“Ask the Fundraising Expert:” Clear Advice in Dizzying Times

By Robert Evans

Fundraising may not be rocket science, but raising dollars in a smart, sophisticated manner can be a complicated undertaking. In 2014, an effective fundraising campaign requires an understanding of contemporary donors, a grasp of increasingly complex tax policies and giving strategies, a systematic approach to cultivating and recognizing donors, and a firm plan to get your message heard above the digital din of everyday life.

As an advisor to nonprofits, many of which are Jewish organizations, I work with groups to build or improve upon their fundraising infrastructure. The goal, in the end, is for nonprofits to be able to better pursue their missions. I am passionate about the philanthropic sector and I love talking about what makes nonprofits tick.

In the spirit of the Jewish New Year and new beginnings, I’d like to introduce my new “Ask the Fundraising Expert” feature. I enthusiastically invite your questions about any aspect of fundraising, particularly questions that focus on practical matters. I aim to demystify the fundraising process. Philanthropy is, alongside government and business, one of the three sectors that comprise American civic life and shape our society. Tzedekah is a sacred obligation to do what is just. I hope that, in some small way, this exercise empowers donors to make meaningful gifts and organizations to make strategic, inspiring asks.

Please send your questions directly to me at revans@theevansconsultinggroup.com. The column will appear periodically on eJewish Philanthropy, which has developed into a crucial sounding board and debate platform focusing on the challenges and opportunities facing world Jewry today. I will also respond to questions on my firm’s blog page. Please fire away.

Here’s my first response. The question came from an American rabbi who is puzzled about synagogue fundraising.

Dear Fundraising Expert,

I’m a rabbi at a small Orthodox shul where everyone knows one another. It is difficult to get families to increase their giving when many of their friends may not be. Many people can’t afford to make big gifts. My congregants generally aren’t impressed by the size of others gifts, so status isn’t really a motivating factor. How can I convince members to make bigger gifts?

An Orthodox Rabbi in the Keystone State

Dear Orthodox Rabbi in the Keystone State,

The issues you are facing are surprisingly common in many American synagogues. Some shuls operate the same way, year in and year and lack a robust culture of giving or innovation, a select few have really embraced the most contemporary and sophisticated fundraising methods. The first and most important rule of fundraising is that people won’t give if they are not asked. We all have busy lives and plenty of priorities pressing for our attention. Don’t assume a congregant has thought about giving more and decided against the idea. Perhaps the idea hasn’t even occurred to them. Congregants and donors must be reminded of the legitimate needs and asked for their support. They must be told how their donations will make a difference and where the money will go.

Tzedekah, of course, is a serious obligation in Jewish law and Jewish tradition. In addition, it is highly likely that members of an Orthodox shul consider their congregation a very important part of their lives. Harnessing this attachment and the desire to give is part of your responsibility as a religious leader. As the clergy, it is incumbent upon you to speak from the bimah about support for the congregation, and to meet with members individually, gently nudging them to up their gift amounts. The clergy should also set an example as a donor and publicly announce his support.

When bolstering a culture of giving, there are certain steps a congregation should take. One is to create honor categories for the annual and High Holiday appeal. Additionally, saying thank you may be the most important part of the fundraising process. It is too often overlooked. Creating honor categories is a way of systematically saying thank you and offering donors the public honors they justly deserve. I also recommend that all nonprofit boards develop and adopt formal gift acceptance policies – and post the policies on your website. Such steps build trust and send the signal that your congregation is serious about fundraising, financial transparency, and doing bigger and better things in the future.

Congregations across the Jewish spectrum are facing unprecedented challenges. It is not just that fewer Jews are affiliating with synagogues, but that people are truly experiencing and living their lives in different ways due to the digital revolution. Funds are needed to meet congregants where they are, to offer a meaningful experience that rises above the din and touches their hearts and minds. As the clergy, by asking for help, you will truly be leading.

Robert Evans, President of the Evans Consulting Group, has more than 35 years of experience advising nonprofits on fundraising campaigns and strategic planning. A member of the Giving USA editorial review board and the national steering committee for #GivingTuesday, Mr. Evans is frequently quoted in media outlets such as The New York Times and is a regular contributor to www.eJewishPhilanthropy.com.