A torah thought on fundraising

This past shabbat's parsha, Vayakheil, describes the collection of materials that went into building the mishkan (the portable sanctuary). An appeal went out -- we need gold and silver and linen and "red and purple and blue" (dyes? wools?) and so on, and the people answered the call. Voluminously. Enough that Moshe had to call it off -- they had enough for what they needed now. (Where they got all this stuff is a different question.)

I've heard lots of comments (usually from synagogue treasurers and the like) about how this was the first successful fundraising campaign and would that we could be so fortunate when we need to raise money. I was thinking about this during the torah reading yesterday and found myself thinking that modern fund-raising would do well to follow the guidelines laid out in the parsha. Specifically:

  1. There was a clear connection between the donations being requested and the goal that was being pursued. Everybody would be able to look at the product (the mishkan) and see how the donated materials were put to use. That's easier with goods than when everything is mediated through bank accounts, but I think many organizations can do better on this nonetheless -- starting by disclosing the costs of the fundraising (i.e. how much of my donation never makes it to its intended purpose?). In my own experience, when my congregation had a campaign several years ago toward building renovations, the board was very up-front about the planned renovations and the budget, and also that any excess would be placed in such-and-such fund for such-and-such purpose. Very open and up-front, and the donations came.

  2. They asked for contributions at various levels. Not everybody can afford to give gold but some of them can give linen. They didn't say "ok, if all you can send is linen that's ok"; they asked for linen. The person making the donation could feel like a first-class donor. How many times has your donation to some charity been met with "can you do any more?" outweighing the "thank you so much for helping"? Great way to make donors feel valued, eh?

  3. When they had enough they said so. This idea seems ludicrous to many fund-raisers I've spoken with -- they ask "why would you cut off donations if they're still giving?". I don't think you necessarily need to cut them off but you do need to be clear that you've met your goal. I experienced a blatant case of this problem some years ago: I was part of a group that was taking pledge calls, and when we were done and somebody asked about some discrepancies, they admitted that we had received more money in pledges than what they announced on-air as progress toward their goal (by quite a bit). They said they did this to keep the pressure on. I said that was dishonest and that was the last time I helped them.

Fund-raising is always going to be with us, and some of it will work well and some badly. The parsha urges us toward clear goals, valuing the donor no matter his contribution, and transparency to help it go well.