My Rabbi: The Fundraiser?

Jewish-StarBy Yamin Levy

He who persuades others to give Tzedaka and inspires them to act thus,
his reward is greater than the reward of him who gives himself.
Rambam, Hilkhot Matanot Ani’im 10:6

Few things are less popular, universally disliked, disdained and misunderstood as is fundraising. Rabbis in particular would rather be tar-feathered than solicit funds. In an earlier column I lamented the fact that Rabbis have abdicated their role as visionaries of their Synagogues to lay leaders and as a result they are treated like an employee with little or no job security.

In this essay I propose, unapologetically, that any rabbi who wants to succeed in his pulpit make fundraising a critical part of his professional repertoire. Consider the following eight reasons for my proposition.

  1. Imagine what you, the Rabbi could accomplish with supplemental resources. No one knows better than the Rabbi what the synagogue needs right now and what the synagogue will look like ten years from now. Maybe it’s a new Beit Midrash, or a refurbished library? Maybe it’s a new Aaron Kodesh or summer day camp? Whatever that need may be it is the Rav that needs to to articulate it in detail, clearly explain its urgency, and deliberately pursue its realization. Often time the only thing between the status quo and that new Beit Midrash is money and the fastest and most effective way to procure the money is by asking for it.
  2. Everyone is giving Tzedaka why should they not give it to what you, the Rabbi, deems to be most important, and critical. A successful fundraising pitch should have a degree of urgency associated with it. Your members and prospective donors are all being presented with numerous opportunities to give Tzdeaka, in their community, in the larger Jewish world and in Israel. Make your case unapologetically and emphasize that Aniyeh Irkha Kodmim leAnyeh Ir Acheret. I have always said that fundraising in the Jewish community is a natural. The Rambam writes: Giving Tzedaka is a trait of the Jewish people.
  3. Members of your Synagogue expect to be asked and they plan on donating to the shul operating expenses as well as a capital improvement campaign. In today’s day and age everyone understands that joining a Synagogue means participating financially above and beyond membership dues. Here is the little secret very few rabbis know: Your member would much rather be asked by the Rav than by the executive director or shul president. (See below)
  4. Ba’alei Batim appreciate being asked. Your leadership and your initiative in raising funds for your Shul can only be interpreted in one way: Leshem Shamayim, to enhance the Synagogue and facilitate the cash flow of the organization’s operating budget. There is no other way of interpreting your bold, newly found development skills. In the long run your members will be the beneficiaries of your fundraising success in ways that are beyond the obvious. See #5 below.
  5. Building meaningful relationships is a primary goal of a good rabbi. Successfully soliciting a donation is an intimate act between two people. Soliciting funds from a member actually deepens your relationship with that individual and with his/her entire family. My closest and longest lasting relationships are with those who have trusted me over the years in partnering with them to realize great visions. Indeed the person you solicit funds from becomes your partner in Tikkun Olam. Nothing is more noble and worthy. Your member appreciates being seen by you as donor/partner. You now have a stake in each other’s work and success.
  6. This is what leaders do. The people who raise the money get to spend it. Responsibility comes with authority. Don’t renounce your role as visionary and leader. Take hold of it. The greatest leaders of our community have all been fundraisers in one-way or another. Rabbi is the leader of his organization and as such he is expected to be an excellent communicator, not just an excellent teacher. The Rav needs to be able to communicate in a meaningful and inspiring fashion why his organization exists and why it needs to be continually strengthened with appropriate resources. The Rav needs to be approachable – every encounter should be memorable even a casual encounter. Fundraising is the activity a Rav never stops doing.
  7. Giving is infectious. Once you have committed one donor and recognized the donor’s beneficence appropriately many more will participate. People want to be a part of creating and building. Success breeds success.
  8. Your rabbinate and career depends on it. See above.

Chabad Shlichim enjoy success in so many communities, even those with established synagogues primarily because of their unapologetic attitude towards fundraising. We are all familiar with their model. They start out very modestly. They identify potential donors who will share a dream and a vision of a Shul that welcomes every Jew no matter the background and level of observance. A Shul that is joyous serving a homemade chullent and great Schnaps every Shabath and Yom Tov; A shul that doesn’t charge membership dues and cares for the people and for Am Israel; a shul that will also be a day care center, a camp and a place for those with special needs. Who would say no to such a pitch? Herein lies Chabad’s success. The Chabad Shaliach goes to visit the potential donor in his/her home or office, or they go out for lunch and in the natural course of conversation the issue of money comes up.

“Be my partner in making our dream a reality” –
“Of course Rabbi how much do you need?”

The newfound partner is invested in the dream and in the Rav. It takes a great deal of effort to break that bond.

I continue to believe that the Rabbinate is a wonderful career for anyone seeking to make a meaningful contribution to Klal Israel. I see Rabbanim work hard and achieve a great deal but they can work smarter and accomplish much more. They have to get past the fundraising stigma and learn how to solicit funds with a sense of urgency, competency, and creativity. Rabbanim should devote some attention to the science of well-grounded research in solving the mystery of human motivation. Learning the skill of asking well and always doing it face to face is imperative. According to Reynold Levy, former President of Lincoln Center for the performing Arts and Author of “Yours for the Asking,” “Prospective donors who turn us down never mean no. They mean ‘now is not the right time’, or ‘less’, or ‘craft your case more effectively.’” Every Rabbi should post that quote in his office in big letters. Overcoming the fear of asking for money, and dispelling any taboo associated with the task will improve your organization and solidify your position as a leader and as a legitimate stakeholder in the Shul you lead.

Fundraising is one of the keys to a successful rabbinate.

Yamin Levy is Senior Rabbi of Beth Hadassah Synagogue in Great Neck/Kings Point, Rabbi of the Long Island Hebrew Academy and Founder and Director of the Maimonides Heritage Center in Israel.