When an individual voluntarily decides to contribute his time and/or resources to any communal organization, including a synagogue, it is appropriate for his donation to be acknowledged in some manner by the recipient(s). By definition, someone using his personal resources not for his direct benefit, but rather for the advancement of his community or religious beliefs, has engaged in a self-sacrificial, altruistic act that is praiseworthy. Not only will acknowledging such an act encourage the individual to continue to make similar contributions, but it will also hopefully inspire others to follow his example.
While some donors may prefer to remain anonymous, and such a desire should certainly be respected since humility is a key Jewish value, those who welcome acknowledgement cannot be faulted on the basis of Jewish tradition or historical practice. Hundreds of plaques have been uncovered in excavations of ancient synagogues dating back through the centuries, and Halachic responsa have been written justifying the creation of such plaques. Yet, despite such traditions, the overall atmosphere that is created when a communal institution, whose constituency represents a wide-range of economic situations, obviously singles out for recognition certain members as opposed to others based exclusively upon financial contributions, could negatively impact the organization’s culture of community and shared obligation. A fine line ought to be drawn which on the one hand offers recognition to those who desire and deserve it, yet does so in a subtle enough fashion which is not demoralizing to those who are objectively not in a position to donate on similar levels. An additional consideration would goad the institution to significantly acknowledge those who have contributed mightily in terms of time and energy, so that the impression is not conveyed that financial support is the only important way in which the organization’s interests can be advanced.
Naturally, a significant variable which directly affects the specific manner in which a donor is acknowledged is the magnitude of the gift. Organizations such as synagogues, that are completely funded and maintained by the contributions and efforts of members and supporters, should feel a moral and religious responsibility (under the rubric of “Hakarat Hatov”) to acknowledge donations of various sizes in ways that appropriately correspond to what has been given. The determination of whether such recognition should be exclusively verbal or in the form of a note or letter, as opposed to some sort of permanent commemoration, e.g., an inscription or even the naming of a room or building, would ultimately depend upon each individual situation, the determination being arrived at by a consensus of the organization’s appointed leadership.
The question you have raised is an important one; as a congregational rabbi it is an issue I think about all the time. Fund raising is as old as Judaism – we find examples of it in the Torah. And acknowledging donors’ gifts go back to the period of the Second Temple. From a moral stand point showing gratitude to those who are kind enough to support a congregation makes good sense. Whenever I receive a gift I try to remember to say “Thank you.” The problem become, how far do we go in acknowledging gifts and how do we acknowledge them? Modern day synagogues have become moments to all those who have the financial means to give. What about those who can’t give but volunteer?
Giving is a necessity of congregational life, but we must beware that our giving doesn't demean the very purpose of our existence. Synagogues may be a business but they are in the business of creating Jewish souls and building a holy community for ourselves and for others. Congregational giving must reflect the loftiness of its mission. Recently I developed a system of ‘rules’ for fund raising in the synagogue. I can’t tell you that we have implemented them all but they have inspired a great deal of discussion in our synagogue:
First Commandment: Thou shalt give! Supporting a congregation is not charity any more than providing for your household is charity. Charity is what we do for others; we contribute to synagogues because it is important to us to have a religious institution to which we belong and which we can attend. Therefore, synagogue membership is an obligation for anyone who values Jewish communal religious life.
Second Commandment: Synagogue members should support their own congregation. Synagogue leaders are often frantic about finding new sources of revenue. But raising money outside the synagogue cheapens the value of the synagogue for the people who belong. Bingo, for instance, helps congregations raise money from the people who least can afford it. I am not opposed to bingo, in principle - but I am opposed to getting people outside the synagogue to support the institutions that are important to us. Rabbi Larry Kushner, in his article "The Tent Peg Business: Some Truths about Congregational Life," writes: "The way a congregation gets its money may be more important than how much it gets.”
Third Commandment: Thou shall collect congregational funds with equity. This may be the most challenging commandment of all. How do we balance the ability to contribute with the basic equality of Jewish life? In ancient times everyone was obligated to pay the half shekel; it didn't matter whether one was rich or poor. There was a minimum tax everyone had to pay. Congregations need to find a way to make sure everyone can contribute comfortably to the synagogue. That is what members of family do. Congregations need to develop a fair system of taxation.
Fourth Commandment: You shall meet your obligation; beyond that everything else is discretionary. We find two kinds of giving in the Torah: the obligatory half-shekel to the temple and terumah which was voluntary gift. When Moses set out to build the Tabernacle he invited the people to contribute to this project by saying “Let each person whose heart is so moved contribute.” This was not an obligation. Congregations need to think in terms of priorities; what are the necessary funds for maintaining the congregation and what should be considered discretionary giving?
Fifth Commandment: Fundraising shall be driven by vision, not by need. Dues should be a tax placed on every person - it's how we keep the synagogue going. Each synagogue finds its own way to spread this tax fairly among the members. Beyond dues however, there is not a synagogue in the world that does not need to do extra fundraising. This is not so much a commandment as it is logic. Congregational leaders go to their members and ask them to pay dues. One presumes that dues will cover the expenses of the congregation. How can we then go back to the same members and ask them to pay more money toward the up keeping of the congregation? For fundraising to work, then, it must be driven by something more than bottom line. Members need to feel that there is vision and purpose in giving beyond basic necessities. They should ask: what am I giving for? How will this extra money in some way make this a better congregation and a better world? A corollary of this is that gimmicks will not raise funds for a congregation. After collecting dues there is the hard work of going to members and convincing them to support activities, programs and goals that the dues cannot bear.
Sixth Commandment: Thou shalt not demand recognition. No one who contributed to the building of the Tabernacle received public recognition. There were no plaques in the Tabernacle or in the Temple. In fact, I would argue that plagues are detrimental to the wellbeing of the congregation. In his article, Rabbi Kushner writes: "If people selfishly seek their own Jewish growth (in synagogue) and do what they do because they want to, then there is no longer any need for the ritualized public displays of gratitude which threaten to suffocate virtually every arena of congregational life. Such obeisance at services and banquets, in print and on the walls, invariably degenerates into a system in which people give gifts of time, money, and skill to the congregation not for the joy of giving but for the communal recognition. If everyone is thanked, the only noteworthy events are the invariable omissions.
Seventh Commandment: There shall be no strings attached to the funds that are donated. Synagogue leaders need to think carefully about the gifts they receive. The synagogue belongs to all of us, not just to the person who gives the largest gift. That means that there should not be any conditions or demands attached to the gifts we receive. People have a right to ask that their financial resources be used in a particular area of synagogue life; they have no right to have personal conditions placed on their giving.
Eighth Commandment: Thou shalt contribute honestly. The money which comes to a synagogue must meet the highest ethical and legal standards. Buying scrip, for instance, doesn't mean that the entire amount can be taken as a tax write-off because the check was addressed to the synagogue. We, of course, don't have control over what people choose to do once they contribute to the synagogue. But I would argue that we must not be enablers either. We need to remind people that the check they wrote to the synagogue may or may not be tax deductible.
Ninth Commandment: Synagogues Boards shall conduct financial matters with transparency. Because they are dealing in public funds, a board has an obligation to make sure its dealings are not only honest but open to the community. Moses may have been the overseer of the Tabernacle but he still had an obligation to give a full accounting of every resource he received for this project.
Tenth Commandment: Volunteering is as important as giving but it doesn't pay the bills! Finally, we need to acknowledge that not everyone can afford to give as much as they would like. We need to honor those who give other resources: time, talent, and skills. Remember that the only people who are acknowledged by names in the building of the Tabernacle are Betzalel and Ohaliab, the master craftsmen. Rabbi Kushner writes: "In order to maintain their congregations, Jews must do many other things which are not inherently Jewish. These secondary acts include building, raising money, and perhaps forming a board of directors. Congregations, unfortunately, often get so caught up in doing secondary acts that they actually begin to think that the building, raising money, or the board of directors is the reason for the existence of the congregation. Their members are busy at work, but because they have forgotten why they are at work, their efforts are hollow and come to naught."
Thanking donors is a tricky business. Tradition teaches that donations should be both anonymous and celebrated, although often difficult to balance.
By making them anonymous, the community comes to understand that giving is a part of life and each should give according to her or his ability. What is relevant is the act of donating, not the recognition for the donor. We are taught that even the poorest of the community has an obligation to contribute. By keeping donors anonymous, each can give to her or his ability and not feel shame in the amount that can be contributed.
By celebrating the giver, others may give to also be celebrated. On some level, the act of giving is often motivated by recognition. While this is not the highest form of giving, when the giver and receiver are known to each other and the community is also aware of who gave what, giving is still important. Even the lowest form of giving is important and may lead to moving up the giving ladder. Maimonides taught of 8 levels of giving, with giving with recognition in the middle of the ladder. The way to elevate giving is to increase dignity and decrease embarrassment. The more we achieve these two modes of operating, the high up the ladder we go.
With that said, recognition of donors can be done in multiple and respectful ways. Names on a plaque are appropriate and, by not listing people by amount given but by alphabet, all donors are thanked equally. Those who can afford $18 are recognized equally with those who gave $18,000. In many cases, the $18 gift is a bigger sacrifice for that family than the $18,000 may be for the ones who can contribute out of a family fund rather than their own bank account.
Another way of achieving this goal of balanced recognition is to host a celebration and invite all donors. Again, no one needs to be judged or judge based on amounts given, but the gift from the heart and wallet is recognized.
There's no "how should" involved when it comes to thanking donors. At minimum, it is an important Jewish spiritual practice to hakarat ha-tov, acknowledge the good done by others. Beyond that, donors are individuals; so appropriate thank you's are a matter for reflection and customized response. For donors from the United States, a letter confirming the donation that expresses appreciation for their support of a given program/organization is both sufficient and necessary, as it will be needed for their tax return.
Here are a number of specific considerations for different types of donors:
1. Some donors prefer nothing more than the satisfaction that comes from mitzvah-centered living. It is a mitzvah to give tzedakah, to support charitable efforts and so they do. To do without public acknowledgment is at the top of Maimonides' ladder of philanthropy. An important precept of Judaism also applies here, to be careful not to embarrass someone. Rabbi Daniel Z. Feldman, in the “The Right and the Good” cites as follows: "the Midrash Shmuel quotes in the name of R. Menachem L’Beit Meir a description that will be familiar to anyone who has ever been truly embarrassed. 'One who is humiliated, his face first turns red, and then turns white, because due to the magnitude of the shame, his ‘soul flies away’, as if it wanted to leave the body...once the blood returns to its source, the face turns white, like someone who has died...'” There are donors who prefer to be quietly generous. Public acknowledgment will cause them embarrassment and may lose you a wonderful, caring donor if, after discussing with them their desire regarding public expressions of appreciation, you ignore their wishes.
2. Some donors are pace-setters for their peers, appreciating the fundraising value for the non-profit being supported of agreeing to have their name publicly associated with their donation. These donors will generously agree to be publicly honored at a fundraising dinner, and/or to be listed in reports or invitations that list their donation. They may also agree to make calls to solicit donations and provide address lists for family and friends to invite to these occasions and be solicited for donations. Here, both top lay and professional leadership will want to take time to sit privately with the donor and express appreciation and, also send customized letters of appreciation, in addition to the non-profit's annual IRS-mandated confirmation of donations received from that donor.
3. Some donors are memorializing a loved one, bringing honor to their memory by placing that person's name on a building, auditorium, endowment, or donated object, for example, the lovely park benches with lovely quotes that are memorials. There is a substantial range of appropriate response here. All begin with some reflection that honors the true qualities of the deceased, which might take some research on the part of staff or lay respondents. Then:
-The donor of a park bench may simply need a tax letter and a note letting them know when their bench is in place and available to be visited. The donor of an endowment to build a university music center along with support funds for its maintenance, might well appreciate a groundbreaking and/or opening event where they and their family are recognized for the mitzvah (termed major gift in fundraising) which they have undertaken. This is sometimes misunderstood as a vanity event; often the donor understands they are helping the institution set a standard for giving among its board members or major donors. Further, they often bring children and grandchildren to these events to help them accept the mantle of the traditional role of a "Parnass," of being a serious philanthropist when their inheritance and/or perhaps foundation or philanthropic fund oversight duties one day come to them.
4. Some donors are just this once, exceeding their normal reach. It is vital to know who is giving money to our causes, when we can. Sometimes someone of very limited means so yearns to honor a deceased parent or child with a donation, or to support a cause about which they are passionate, that their donation exceeds their annual possibility of reach. If we can discern this and personally acknowledge the $180 than comes from the $18 donor and then not put them into the annual $180 fundraising event list, we can save them undue duress and not distort your fundraising plan or predictions either. Sometimes this happens with families compile assets to donate a JNF Forest in honor of their mother, when usually that's not what they are capable of giving.
5. Cameo Visits or Concerts Given by Celebrities and Those with Talents: This all comes under hakarat ha-tov, acknowledging the good. Donation of services isn't tax deductible. Generous extension of self to help support a charity is as much a true gift as any amount of money. Thanking them on behalf of the community and those who will be served, in public and up at the mike may well be appreciated by these donors, but ask first, don't assume. Letters of appreciation go without saying. It's often appreciated if a unique piece of art of inscribed book is given along with the thank you - the cost of the thank you gift isn't the issue with most such individuals, it really is the thought that counts. Be sure to write about how the concert or work touched you, individual moments that you remember, this means a lot to those often taken for granted or who believe themselves sought out only for their deep pockets or star power.
6. Chachkes and Other Donor Incentives: Oy, were we dismayed when we came home from vacation to find a pile of little donor gifts for our recent $1000 gift to a charity. We had no idea what to do with more mugs, bags, socks, even coat-hangers with their logo on them and we had no intent to cost them a cent with our donation for their awesome work in the world. If you offer donor incentives, ask if the donors want to receive them or not. The National Public Radio dvd's of their best shows are such a nice way to be stimulated to give, creative thank you's can be so meaningful. I treasure the Jewish version of matryoshka dolls Project Kesher sent in appreciation for my donation of a week's teaching time overseas, and on another such occasion a local-embroidery style tallit made by the women themselves. Certainly I didn't wish for any recognition, their mitzvah of hakarat ha-tov, acknowledging the good - it is such a lift for the spirit.
I bless all readers to find ways to be generous and to expect nothing in return. I also bless all readers to rise to the occasion of thanking those who contribute to the good, it's a great middah, quality of character for all of us to cultivate.
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