When Times Are Tough, People Support Houses of Worship…Even Jews!

by Robert I. Evans & Avrum D. Lapin

In our previous piece for eJewishPhilanthropy, we described a few notable trends emerging from the 2008 report of Giving USA, the highly respected and often-cited annual report outlining last year’s results for charitable giving. The study captured headlines across the country but few reporters focused on the one noticeable sector where we saw continued annual growth in overall donations: RELIGION. Giving to religion increased in 2008, and continues to constitute the largest sector of the “giving pie” in the U.S. philanthropic community. This finding has been consistent for more than a generation.

But to what can we attribute this increase in giving to religion in 2008 at a time when the arts, social services and education sectors experienced downturns? What makes religious giving seemingly “recession proof?”

Here are facts that frame the response:

  • Religious donations increased in 2008 at a time when most other charitable contributions were lagging from 2007.
  • Nearly 3 percent of all Americans tithe, meaning that they direct at least ten percent of their gross income to charity. But, generally, Americans who tithe do not support non-profit causes other than religion.
  • There are 350,000 religious organizations (synagogues, churches, and mosques) in the United States, including about 3,000 synagogues. During times of downturn, faith related institutions are not just places for spiritual renewal and support but are also connections to financial and other assistance services for those requiring emergency help. Communities and donors understand this, and are often compelled and motivated to pitch in, financially and otherwise.
  • Historically, Americans giving to religion stays stable or sees minimal impact whenever there are downturns in the economy!

We, at EHL Consulting, work closely with synagogues of all sizes and denominations so we understand that these numbers alone only tell a small part of the story and might not accurately reflect the reality of Jewish support for synagogues. We know that the Jewish philanthropic arena is an eclectic mix of vibrant organizations with diverse missions and agendas. But one thing is predictable: as Jews weather economic pressures, they continue to turn to their houses of worship . . . just as non-Jews do as well. But as the economy improves, will they – as donors – stay or will they leave?

The challenge to clergy, other synagogue professionals, and volunteer leadership is to continue to offer opportunities for impactful involvement and financial support. American congregations are positioning themselves differently in this competitive philanthropic market. We are seeing some mid-sized and larger congregations hiring development professionals and other marketing specialists. If managed correctly, these investments will return value quickly with expanded options for giving and improved professional approaches to securing charitable gifts. Even Planned Giving – a fundraising approach generally exclusive to arts, educational, and health care institutions – has found its way into synagogue fundraising vocabularies.

While 35 cents of every philanthropic dollar in 2008 was directed to faith-based institutions, other sectors are preparing to rebound. And just like everything else related to this recession, many of the “old rules” may no longer apply going forward. Therefore, now is the time for synagogues of all sizes to strengthen their fundraising capabilities and approaches to continue to secure market share. They can do that by using their limited resources wisely and investing in the tools and human assets, volunteer and professional, which will enable them to sustain and grow.

In a world where we can no longer make any assumptions, synagogues must be proactive to ensure their rightful place in the hearts and minds of donors in the months and years to come.

Robert I. Evans, Managing Director, and Avrum D. Lapin, Director, are principals of The EHL Consulting Group, of suburban Philadelphia, and are frequent contributors to ejewishphilanthropy.com. EHL Consulting is a proud member of the Giving Institute and an underwriter of Giving USA. The institute is a leader in tracking data and following trends in the non-profit sector. EHL Consulting works with dozens of non-profits across the globe on fundraising, strategic planning, and non-profit business practices. Become a fan of The EHL Consulting Group on Facebook.