The Multiple Challenges of Raising Funds for Jewish Day Schools

Financial resource development (FRD) for Jewish day schools is a challenge for communities, parents, school boards, and staff. All fundraising efforts take a great deal of commitment and energy for those involved in community-supported organizations and agencies. Schools, in particular, present a unique set of challenges because of the special role they play in a community. However, it is possible to view the challenges as an opportunity to develop both the schools and communities simultaneously.

Although the number of children learning in Jewish day schools has grown over the last several decades, day schools face a significant competitive burden against tuition-free public schools. Parents who send children to day schools generally inhabit two categories. Either they are committed to a Jewish education at any cost or feel that a particular day school provides a higher quality educational experience than the local public school.

The high cost of tuition is perhaps the biggest challenge facing Jewish day schools. While there has been a trend by funders to prevail upon Jewish nonprofit organizations to implement a “fee for service” approach to fund the services they provide, this model is not realistic for schools. Maintaining a double curriculum of Jewish and secular studies adds heavily to costs. It would be impossible to create a plan for a Jewish day school that relied on tuition alone to balance the budget. This leads to a built-in fiscal deficit that schools face each year.

Nonprofit organizations often look to those who benefit from services to provide financial support. For example, many of the supporters of Jewish hospitals are people who have benefited from the excellent medical care they or their loved ones received at the institution. These donations are an expression of gratitude.

The impact of an educational experience, however, is not as easy to quantify. A good education contains so many variables – teacher quality, peer group influence, parental involvement, just to name a few – that it is difficult to pinpoint the school’s influence on a child’s development. Parents generally don’t contribute to a school based on a child’s learning “experience” like a grateful patient would to a hospital. This is the reason schools seek to raise funds based on tuition and not the results (often observed only years later) of a job well done. Those raising funds for schools face the unusual challenge of repeatedly stressing the learning opportunities available at the school presently and not necessarily the results of the educational experience itself. Now, if students from a particular school show stellar scores on achievement tests or high acceptance rates at top universities, these facts can certainly be used in fundraising efforts. (That said, it is difficult to determine whether the student or the school accounted for later educational success.)

Creating a “case for giving,” therefore, is one of the first steps of a successful FRD campaign in a school. The articulation of the school’s unique qualities and the dynamism of its educational offerings is essential. Certainly a statement about how the school strengthens the social fabric of the community can impress potential donors. For those concerned with Jewish continuity and the future of the Jewish people, education is a vital investment.

Strategically, the Jewish day school is in a pivotal position to strengthen the community as a whole. Families of students who learn in the day school system are more likely to be involved in synagogues, youth movements, and community centers. This means the school occupies a strategic position in the community and must develop ways to organize parents to strengthen the school’s FRD efforts.

In most places, the school’s board of directors represents a cross-section of the community. There will be a number of local professionals (doctors, lawyers, accountants, etc.), parents of graduates and graduates; communal professionals; and present and past donors. The challenge is how the school chooses to utilize its connections and mobilize those within the school’s social network to actively support the FRD program.

Graduates and families of graduates are a particularly useful resource. These are the people who have benefited the most from the school. When the graduates and their families have good memories of the school, they will be more receptive to becoming involved on the board, board committees, or the alumni association. The special bond that an alumnus has for the school cannot be substituted for any other kind of endorsement.

The role of the school’s staff in FRD is quite significant. “Staff” includes all teachers, guidance counselors, sports coaches, and anyone else employed by the school. Everyone in a school has a role in FRD. They might not be directly involved in soliciting donors, but school staff should be directed to build a culture of giving. That means they appreciate that everyone who is not presently a donor is at the very least a potential donor.

School staff should demonstrate they want to bring potential donors closer to the school and to strengthen their identification with the goals and programs of the school. This is reflected in the way people answer the telephone or greet them when they enter the building. Although a few people have the responsibility for soliciting donors and raising funds, everyone in the school should understands they are creating an atmosphere that encourages the school’s FRD program. When everyone works together, the school’s finances will not only be strengthened but the fiscal foundation of the school will be reinforced, allowing the school to thrive.

Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Nonprofit Management and Leadership Program and has a consulting firm focused on strengthening nonprofit organizations and their leadership for tomorrow. Stephen is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy.