The Secret Life of a Tired, Inspired, Ambivalent, Committed Fundraiser

–by Andy Robinson

It’s almost 8:00 pm and I am sitting in my hotel room: day four of a ten-day trip. I’ve spent the last twelve hours facilitating a fundraising training, returning phone calls, checking my email, and wolfing down a couple of unremarkable meals.

A file sits on the desk in front of me: Beth Jacob Synagogue Capital Campaign. I open it with a mild sense of dread. My call list. Good news: so many prospects. Bad news: so few of them have been contacted. I am way behind.

If I start now, I think, I can get in an hour of calls, maybe talk to a few folks. I could set up an ask meeting for next month. I could get a pledge or two over the phone. I could check a few names off the list. Wouldn’t that feel good? If I don’t start now, I can watch something mindless on television. Wouldn’t that feel really good? God knows I’ve earned it.

I groan, knowing that karma always wins. I’ve spent the day teaching people that fundraising is not as difficult as they think – it just requires passion, persistence, and patience. At the moment I’m not doing so great in the passion department, but I pick up the phone anyway. In the words of the Hebrew sage Hillel, if not me, who? And if not now, when?

More after the jump.
“Mrs. Bernstein? This is Andy Robinson. I’m calling from Beth Jacob – do you have a moment?”

Let me tell you about our synagogue. First of all, Beth Jacob is a small community – about 90 member households – comprised of every sort of Jew, ranging from very traditional to very secular. We have four different sets of prayer books, each representing a different branch of Judaism. As I like to tell my gentile friends, if you can imagine a church comprised of ten Catholics, five Baptists, some Lutherans and Methodists, a few evangelicals, three Unitarians, two Quakers, a Mormon, and a couple of people who don’t really care about religion one way or the other – well, that’s our synagogue.

Founded nearly 100 years ago, Beth Jacob has survived and sometimes prospered thanks to the work of many volunteer lay leaders and the occasional part-time, circuit-riding rabbi. We have no full-time rabbi, and have employed one for only three of the last 70 years. We now have a part-time rabbi to supplement the efforts of perhaps half a dozen different people who lead services, choosing the prayer book they prefer. I like to think of Beth Jacob as an experiment in grassroots democracy: messy, complicated, non-hierarchical, opinionated, and at times transcendent.

We occupy a small two-room building on a residential street in Montpelier, Vermont’s capital city. It’s an old house made more tenuous by poor design and deferred maintenance. When it rains, water flows through the basement, undermining the foundation. We were advised by an engineer that we really shouldn’t use the sanctuary in winter – after a big snow storm, he said, the roof might cave in. Well, this is Vermont and we get a lot of snow…

So now we’re in the middle of a capital campaign.

I am meeting with a donor, a well-respected member of the community. Because he’s so prominent, we really need to have him involved. He asks a lot of thoughtful questions: “Has the entire board pledged? How much have you raised so far? When you’re talking to people, what are you hearing?”

Finally he says to me, “You know, I gave to the building fund years ago. Nothing happened then, and I’m not convinced it’s going to happen now. So here’s my offer – I will make an additional pledge, but I’m not writing the check until construction begins.”

“Fair enough,” I say, thinking – not for the first time – every gift is an act of trust. We better deliver on our promises.

I’ve been raising money for thirty years, including staff positions at five different nonprofits, and consulting for more than fifteen years. However, this is my first time chairing a capital campaign – for the record, I don’t even have the title of “chair,” but apparently I am the lead volunteer. The experience has forced me rethink some of my assumptions about how fundraising works. Out of necessity, we’ve ignored several best practices and modified others – and we’re having success. Despite the current recession, we’ve raised more than $465,000.

Here’s what I’ve learned so far.

1. There is no perfect time to raise money, so ask for it anyway. We began the process with about $150,000 available from our existing building fund, a surprise bequest, and a large anonymous pledge. This was very encouraging; less encouraging was the state of the congregation, which has been perennially divided over a variety of issues: modes of worship, membership dues, the need (or not) for a full-time rabbi, whether we should require donations for admission to High Holiday services (many congregations do, we don’t), and of course the question of Israel and Palestine, which divides Jewish communities across North America and around the world.

As I have told the synagogue’s board and members many times, had I been hired as their fundraising consultant, I would have advised against launching this campaign until the community was more united and confident. Unfortunately, given the sorry state of the building, waiting for a better moment wasn’t really an option.

2. If you don’t think you can raise all the money at once, get creative. After a lot of research and congregational meetings, we decided to rebuild in our present location. This was not the cheapest option. It’s a tricky site, with drainage problems and adjacent buildings, and the estimate came in at more than $600,000: a scary number for a small congregation.

After a lot of useful brainstorming and debate, we developed a creative solution: we would structure the campaign in two phases, rebuilding each half of the synagogue as we raised the needed money. Phase 1 (about $350,000) would focus on reconstructing the foundation, the basement, and the sanctuary, since that part of the building posed the greatest risk and also the greatest opportunity. We predicted that when people entered the beautiful new space, with its vaulted ceiling and skylights, they would be inspired to give again. During Phase 2 (about $300,000), we would reconstruct the community room, kitchen and bathroom, and also landscape the property.

3. The classic campaign model is great, but reality often looks different – very different. This traditional model includes several features, including:

– A time-limited campaign. Ideally, all asks are completed in a matter of months, though donors can choose to fulfill their pledges over several years.

– A team of volunteer leaders supported by professional staff.

In our case, neither applied. We continue raising money nearly three years after the campaign commenced. As Phase 2 ramps up, the number and frequency of asks will increase. We have no staff other than a very part-time bookkeeper who also manages the database. And while we have volunteers we can tap for specific tasks, our core team of askers is down to two people: myself and the board chair, a supremely well-organized woman who began this process with no experience and has blossomed into a formidable fundraiser.

4. Who’s a prospect? The definition may be broader than you realize. As mentioned, we have about 90 member households, yet more than 170 donors have contributed to date. Who are these people? Friends, family, neighbors, members of other congregations, and a number of people who identify as Jewish but choose not to join or affiliate. Several non-Jews have also contributed to honor a friend or help us meet our challenge gift goal (see below). Furthermore, some of our largest gifts came from members who are only peripherally involved. As one $25,000 donor told me, “Other than the High Holidays, you are unlikely to see me, but I want there to be a synagogue in this town.”

For us to successfully complete Phase 2, we need to reach even further beyond our natural base. Full disclosure: one reason for writing this article is the belief that some readers – maybe you? – will be moved to contribute.

5. Challenge gifts are not just about money. Early in the campaign, the lead donor family offered to increase their contribution by $15,000 if we could recruit 30 new donors in 60 days. The intention was to increase participation, since gifts of any size would count toward the challenge.
As a solicitor, I found this very motivating, because a) we had another way to pitch the campaign – “Your gift gets us closer to the $15,000 challenge” – and b) we had a deadline. Many first-time donors were recruited though this challenge, which we successfully met.

6. Be selective about which details to obsess about and which ones to let go. In addition to prospecting and asking for contributions, I have focused on “after the gift” – ensuring that donors are thanked and updated, and that all recognition requirements and naming opportunities are faithfully fulfilled. I haven’t looked at carpet samples, or spoken to the press, or spent much time at the construction site, because other people are tending to those things. For example, we have a very diligent volunteer shooting photos and posting updates to our construction blog (, which has proved useful and popular.

7. Having a plan and working the plan is more important than faith in a good result – but without faith, all the planning in the world is useless. Several synagogue board members – thoughtful, intelligent, and committed people – were dubious about this campaign for a variety of reasons, most of them legitimate. Even after all our planning and consultation, they feared the risk of a failed campaign – and they were not alone.

Alas, a dubious asker is a lousy asker. Even an enthusiastic asker backed by a dubious board is operating from a weak position. Once you make the decision to proceed, everyone has to go “all in.” To the credit of the Beth Jacob board, when we jumped in, we all jumped together.

8. Persistence trumps all virtues. If you include the community meetings, campaign planning, design work with the architect and contractor, mailings, phone calls, donor meetings, news conferences, events, etc., this project has taken about four years so far. It will likely take another two or three years to complete the second phase. I won’t pretend that this is the ideal schedule, but you’ve got to play the cards you’re dealt – and we are in the middle of a marathon game.
As author and fundraising trainer Kim Klein has noted, ‘If you ask enough people, eventually you’ll raise all the money you need.” For us, the key word is “eventually.” We are still asking. We will keep asking until we reach our goal.

9. In the end, fundraising is not about money, it’s about community. We’re getting a better building, but more importantly, we have created a more resilient network of members, friends, and allies. The process brought us together; our success has made us stronger.

I’m standing in front of the congregation. It’s Rosh Hashanah, one of the holiest days of the year, and I’ve got two minutes to sum up four years of work. They look at me – I look at them. It’s really, really quiet.

“We did it,” I finally say. “Phase 1 is over and the sanctuary is nearly complete. I am so proud of us. We did something very difficult, and we did it well.”

I’m feeling a bit more emotional than expected, but I push on. “After the open house this fall, we begin Phase 2, when we will rebuild the back half of the building. We need your help. If you’re already given, thank you. Please understand that we will approach you again. We will ask with respect and humility, but we will ask.

“If you haven’t yet given, congratulations – you’re about to get another opportunity. And if you are unable to give, but you can support us with your time, your thoughts, and your prayers – we need those as well.

“L’Shanah Tovah. Here’s wishing us all a sweet new year.”

Andy Robinson ( is a consultant, trainer, and author of several books, including Big Gifts for Small Groups and Great Boards for Small Groups, both published by Emerson & Church. You can learn more about Beth Jacob Synagogue at


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