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My synagogue, like many (most?), gets only a portion of its annual income from member dues and investment income, with the rest coming from various fundraising activities. Most of this fundraising targets our own members. Some members have both the means and the inclination to contribute to endowments or other funds, which is great, but they can't do it all.

So what about external sources of donations? I asked our board about grants (not knowing much about grant-writing myself, but having heard it's a thing) and was told that's not viable, but I haven't pressed for details yet. (We did get a recent government grant to improve security, but this was described to me as exceptional.) Some non-profits get corporate donations and we get some of that in the form of ads in tribute books, but that seems to be less common for religious institutions (and it's not clear to me what they get from it if they don't get their name on a building or some such). We've sometimes had public events like food festivals that are designed to raise money, but they haven't raised a lot and they cost a lot of volunteer labor. (Maybe we're not choosing the right ones.)

What do other synagogues do? How do you raise external funds? I'm interested in answers that address both short-term income that balances the annual budget and long-term income that helps build an endowment.

(Because I use my real name online and that makes it fairly easy to identify my congregation, let me note here that we are not in any immediate danger or anything like that. This is about long-term planning so we don't get into trouble.)

  • Grants sounds like a good avenue to pursue to me. I know a shul that recently got a US government grant to improve security features in its construction. Grants from a local Jewish Federation are also a good place to look. – Double AA Sep 18 '15 at 4:10
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A few ideas that have been done in the synagogues I have prayed at.

1 - Raffle sales

2 - Guest Lectures

3 - Yearly Melave Malka or Yearly dinner with entertainment or guest speaker

All these ideas draw in outsiders.

  • Generally guest lecturers take an honorarium. Not that it can't be a fundraiser anyway; just something to bear in mind. – msh210 Sep 18 '15 at 14:16
  • On #2, you mean guest lectures with an admission fee, or not charging admission but asking for donations, or something else? – Monica Cellio Sep 18 '15 at 14:18
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    @msh210: For a raffle there is the cost of advertisement, and cost of prize, for Melave Malka & dinner cost of meal, hall, etc. Bottom line is it cost money, to make money. – Gershon Gold Sep 18 '15 at 14:18
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    @MonicaCellio: Either or. Depends on the crowd. Sometimes by charging admission that is all you will get, by donations the sky is the limit. However sometimes people give a small donation and will pay more if there is a set fee. – Gershon Gold Sep 18 '15 at 14:20
  • I know that sometimes the cost of advertising or food is donated. The venue and other overhead might be the same. – MTL Sep 21 '15 at 21:25
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I know of one synagogue that has a medium-sized membership, but has the most daily minyanim in the city. The result is, they have many people who come for a prayer service here and there, but don't consider themselves members.

The synagogue began posting signs all over the place, asking everyone who comes to pay "a dollar a day" - one dollar for every day they attend a service.

I don't know how much money they make from this, but if 100 people donate on an average weekday, it comes out to about $30,000 a year, all from people who would otherwise give almost nothing.

  • Good point. My weekday morning minyan asks for $3/week from people; we're not large, but that's still money they wouldn't have had otherwise. – Monica Cellio Sep 18 '15 at 19:15
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Similar in some ways to Ypnypn's suggestion, the "Shtieblach" minyan factory in Beis Yisrael has a machine in every shtiebl that takes money to pay for the air conditioning. If no one pays, or if the money runs out, the AC turns off. The cost is 2 NIS (~50 cents) per quarter hour. I'm reasonably certain that those funds are used to help defray the costs of the AC ;)

It's been a while, but I'm pretty sure this has been implemented in some shuls in Lakewood as well (though with American currency ;). If I'm not mistaken, the machine I saw in Lakewood controls the lights also (I believe I had the lights turn off on me in the middle of a prayer, until someone paid up), so it's not really as optional as the machine in Beis Yisrael, which means that they're pretty much guaranteed donations from every minyan. This also means that if people are in the shul between prayers to learn, that the lights and AC will be off if not in use.

  • I have to relay this idea to the noch shleppers err.. Powers to be in my shul that has central A/C. They have nice cool air on in all the rooms except for the chapel area where we daven. So, often, we daven in a sweltering room. Maybe we should have a pay slot to channel air from the cooler section into the shul, and a separate pay machine to turn the air off in the other rooms! – DanF Sep 21 '15 at 21:31
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Supplementing (and expanding) on Gershon Gold's ideas, here's what I think has worked in my shul:

  • High Holiday seats, believe it or ot, generate a huge part of our shul's annual income. You may think this is "internal", and for the majority, it is. But, our shul has advertised its services in local (and neighboring community) newspapers as well. Also, regular members bring in their family members and friends, and the y spread the word to others that our shul has a great chazzan, friendly environment, and many of the members pay for their friends' seats - often even if they don't show up! (I don't get that idea, but it happens somewhat. Who cares? The shul is getting money for empty seats.) On Yom Kippur, the extra crowd also generates more income into the annual
  • Yizkor appeal - Boy, is this a huge revenue maker! And much of this money is coming from the extra guests, too!
  • Along with Gershon's suggestion of guest lecturers, which we sometimes have, the majority of the lectures are run by the rabbi, himself. He is good on using contemporary books and discussing controversial current topics and giving it a Jewish "twist". These events are well advertised, and some of them generate extra income.
  • Tap into your own shul's talent, both past & present. Our shul has been around for 85 years, so we've had many interesting noteable past members. Allan Zweibel was one of the major writers for Saturday Night Live. SInce he was a former shul member, they asked him to speak about his career and do a few comedic skits. $75 a ticket to see him and have a small buffet! About 300 people showed up. Plus, he sold some of his books and the shul got a percentage of his sales. Not bad for one night!
  • Jews may not necessary like to cook, but it seems that they love to eat, esp, if someone else makes the food. And, if the food is delicious, they want to know how you made it. It does take some effort to compile a cook book from your members. But, with computers and email, etc. the process is not too hard. You need 1 or 2 editors and some clipart / pics, and you can get a great cookbook together pretty quickly. It will sell quite well!
  • Education is a huge income source, esp. if you can get lots of kids. Our shul has 5 different "schools" from the "traditional" Hebrew day school to special schools for mentally challenged, Israeli kids, Russian kids, and a few others. Most of the kids come from non-members. I hate to say it, but there are more kids attending school than adults attending most of our Shabbat services! We could use a few of them!
  • If your shul has the property space and / or internal footprint to do so, yous hould consider designing a large ballroom / banquet / affair hall. The bigger the better. However, it is more important to make it look extremely nice. Not necessarily "fancy", but nice, modern and clean. If you can get an internal caterer, that's even better. First of all, you're charging outsiders (as well as members) a set price just to rent the room. If the place is nice, trust me, you'll have plenty of rentals throughout the year. If you can design a hall for wedding crowds that can hold 500 - 800 people, and there is little or no competition nearby ... well your shul will sustain itself quite well on just that. If you get a caterer, yes, that will cost, but the caterer will provide a percentage of his profits from each affair. And, keep in mind that as long as the food is kosher, you don't necessarily have to keep it strictly Jewish affairs. (Something to consider.)
  • Lastly, the biggest key to financing, internally and externally is to find the right people. I have two types of shuls in my neighborhood. The one that has about 100 "middle class" members, and the one who has about 25 mostly millionaires. Guess which shul is surviving and slowly expanding, and which is barely holding its own?

You didn't describe the demographics of your synagogue, so I can't say how much of what I listed would work well for you - esp. the education area if you don't have a lot of young families / kids. Nonetheless, even if you are dealing with a 70+ congregation, if you have a creative and savvy few people willing to coordinate a regular program, you can cater to them, Our shul runs a "senior" midday program a few days a week. On its own, it doesn't generate income and costs the shul a bit, actually, since they provide free light lunch to about 50 regular attendants. But, word of mouth is the best advertising, I think. The seniors tell younger people what a generous shul we have, and outsiders become members or they end up donating money to defray the cost of the program.

Here's a "crazy" idea. Some shuls know the art of attracting the "big machers" - the people with the big bucks. That's what you really want! I know that you live in Pittsburgh. They have a number of major shuls and yeshivot that are successful. Perhaps, you can contact the executive director or chief fund-raiser for some advice?

Good luck to you. I know that raising money is very challenging!

  • Thanks for these detailed suggestions. We do have a good-sized school, but you know, I never thought about expanding it beyond members. Hmm, I wonder... – Monica Cellio Sep 18 '15 at 15:50
  • How does the Yizkor appeal work with guests? They're obviously not going to pay or fill out pledge cards that day, and they're not members so you don't have their contact info in your database already. Does the member who brought the guest act as some sort of intermediary for getting the donation to the shul afterward? – Monica Cellio Sep 18 '15 at 15:52
  • @MonicaCellio Interesting question. Many shuls give donation cards where people fold down their pledge (pre-marked amount tabs). Yes, it has the member's name or it's blank. Ah, but when and how are these people paying? They're paying by a check in the mail, or online through the shul's web site. Those are two ways that you can get the demographics. Most people pay - eventually. (It takes some effort to chase them.) No guarantees, of course. Also, there will be gaps with a number of the guests remaining anonymous. But, they paid! You just hope they'll be there next year, if not more often! – DanF Sep 18 '15 at 15:59
  • Right, I understand the card concept in general (with pre-marked fold-down corners/tabs); I just wasn't sure how that worked for someone whose name wouldn't be pre-printed on the card (because not a member). Does your shul contact those people somehow, or just rely on them to remember to pay after, or what? – Monica Cellio Sep 18 '15 at 16:02
  • Who's the famous Rav who lives in Pittsburgh - is it Twersky or Tendler? I don't recall. They apparently were successful raising money for their yeshiva and they know how to hit the "machers". Maybe, there's a way to contact them? I frequently see Rav Binyamin Kamenetzky, who is a master at getting money from rich people. I asked him once about his strategy. One of his biggest methods is to make people feel guilty about NOT giving to his yeshiva. It's not my own preferred strategy, but, you know, there is something about Jewish guilt that does work! RE follow up on unnamed cards is just trust – DanF Sep 18 '15 at 16:04
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Similar to the High Holiday seat and Yizkor appeals mentioned by DanF, there is another way that many shul's capitalize (get it?) on occasions with an influx of guests. Many shuls run an auction on Simchas Torah for all of the kibbudim (honors) over the course of the Yom Tov, with everyone welcome to participate. Additionally, some shuls auction off the aliyos on Yom Tov. A shul that I once belonged to would also sell all of the kibbudim of the High Holidays, such as aliyos and opening the Aron.

  • I've seen synagogues in Israel where they action off every shelishi, even during the week. – Ypnypn Dec 29 '15 at 5:27
  • Note that having these auctions on YT or Shabbat can be Halachicaly problematic, so be sure to check with the Shul rabbi before starting one. I agree with you, thought, that it is pretty common. – Double AA Dec 29 '15 at 14:55
  • @DoubleAA I know one shul that does the bidding electronically before YT, and one shul that is actually machmir for the R' Akiva Eiger. But other than that, my experience was that pretty much everyone is lenient on the issue. – Y     e     z Dec 30 '15 at 4:28

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