Honoring the Influential

May 1, 2006
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Aliza Kline

How does a Jewish community organization meet its fund raising goals while maintaining its integrity and honoring its mission? Most Jewish organizations incorporate honorees into their fundraising events because by honoring influential people, we expand our prospect lists, raise money from new sources, and build a sense of community ownership by celebrating people who contribute valuable resources. Development committees struggle to create a list of potential honorees that will ultimately help reach the campaign goals. Honorees should be philanthropic in their own right, involved in the community, and, most significantly, personally connected with the organization.

Acknowledging a community member demands sensitivity and integrity. Sharing their personal and professional address books demands enormous trust between the honoree and the development professionals or event chairs. The honoree is likely to feel vulnerable and exposed; with his or her list entrusted to the organization, the honoree may be concerned that friends, family, and colleagues will feel compelled to offer support. We can resolve this tension by drawing a vivid picture of the honoree’s genuine connection to the organization’s mission.

That connection should respect the honoree’s personal style and maintain the Jewish ethic of humility. While we are instructed to “walk modestly with your God” (Micah 6:8) (and avoid boasting about charitable contributions), our sources also teach that there are times when it is advisable to publicize a donor’s good deeds. In Kitzur Shulhan Arukh 34:13, we are taught, “But if one consecrates a certain article for charitable purposes, it is permissible to have his name engraved thereon so that it serves as a memorial; this is a proper thing to do.” That is, the motivation for giving should not be for the sake of recognition, but if the recognition will memorialize and inspire others, then it is permissible.

Protecting an honoree’s humility while also teaching about tzedakah can be challenging. At Mayyim Hayyim Living Waters Community Mikveh and Education Center, we are guided by a list of Jewish values including hiddur mitzvah , beautifying the mitzvah, and chinuch, education. We consider our fundraising events successful only if they meet our financial and educational goals.

For example, we have created a “Nachshon Award” based on the midrashic character in the Exodus narrative who took the first “leap of faith” into the Sea of Reeds before the waters parted. The award fits our organization, a community mikveh (ritual bath), and allows us to acknowledge community leaders and visionaries. This past year the award went to one of our organization’s founders, a senior rabbi known for his ability to challenge – with humility – the status quo. A colleague of his, who is a cantor, wrote an original song that linked the honoree’s leadership to Nachshon.

Mayyim Hayyim’s annual major fundraiser is The Mikveh Monologues, a theatrical and musical performance based on personal immersion stories. The performance, which illustrates our work, honors a major donor, teaches Jewish values, and inspires involvement. The challenge of our sacred work is capturing the excitement and building on the connection with the honoree. When we give the audience something to “take home,” they feel like they are getting more than they gave – and that is a great place to be when cultivating a deeper relationship.

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