Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Why Synagogues and Jewish Nonprofits Need to Update Their Communications in the Digital Age

"Because that's how we've always done things!" I wish I had a dollar for every time I heard a professional in a synagogue or Jewish nonprofit utter those words. For some reason, synagogues and Jewish nonprofits are very late adopters to new technology. Even synagogues that have invested in expensive, dynamic websites are still sending out hard copy flyers in the mail, which is not economically prudent, effective or efficient.

Donors to synagogues and Jewish nonprofits have become more focused in the past several years on how much of their donation goes to overhead costs and how much is allocated to fulfilling the organization's actual mission. Websites like Charity Navigator and Guidestar provide the percentages making it easier for us to know just how far our charitable gifts will go. This leads many to wonder how much of that $18 donation to your favorite local organization or congregation in tribute to your friend's beloved mother goes to sending out the tribute card informing them of your generosity.

In some cases, it might be as much as 10% of that small donation going to overhead, and with today’s high tech communications it’s quite unnecessary too. In the technology age when most charitable organizations make it possible to donate online, the next step in the process is very low-tech. Rather than sending a nice automated e-mail to the recipient of your charitable tribute, most organizations allocate a lot of resources to the process -- spending an employee's time preparing a tribute card, printing out the card and envelope, and then paying for the postage to mail it out. The funds used in that low-tech processing could have gone directly to the cause. So why don't these nonprofits and synagogues adapt to the new technology? "Because that's how we've always done things," they'll explain.

Clip of a Constant Contact newsletter from Adat Shalom Synagogue in Metro Detroit, Michigan

While some organizations have gotten out of that mindset, most are still stuck there. And it's not only the online tributes that could easily be adapted to quicker, more cost efficient methods. Jewish nonprofits and synagogues have been slow to embrace new media, but in 2014 most have now begun to focus more on weekly e-mail newsletters, more dynamic websites, and reaching their membership through social networks like Facebook. But they haven't fully adapted to the new technology and communication. Many organizations are still sending out correspondence by snail mail (traditional) rather than sending via e-mail. The cost of postage is continuing to rise and that means additional costs for organization's budgets, not to mention an extra couple of days for the recipients to receive the correspondence.

Even though most correspondence between nonprofits and their membership is via electronic means (mostly e-mail), postage and paper (i.e., copy paper, letterhead and envelopes) are still factoring into the operating budget. Many synagogues still feel it is necessary to mail paper flyers on colored copy paper out to members, afraid that older members don’t use e-mail and the people have grown accustomed to receiving event information that way. Many nonprofits still send monthly newsletters and annual reports to their entire donor base despite the unnecessary cost, even though an electronic copy is much easier and cost effective. Rather than sending paper invitations, using online invitation applications like Evite, Paperless Post and Facebook make organizing attendee responses much easier as well (and studies show that events are better attended when invitees can see who is attending).

In 2014 there is no excuse for a nonprofit organization or a synagogue not to have e-mail addresses for all of its members and donors. Some might appreciate receiving a hard copy newsletter each month, but the associated cost is extraneous. If individuals prefer a printed copy of the newsletter or event flyers, they can print out the PDF (portable document format) at their own cost on their printer and then attach it to the fridge or read it in the bathroom as they wish. Further, they can print multiple copies if they choose (a second copy for a friend or for the bulletin board at the office).

This might prove to be a difficult transition for some organizations, but their supporters will get used to it and will come to appreciate the cost savings. Most of these nonprofits are already on their way to being paper-free by communicating through e-mail newsletters like Constant Contact and Mailchimp, increasing their engagement on social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, and texting members event reminders.

Sending out 16-20 page glossy newsletters is not only a dispensable expense, it's also not environmentally prudent. Nonprofits will be improving their carbon footprint in addition to reallocating funds by focusing more on electronic communication. It's only a matter of time until we look back nostalgically on the time when we received correspondence from our congregations and the charitable organizations we support in the traditional mail. Reading our monthly bulletins and annual reports on, responding to event invitations on Facebook, and downloading event flyers from Pinterest will become as second nature as checking our e-mail, sharing news on Facebook, and making online donations.

Originally posted to the Jewish Techs blog in The Jewish Week


Barry Kanarek said...

But don't forget about the older, non-email-friendly regulars. If you're 80+ and legally blind (like my mom), email is a problem.

Barry Kanarek

Phyllis said...

While e-mail is undoubtedly a wonderful new tool, you make some broad and inaccurate generalizations. Saying “In 2014 there is no excuse for a nonprofit organization or a synagogue not to have e-mail addresses for all of its members and donors” is just not true. We have hundreds of loyal, generous donors who are older, and do not use e-mail or prefer not to have us communicate with them that way. Any organization needs to know its constituents well, and use the approach that fits their needs best. It's important to remember the First Principle of marketing: know your customers, and give them what they want.

Sruli Greenberger said...

That's why our shul has DigiZman. Its a web based Digital Zmanim Information System, that engages shul members with everything shul related in real time. Besides the attractively well designed service times, the shul official in charge can send info/pictures from his smartphone. Overhead and more is covered by soliciting sponsors to attach their logo to the wekly zmanim. Talk about Updating Communication... DigiZman is revolutionary" --Sruli Greenberger

Mark Barkan said...

I must agree with an author, new technologies must be used everywhere, esspecialy in such things as communications. Yes, were are some people, who does not have email, as was said in previous comments, but much greater part of people use it everyday. What I want to say, is that ofcourse old ways are good, but we live in new century an old organisation must change with time.

Rabbi David Bockman said...

It is true that e-mail, etc, have become important resources. At the same time, as e-mails increase, the amount of things in my inbox I ACTUALLY loo through has decreased greatly. There is a glut of spam in e-mail these days. I actually believe very strongly that if one believes in one's cause, one needs to let people know in multiple modes: e-mail, facebook, mail, pulpit announcements, the real and the virtual grapevine. Hopefully people can filter through the dross and hone in on the nuggets of gold .