“Thank You” Can Lead to a Culture of Philanthropy

May 21, 2019Rabbi Louis Feldstein, Michael H. Goldberg, and Robin Riegelhaupt

When we were children, we learned to say thank you when someone did something for us. Your big sister shared a toy with you – “Thanks, sis!” A teacher let you take home the class pet – “Thank you, Ms. Clark! I’ll take good care of it.”

As we grew older and into adulthood, we probably took more and more for granted and started to say thank you less and less. Today, we might be amazed if, when we hold the door open for someone, they react by not only walking through, but also saying, “Thank you.” Though a seemingly small thing, that moment of gratitude – of acknowledging another’s presence and their actions – can make our day.

It also can make our synagogue’s finances, too.

Absent any other efforts, simply showing appreciation won’t change your congregation’s financial position or its culture. But as part of a strategic endeavor that also includes, among other things, written campaign plans, solicitation training, and a concerted effort to build relationships, saying “thank you” can help move your congregation closer to a culture of philanthropy and financial vitality.

In contrast to a transactional fundraising culture focused on the needs of the congregation, a culture of philanthropy is relational and focuses on our sacred responsibility to provide Jewishly meaningful experiences that place the donor – not the congregation – at the center. In such a culture, community members often feel more connected to the congregation and its leaders and are more likely to express their support of the congregation’s mission and vision through their financial partnership. Gift acknowledgement is one facet of a successful culture of philanthropy; we believe it is an easy-to-use on-ramp toward a greater culture shift.

When we accept their charitable gifts, we must remember we are creating a sacred partnership with our donors at whatever financial level they give – a partnership that must be acknowledged by sharing information, demonstrating transparency, and, most important, expressing gratitude and appreciation.

One of the cornerstones of acknowledging philanthropic gifts is to look at all charitable streams and at all levels. Too often bookkeeping protocols and systems get in the way of taking a step back and looking at members’ holistic giving patterns. This internal limitation keeps us from seeing and acknowledging donors’ total giving: When we add it up, a family that pays full dues, gives to the High Holiday appeal every year, attends the annual fundraiser, and sponsors an oneg may be giving at the level of some donors who make one large annual gift. It’s all giving.

When we start to change the culture around appreciation, we also begin to view other aspects of the financial relationship between congregation and congregant in a different way. Take dues, for example. For many people, synagogue dues are the largest charitable contribution they make to their congregation. Like the IRS, we should treat them that way. Thanking people for paying their dues, as we would any other philanthropic gift, sends a powerful message of belonging and appreciation, and it starts to change the nature of how dues may be viewed. The appreciation we show disabuses people of the notion that dues are a fee-for-service, some sort of obligation. A culture of philanthropy helps leaders and members see dues for what they are: congregants’ expressions of their connection and commitment to the community. (With that mindset, it kind of makes you wonder why we still call them “dues,” doesn’t it? Search #DuesTerminology in The Tent to see what alternative language leaders are using.)

Will saying “thank you” and changing the way you demonstrate appreciation immediately help you raise more money or create a culture of philanthropy? Alone, no. But by changing the culture around gift acknowledgement and appreciation – a culture we may describe as radical appreciation – we can begin to point a board, clergy, staff, and membership working in sacred partnership toward a sustainable future.

Learn more about Creating a Culture of Philanthropy on our website and in The Tent by searching topic tag #CultureofPhilanthropyLearningSeries.

Rabbi Louis Feldstein is the founder and CEO of Dynamic Change Solutions. Michael H. Goldberg is the Union for Reform Judaism’s director of operations on the Strengthening Congregations team. Robin Riegelhaupt is the manager of Strengthening Congregations Resources at the Union for Reform Judaism.

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