High Holiday Appeals: Steps for Synagogue Appeals

high holidaysHigh Holiday Appeals: Part One
Steps for Synagogue Appeals

By Robert Evans

The High Holidays are certainly a time when Jews – regardless of their level of engagement or observance – feel most connected to their Jewish selves. It is a time when Jewish organizations of all kinds seek to inspire Jews to step up their involvement and, yes, to possibly make some charitable gifts. But how effectively do organizations design compelling appeals during the High Holidays, especially when so many Jewish organizations are competing for charitable dollars? The following are observations for synagogues; look for recommendations for other Jewish nonprofits in part two of this series tomorrow.

For synagogues, the High Holiday appeal has almost become an institution. After all, this is where Jews go to pray, even if they avoid their synagogues for the rest of the year. But there seems to be a business-as-usual approach to synagogue appeals and those challenges must be overcome to be more effective.

The High Holiday appeal has been part of Jewish organizational life for decades, maybe even centuries. For such a drive to work in 2014/5775, a little flare and much serious planning are needed. The effort requires that synagogue leaders map out a strategy, demonstrate impact, and connect with donors. The successful High Holiday appeal demands that congregations make their donors feel as if they are being given an opportunity to invest in something they care about and are not being asked to fork over hard-earned dollars just because it is the High Holidays. A little bit of surprise in terms of the manner of delivery won’t hurt either.

If your synagogue hasn’t started planning for this year’s High Holiday appeal, it is late in the game to begin, but it is not too late. Here are some ideas to keep in mind, if not for this year then for next:

  • Take the controls off autopilot. Even at this late stage, consider forming a committee to bring new thinking to the question of how best to inspire supporters during the High Holy days.
  • Resist the temptation to place all of your eggs in one basket, whether it is a piece of direct mail or a pulpit speech by a rabbi or lay president. Introduce modern technology by announcing the appeal with some sterling Facebook posts and tweets.
  • Avoid making it appear as if your synagogue has its hand out, looking to get into its members’ pockets. The appeal must come across as an opportunity for members/stakeholders to support or invest in a cause that is important to them. This is always true in fundraising but never more so than during the High Holiday appeal.
  • Create some buzz via social media. Consider using the time leading up to the High Holidays or the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur to create a viral crowd-funding campaign.
  • Treat the appeal as a mini-campaign and make personal asks to some of your best donors … preferably PRIOR to the formal appeal.
  • Try any approach that tugs at the heart strings of lapsed donors but always be personal and warm.

The American model of paying dues for membership developed in large part as a reaction against the traditional practice of auctioning off aliyot on Shabbat and the High Holidays to fund congregational operations and activities. Dues never cover everything in a synagogue’s budget and High Holiday appeals have long been a way for congregations to make up the shortfall. Keep in mind that American Jews (especially in Reform and Conservative congregations) have long had an uneasy relationship with being asked for money on the holiest days of the year. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that people don’t want to think about money when they are praying. That is especially true of those who may enter a synagogue once or twice a year. “You finally got me in here, I pay my membership dues, and you want me to pay more on top of that?” many surely think even if they don’t say so openly. Of course, congregations don’t want their members thinking about money per se, but rather thinking about being part of the congregation and the Jewish people. Yes, we can and must demand more of our congregants. But it is up to synagogues to demonstrate value and impact, to make an ongoing case for giving beyond membership dues.

Congregations must strike a fine balance. Everyone knows that these are the few days a year when a synagogue is packed, when a rabbi or a president can speak to a maximum audience. And how can a nonprofit not ask for gifts at the time when it can directly reach so many of its donors? At the same time, the High Holidays are when people who rarely attend synagogue show up. The Days of Awe are also when people “try out” congregations – and asking for money isn’t necessarily the way to win them over. It can be off-putting, even to people who are already members, when each day or night of services, a representative of a different fund – Brotherhood, Sisterhood, Building fund – asks people to turn over a tab and make a pledge. In this era of outreach, synagogues should limit their pulpit High Holiday appeals. The person making the pitch must try to be eloquent while exciting people about the congregation. The High Holiday pitch is not just about money: the president or rabbi is trying to sell people on the idea of being involved in synagogue life year round, not just for a few days in the fall. A more involved congregation is a more committed community. A more committed community is inherently more generous.

The pulpit appeal is not sufficient and should not stand alone.

I can’t stress this point enough; congregations can’t place all their hopes on these speeches. Post about the High Holiday appeal on Facebook and Twitter, write about it in the synagogue newsletter and send an email. A High Holiday appeal is neither an annual appeal nor a once-in-a-decade campaign. It is its own entity, and it can’t be treated as an afterthought. After all, one way to think about the High Holidays is that it challenges people to: “Living more consciously.”

How about inspiring Jews to try giving more consciously?

Who shall prosper and grow and continue to innovate? And who shall do the same things and see the same results? The answer, in fact, may depend upon how well a successful High Holiday appeal is orchestrated. Remember the refrain of the Unetanneh Tokef chanted during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur: “But teshuvah, tefillah and tzdekah temper the Lord’s severe decree.” By making a High Holiday appeal, your synagogue is presenting the congregation with the opportunity to fulfill one of Judaism’s most sacred obligations.

Robert Evans, President of the Evans Consulting Group, has more than 35 years of experience advising nonprofit organizations and conducting fundraising campaigns in major metropolitan areas nationwide. Regarded as an authority on campaign strategy, Mr. Evans is known for his inventive campaign plans that have enabled clients to reach development goals even in the most challenging circumstances. He sits on the Giving USA Editorial Review Board and serves on the National Steering Committee for Giving Tuesday. He writes a regular column for eJewishPhilanthropy.com and is quoted frequently in mainstream and professional media outlets.