our part, we have a few Facebook pages, two Twitter accounts, YouTube channel and LinkedIn groups which definitely further and enhance our overall marketing strategies. Just this past Sunday, we held a very successful Super Sunday which we ran virtually at the same time via Facebook and Twitter. Both solicited good feedback and interaction. We also used both vehicles to encourage people at home who had not been called, to call us with their pledge or pledge online on our website. As you say above, it is difficult to calculate ROI on these types of initiatives – but overall we raised over $1 million :-). I see our social media initiatives and digital marketing projects only increasing in the future.

  6. says

    I don’t think it’s fair to single out the Jewish world as not being in the 21st century yet when it comes to social media. The lion’s share of nonprofits are not there yet. Not really. And the reason is quite simple. It’s important for us to first assess our ability (or lack thereof) to commit the kind of time and personnel required to manage a full-force social media campaign for our brands. Most nonprofits cannot afford this, nor do they have the required expertise on staff. Sometimes, outsourcing this function may make sense (and I’ve written a blog post on the subject Even so, we still need leaders within the organization to understand what social media can/cannot do. It’s really not so much about fundraising right now as it is about creating all the pre-conditions for fundraising. If we know our goals, we can more easily achieve them.