Synagogue Fundraising in the Time of Covid, or How to Pivot

By Amy Schulman

Synagogue fundraisers have always had a particularly challenging task when compared with other nonprofit development teams. First, most synagogue members already pay dues to “belong” to their congregation. So, breaking through the mindset of many that they should not need to give more than they have already contributed is an initial challenge.

While that task is also faced in other settings, such as in the Jewish day school world with many donors also paying tuition and fees, there is a second hurdle that synagogues must overcome: their more limited pool of donors. Unlike day schools or other community-based organizations, synagogues cast a considerably narrower net for their prospective donor base. In contributing to a congregation, a donor is typically already a member, and one who feels a close pull toward the temple. Whereas another local or global charity may benefit from any individual who is motivated to donate to that particular cause.

Now, combine these concerns with the dilemmas of this arduous year which has presented a myriad of other pressing challenges for synagogues, and you have created a perfect storm of obstacles. Along with every other organization clamoring for support during this lengthening pandemic, synagogues are also struggling with membership retention, preschool and religious school enrollment, and most notably, the ability to remain a spiritual and religious home for people who, in most cases, cannot enter the doors of their primary Jewish institutions.

Indeed, a lot has been expected of shuls. Certainly, I think it is fair to say that after this year, most people would be quite happy not to hear the word “pivot” again for a long time. But that is just what synagogues, along with a multitude of other organizations, have not only been encouraged, but expected to do. In this digital age, it is now a given that congregations shift their services to Live Stream or Zoom platforms. That they offer interactive educational opportunities. Continue fostering member engagement with clergy and leaders. Stay current, relevant, and innovative. It is a lot of pressure for organizations that often have fewer than several hundred members, and even fewer donors. This fall, the High Holidays alone presented enough stress to synagogues leaders and staff, with daunting technological pressures, unforeseen complications, and the introduction of words like “Zoom fatigue,” and “breakout rooms” into the daily lexicon, that a collective sigh of relief was felt throughout temples everywhere after the middle of October.

Fortunately, Temple Shir Tikva has risen to the occasion in this moment. We quickly made the transition to exclusively Live Streaming services- since the technology was already well established and familiar at the synagogue- and we have savvy, determined clergy and staff. These leaders have also presided over an abundance of programming: online interfaith Bible study with our neighboring church, classes on spirituality and mysticism, and virtual choir practice. When the new school year began this fall, our religious school enrolled hundreds of students for a thriving online program, teaching middot traits to children in new and accessible ways. And since we could not take a congregational excursion to Israel this year, we led a virtual, interactive trip to Israel instead, drawing an unprecedented number of participants.

We want our members to engage with us now more than ever before. This goal is more than an oft repeated trope. During this time of increasing social isolation, we have reminded our members that Shir Tikva is their spiritual home even if we cannot be together physically. To paraphrase Governor Andrew Cuomo, in a statement of values adopted by Senior Rabbi Danny Burkeman: our goal is to remain spiritually connected, even while socially distanced.

With that in mind we recently launched our year-end fundraising campaign: Strengthen. Enrich. Support. Strengthen your bonds with the temple by connecting with others through Jewish education and social action. Enrich your lives with spirituality, services, and simchas. Support our sacred community to sustain our core Jewish values.

Temple Shir Tikva has strived to be a relevant and valuable source of meaning to our community in these uncertain times. Now we ask our members for their support in return because we need their help to continue to run all our meaningful programming. We just concluded a successful Giving Tuesday campaign, raising more funds by more donors than ever before. We will soon be sending out an infographic appeal postcard highlighting our recent successes, foregoing the customary end of year appeal letter, knowing that solicitations will be coming fast and furiously as 2020 draws to a close.

Synagogues have a lot of expectations put upon them in an ordinary year. So, it is incumbent upon us to work harder than ever to not only meet those expectations in this of all years, but to surpass them. Once we succeed, we can then reach out to our members and ask them for their increased support. Because when we have shown our resilience and efforts to be there for our congregants, they can demonstrate their continued support for our sacred community. If we can pivot, we hope our members can as well.

Amy Schulman is the Development Manager for Temple Shir Tikva in Wayland, MA.