Data points

Want to increase donations? Try increasing congregants’ sense of belonging first

In Short

A groundbreaking new study by Clal - the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership and the Springtide Research Institute shows a clear and direct correlation between congregants’ sense of belonging at the synagogue and their likelihood to give.

Congregants’ belonging directly impacts their likelihood to give back

I once checked out a new synagogue through their Shabbat dinner for young families, with my husband and two young children. The social hall was packed and noisy. We put our stuff down at a table, struggled to find foods the kids would agree to eat, and finally sat to eat our own meal while the kids ran around the room. No one spoke to us. Eventually, we packed up and went home. The kids were up past their bedtime and we were out $60 for falafel. If you measured the success of this event by attendance, there were likely 100 people there – a big crowd. But if you measured success by whether attendees met someone new, or parents felt soothed and calmed, or parents got to have adult conversations with other parents? The event was a failure.

In the synagogue world, we often measure attendance, membership numbers and fundraising goals to know how we are doing. This week, synagogue staff across North America are processing membership renewals and finalizing flower arrangements and making signage to welcome hundreds, or even thousands, of congregants for the High Holidays. Rabbis and board presidents are preparing their Yom Kippur appeal speeches, hoping to prompt greater philanthropy from the congregation.

However, it turns out that no matter how beautiful the choir or how delicious the honey cake, what will really prompt more donations is whether a congregant feels deeply and authentically known in the congregation – whether she feels that she belongs.

A groundbreaking new study by Clal – the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership and the Springtide Research Institute shows a clear and direct correlation between congregants’ sense of belonging at the synagogue and their likelihood to give. Seven synagogues across the U.S. and Canada, from different denominations and sizes, participated in the pilot of Clal’s Belonging Project by sending out a belonging survey, reaching 1,100 congregants. The difference between those with a high sense of belonging and those with no sense of belonging is striking: 12 times more likely to donate money, 3.5 times more likely to recommend the synagogue, and basically infinitely more likely to donate time and leadership skills.

Likelihood to donate moneyLikelihood to donate timeLikelihood to volunteer in lay leadershipLikelihood to recommend the synagogue to others
No sense of belonging6%0%0%22%
High sense of belonging71%68%46%75%

Springtide Research Institute developed a research-based way of defining levels of belonging, which we tested in our survey: being Noticed, being Named, and being Known. Being Noticed means the opposite of feeling invisible: Someone talks to me when I arrive, I’m addressed and welcomed. Being Named means people here not only know my name and call me by it, but they also know something about me and what I’m up to. Finally, being Known means that I feel I can share my full authentic self and contribute my talents and skills, and that my fellow community members want to know my story and support my struggles. These categories form the basis of Clal’s Belonging Survey.

Having their data enabled congregations to take a new look at their priorities and approaches. As Jodi Berman, associate executive director of Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles, one of the pilot participants, explained, “When you are a large synagogue, it is easy to either assume that everyone feels connected, or to assume that nobody does. We can experiment with all sorts of programming, relationship building and other tactics, but without data, those things are akin to throwing spaghetti at the wall, however well intentioned.” 

With the knowledge from the Belonging Project’s survey, it’s clear that we need to shift our perspective: Let’s see successful volunteer engagement and fundraising as symptoms instead of goals – symptoms of a synagogue culture in which congregants feel deeply known and connected. How might we design all our synagogue experiences around helping congregants learn each other’s names and hear each other’s stories? Our research shows that this would make all the difference.

It may seem like there’s not enough time or resources to do this kind of relational work. Committing to a belonging process may include restructuring how events run to include name tags or small group conversations. It might involve creating havurot or other forms of small communities, multiple prayer service opportunities or simply better signage and more explanatory announcements. It might mean shifting our mindset from securing membership renewals to harnessing congregants’ talents and skills. However, what is clear from our research is that it is not only a “soft” benefit to the congregation to deepen belonging. It doesn’t just feel “friendlier;” the results also show up in your bottom line. You will gain members, donations and leaders.

At this time of year, consider what you are trying to accomplish by the end of the holidays. Maybe you want to design not just for record turnout, but to make sure no one leaves without having a meaningful conversation. Maybe you want to design your spaces not just to look impressive, but to encourage cozy group visiting. And perhaps this year, consider changing the Yom Kippur appeal from requesting financial donations, to asking congregants to join a new family buddy system, neighborhood group or volunteering team. This Yom Kippur, you might receive a greater return than ever.

Rabbi Julia Appel is the senior director of Innovation at Clal – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership and director of Clal’s Belonging Project. Click here to sign up for more information or to join the next Belonging Project cohort.