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October 4, 2015 | 21st Tishrei 5776

Communicating with Your Congregation About Financial Issues
Description, resources and Q&A

This webinar is designed to help board members, synagogue presidents, treasurers and finance committees communicate with the congregation about financial matters affecting them. The speakers are Rabbi David Frank of Temple Solel, Cardiff By The Sea, CA and Judith Erger, Governance, Leadership Development and Architecture Specialist for the Union for Reform Judaism.


Questions and Answers

Q: Regarding methods of communicating:  Any thoughts about the use of web-based surveys [i.e., Constant Contact, Zoomerang, Survey Monkey]

Surveys can be helpful depending upon what the results are used for.  One of the cautions with surveys is asking for feedback for a particular project or initiative and not being able to follow through with what the majority of people are looking for.   A question to consider is:  Will the answers of the survey be used?  If people take time to complete the survey there is an expectation that the answers given will be considered.  If the participants feel their answers to the survey questions are not considered future surveys will likely have minimal participation.  Another possibility is the use of focus groups and parlor meetings.  It is a good way to involve people representing various demographic groups within the synagogue and allow them to express their opinions and feel that what they have to say is of value.

Q: Rabbi Frank mentioned that in his congregation, the budget was posted online – was it available to the public on the website or was it password protected for members only?

It was publicly posted on the website.  However, it did not contain any information that would be inappropriate for ”public eyes”.  For example, salaries are not individually broken out, but listed as aggregates within each department.  Consider the question “Why do we want to post the budget online?”  Is it being posted to give more transparency to the financial aspect of the synagogue?  What are the consequences of posting it online?  Would the congregation be better served by posting information about trends on the budget, such as trends regarding increases or decreases in revenue, rather then just straight budget numbers?

Q: What should be done about clergy that instructs a board not to alarm the troops [regarding the synagogue’s financial situation]?  How do we convince someone that more transparency is needed?

The key to transparency is to attempt to identify financial challenges with careful analysis and a proposed action plan to meet the crisis.  If congregants believe that their finances are being properly managed with proactive steps in place to sufficiently overcome obstacles, then panic will not set in.  The goal is to avoid alarming congregants, but rather reassure them that while challenges are serious, there is a way to address them, especially if everyone pitches in.

Q: How do you change a culture of NOT naming names of donors?

There are some interesting CCAR Responsa written on the subject of donor recognition.  You might find it helpful to begin by studying and teaching these.  In fact, the Jewish tradition does understand the value of recognizing donors as a means to inspire others to give.  Of course, this should always be done in good taste.  In answer to a question asked of the CCAR regarding memorial plaques the response was as follows:  The entire matter of memorial plaques has a dual history. On one hand we have wished from the Talmudic time onward to encourage gifts, yet we have tried to discourage boasts about such donations. The medieval Spanish scholar Solomon ben Adret[1] stated that it would be appropriate to list the name of the donor for two reasons and the Shulhan Arukh[2] agreed:
  1. in order to recall the specific wishes of the donor so that the funds would not be diverted to another use
  2. to encourage other donors through the good example of that individual[3].    

Visit the CCAR website to view these and other responsa.

Q: How do you reconcile web-based, e-newsletters with the value of a congregation’s newsletter sitting on members’ kitchen tables?

One of the Webinar presenters noted:  We are moving this year, as part of our cost containment strategy, to email distribution of our newsletter.  For those who wish to have a printed copy, we will make that option available.  The only way to assess the impact is to try it and see what the reaction is.  We are hoping for positive results, as people rely more heavily on their computers.  However, if it doesn't work, we always have the option to return to the print format.

Q: How do you communicate with people that keep saying it costs way too much money to continue being a member and that they can go to Chabad for free?

First, it should be made clear that in most cases, anyone can worship at the congregation of their choice for free.  Second, remind or inform these people that many programs and services at your congregation are free already. More to the point, though, Chabad also has expenses and their rabbis have the singular task of raising money.  If people become involved in a Chabad synagogue, they would invariably be asked to contribute.  However, that being said, we should not fall into a "fee for service" trap.  The question is not, "can I get a better deal elsewhere?"  The proposition is that we believe in our synagogue as a worthy institution for Jewish life.  Our financial commitment is a gift of tzedakah to a cause we believe in - living Torah; transmitting Torah; and creating a vibrant Jewish community that will inspire, support and nurture Jewish souls.  The question is not, "do I use the synagogue enough?"  Rather it is, "do I believe in the congregation as a place that needs to exist, if not for myself, then for others, and is thus worthy of my support?"

[1] Responsa #582
[2] Yoreh Deah 249.13
[3] CCAR Responsa 146 Memorializing a Known Criminal, June 1983

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