One Year Begins, Another Ends: What is Your Organization Doing to Engage Donors?
We Jews may be fully woven into the fabric of American life, but we must live by two calendars. Even as the Jewish year is beginning, the secular year is coming to a close. No doubt, this creates a feeling of dissonance that must be managed, if not overcome. But make no mistake, whatever fiscal calendar synagogues and other Jewish organizations choose to operate on, the fourth quarter of the calendar year is an important time for all American nonprofits. This is the time of year when many Americans sit down and review their finances, examine tax implications and allocate their charitable dollars. No Jewish organization should miss the opportunity to maximize year-end giving. Of course, organizations don’t have a lot of time between to act between the High Holidays and December 31st.
It is no secret that the American Jewish community is facing a time of enormous challenges, as well as vast opportunities for innovation. The 2013 Pew Survey and countless other surveys have documented a shifting demographic and religious landscape. Jewish organizations are in a period of transition and the people they serve are defining their Jewish identity in new ways. Though there is plenty of cause for concern, there is also ample reason to hope that many of our institutions will succeed at making Jewish life more meaningful and accessible. Jewish organizations – and congregations in particular – must be on sound financial footing in order to mitigate challenges and capitalize on opportunities. In particular, a strong endowment enables an organization to take calculated risks with new programming and technological advances.
In 2014 Americans gave more than $358 billion to charity – the highest amount in our history – and we are likely to see higher numbers this year. While Jewish organizations are not seeing the same kinds of large donations that are now the norm in higher education and other sectors, there is every reason to be hopeful about gift potential.
Many donors are now drawing up lists of which organizations they’d like to support at the end of the year. Don’t assume that your synagogue or organization is on that list! This is the most important tip I can offer: Take proactive steps to inform donors about your needs. Reach out to donors with letters – more effective than email – social media posts, phone calls, in-person meetings. Make sure your needs are clearly defined and that your “ask” is personalized and compelling. In general, utilize as many platforms as possible to reach donors, but when it comes to high net worth donors, remember: personal meetings usually work best.
As you reach out to your donor base throughout November and December, make sure to vary your message: Focusing on different goals or aspects of your nonprofit will likely resonate with different donors and potential donors. Make sure that, even as you highlight your organization’s needs, you focus on the positive and present the ask from a position of strength and excitement, not panic and desperation.
Ensure that your website has a secure online donation system; the “donate” button should stand out and be clickable from every page and be a different color from your overall webpage color scheme.
Even if your organization successfully ran a High Holiday appeal, you have every reason to keep going with an end-of-year-appeal. Some Jewish donors are inspired to give by the High Holidays, but many consider it a time of personal reflection and not the time to focus on charitable giving. For those who are more motivated by the year’s end it is up to your organization to make a compelling case for why it should be supported.
Additionally, keep in mind a number of charitable tax breaks currently expire on an annual basis. One of more than 50 examples is a provision that allows individuals who are 70 or older to make up to $100,000 in tax-free charitable donations from an IRA account. Last year, Congress did not reauthorize this tax break until mid-December. Though donors were given until the end of January to have IRA donations count for the prior year’s taxes, it gave people almost no time to react and plan. The Charitable Giving Coalition and other nonprofit umbrella groups have been lobbying to make many of these expiring deductions permanent. My point is this: You also need to pay attention to what Congress does and act accordingly. Come December, you may have donors scrambling to make certain gifts based on late action by Congress.
Every nonprofit has limited resources and by no means do I suggest that your group put all its remaining efforts for the year into an end-of-year-appeal. Every organization must assess its priorities and assign tasks based on available resources, but I believe every nonprofit should engage in some form of end-of-year fundraising. It is incumbent upon us to look to the future and plan accordingly. All our community’s great organizations should be letting people know about the great work they are doing and offering donors the chance to invest in a meaningful cause.
Remember, soon many of your potential donors will be drawing up their lists of the organizations they choose to support. If your organization doesn’t ask, it surely won’t be on the list.
Robert Isaacs is Chief Executive Officer of the Evans Consulting Group, a firm that helps nonprofits meet and exceed their strategic and fundraising goals. The Evans Consulting Group advises nonprofits, manages fundraising campaigns, facilitates strategic planning processes, evaluated nonprofit business practices, engages in donor research and cultivation, coaches nonprofit leaders and performs a number of other development-related services. He spent more than 20 years in executive roles at two large synagogues and a major JCC and is passionate about sharing what he’s learned. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
An earlier version of this article was published in the Washington Jewish Week.