Jewish Journal

Thanking Donors the Right Way

by Susan Esther Barnes

November 20, 2013 | 12:00 am

Graphic from Wikimedia/Patrick Hoesly

On October 29, Erica Brown published an editorial titled, “We Need Jewish Micro-Giving” in the New York Jewish Week. In it, she argues that people who cannot afford to give large amounts should still be approached for donations, because otherwise, they will feel “invisible” and disenfranchised.

She says, “Pay up and you get instant status and rewards. I don’t mind that money can buy love. My concern is for those who are still paying something – and maybe even a lot, but not enough in someone else’s estimation to get any love.” I agree, but she didn’t go far enough.

While trying to thank big donors, Jewish institutions, and others, often make the mistake of devaluing the smaller donors. And while making this mistake may have some implications for some charities such as symphony orchestras, it has even more devastating effects in synagogues, where we claim to value everyone and claim we want to be inclusive.

How often have you seen donor lists which name donors, categorized by how much they gave? These names gave over $10,000 each; others those gave “only” $1,000 to $5,000. Then there is the long list of “also rans” who gave some minimal amount.

Some people say these categorized lists encourage large donors to give more. “I don’t want to be outdone again this year by the Schwartz family, so I’ll give enough to be in the next category up,” the thinking supposedly goes. Now, think about that a minute. Is that the kind of one-upsmanship synagogues ought to encourage? Turning donations into a competition creates an unhealthy environment for the large donors and for the synagogue.

Those who somehow actually believe a donor competition is a good thing don’t ever seem to stop to think about the feelings of the people who can’t afford large donations. It’s possible – even likely – that the person who donates $18 is giving a significantly larger percentage of his or her discretionary income than the person who gives $5,000. Yet the person who painlessly gives $5,000 is treated as more valuable than the person who scrimped and saved and maybe give up meat for a meal or two in order to give $18.

When people see the large donors listed prominently, and separated from the rest of the pack, the smaller donors not only feel invisible, they feel undervalued. They may wonder, “Why bother?” A donation of $18 may seem like nothing compared to a donation of $5,000 or more. It can make the smaller donor feel worthless.

Even worse is when a synagogue or other institution proclaims it values not only “treasure” but “time and talent” as well, but doesn’t follow through. They say donating time and effort is just as important as donating money, so even those who don’t have a lot of cash can still make valuable contributions.

However, often these are just words that are not followed by deeds. When was the last time you saw a list published with categories divided into how many volunteer hours each person contributed, or how many great ideas they suggested in the past year? I’m guessing the next time you see one will also be the first. And in those institutions that publish lists of monetary donors but not other time or idea donors, believe me, it is noticed. Feelings are hurt. Motivation is squashed.

Worse yet, some organizations give gifts before the High Holy Days or at other times of the year to large monetary donors. This is a great way to say “thank you,” but when it’s based entirely on dollars, with nothing going to those who volunteer their time hour upon hour, week after week, the message sent is received loud and clear: “We value the people with the big bucks, but not you other folks, no matter how much time or talent you contribute.”

Now, don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I think it’s okay to believe we can get away without thanking those who give to our synagogues and institutions. We should thank them. It’s just that I’ve seen the harm caused when it’s done the wrong way, so the message is that the rich people are highly valued and the other people are not. This happens in institutions which claim to value everyone equally, but actions speak louder than words.

Instead, we need to thank everyone who gives equally. Every contribution is an important part of the whole. If you can afford to give $10,000 that’s great. If all you can afford is $5, we appreciate that very much. If we’re going to list donors, we need to list them all, equally, without categories. If we claim time and talent is as important as money, then whenever we publish a list of monetary donors, we also need to publish a list of time and talent donors. If we’re going to give gifts, we need to think deeply about whether everyone receives them, and if not, who are we leaving out, and why?

In order to build strong Jewish institutions, we need to thank people in a way that recognizes that all of us, regardless of means, are created b’tzelem elohim, in the image of God, and which recognizes everyone as being not only visible, but of equal value.

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Susan Esther Barnes is a religious Reform Jew who can regularly be seen greeting people at her synagogue before services. She is a founding member of her synagogue’s chevra...

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