The Great Experiment: Testing the High Holiday Appeal

high holidaysBy Robert Evans

Much like the High Holidays themselves, High Holiday appeals have the potential to awaken souls from complacency. However, the practice that dates back many decades has sprouted an inorganic sense of staleness. Many synagogue and other organization-based appeals feel as if they are being conducted by rote, lacking the intentionality needed to breathe new life into an existing practice.

Just because a fundraising tactic worked in the past doesn’t mean it will continue to be effective in the future. In fact, with technology and shifting donor attitudes driving rapid change, it is a good bet that last year’s ideas are already out of date. And if last year’s appeal didn’t work well, it almost certainly won’t do any better this year, and will likely perform worse next year. The task set before Jewish nonprofits now is to stay ahead of the curve and implement new ideas before the old idea has run its course.

I have heard it said by more than one Jewish communal leader that it is time for congregations and large organizations to retire the High Holiday Appeal. To some donors, we may already be asking for contributions too often. We are infusing talk about money into the holiest days of the Jewish calendar – and some people are being turned off by it. I say that, while it may be time to retire the old, stale High Holiday campaigns, the opportunity exists to unveil new efforts that inspire donors to invest in Jewish life. At this late date, it is likely too late to completely overhaul this year’s campaign. Consider overhauling next year’s appeal – even though the Shofar hasn’t yet sounded this year. It takes many months to plan a truly affective appeal. Use this year’s appeal as a laboratory to set benchmarks and set the stage for an innovative new approach, to be implemented in 5776.

How do we accomplish this turnaround? Unfortunately, like many things in fundraising, and in life, this is easier said than done. Consider surveying a select subsector of your donors to gauge their reactions to the campaign goal and other aspects then explore how to contemporize the process.

Planning should start early, with a committee firmly in place by Passover. Personal solicitations and mass communications should happen in the summer. Ideally, the holidays themselves should serve as the conclusion, and not the kickoff, for the campaign.

Synagogues, in particular, face a special conundrum with conducting High Holiday appeals. As we know, many Jews only attend services – or come to synagogue at all – on High Holidays. Some stop in at a synagogue they belong to, but rarely visit, while others may be checking out a congregation they have never attended. There’s no doubt that walking into synagogue on the holiest days of the year and being handed a pledge card, or listening to a litany of appeals from the bimah for everything from the building fund to a Sisterhood drive, can be a turnoff. If handled indelicately, the experience may leave worshipers feeling as if their contemplative space has been encroached. Yet, it can’t be ignored that this is the time when the synagogue has its biggest audience. Why not use the day to highlight synagogue life and try to inspire members to invest in the congregation? While personal reflection is central to the High Holidays, the Days of Awe are not solely about quiet meditation. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur only succeed as a communal experience. Like much of our liturgy, the appeals serve to remind worshipers of their obligation to the community.

Most importantly, it is never a good idea to place all hope for the appeal on the shoulders of one eloquent speaker. A short speech should follow a concerted publicity campaign: All members should know about the campaign well in advance of Rosh Hashanah.

Synagogues and Jewish organizations alike can enliven their High Holiday appeals by empowering their members and supporters to engage in peer-to-peer fundraising. A number of software options exist to enable your supporters to tap their contacts in order to raise money for your organization. The more powerfully your organization can tell its story, the more your supporters can utilize email and social media to drum up support. Countless secular organizations are employing peer-to-peer fundraising to raise millions for a range of worthy causes. Certainly, federations, other organizations, and even some synagogues have tried their hand at peer-to-peer fundraising. But it is largely an untapped resource.

The concept of the High Holiday appeal is alive and well. What we need are creative approaches Will a video, special project, matching gift program do the trick? Do your research, ask questions and experiment. Failure is often the ultimate precursor to success. We need something that isn’t simply tried and true.

A successful High Holiday appeal requires meeting personally with the biggest donors and presenting the case for giving. It also requires reaching out to lapsed donors. In short, it is just a major capital or endowment campaign – writ small. High Holiday appeals are one tool to use to bolster our centers of religious, cultural, and communal lives. A tool that may work well for one organization may prove a bad fit for another. My advice: do not base your decision on what has always been done, but by what you think will resonate with individuals and families today and tomorrow. Like the High Holidays, the proverbial “world of tomorrow” will be here before we know it.

Robert Evans is President 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, engages in donor research and cultivation, coaches nonprofit leaders and performs a number of other development-related services. Mr. Evans is a member of the Giving USA editorial review board and is also a board member of the Giving Institute. A regular contributor to, he can be reached at