Shmita for development professionals: Turning your next fundraising campaign from fallow to bountiful

We just welcomed in 5782, a shmita year. We know that Jewish educators and rabbis likely have shmita on their radar, but what about the development professionals? Probably not, huh? Shmita today does not have to be your foremothers and forefathers shmita. So, let’s get to the heart of what shmita can mean, and why it should be important to today’s philanthropic marketplace in the modern Jewish world.  

The shmita year is traditionally the year when the fields are left fallow, and when debts are forgiven. The first mention of shmita in the Torah was in Exodus 23:10-11 “For six years you are to sow your land and to gather in its produce, but in the seventh, you are to let it go and to let it be, that the needy of your people may eat…” 

We see that shmita is part of a cycle—as are many fundraising campaigns. As most development professionals, executive directors and board presidents know, as one campaign ends, it is soon time for the next one to begin. Shmita is the seventh year in a seven-year cycle. Just as other cycles of seven, such as creation and the days of the week, the seventh is seen as a period of rest, characterized by a sacredness that sets it apart from the six that came before.   

To be clear, we are not suggesting that you take a year off from fundraising. Yes, G-d said he would “dispatch his blessing” for the year before shmita (Lev. 25:21) to make up for the lack of production for the coming year, but we are not prepared to assume that all nonprofits will share in that kind of blessing in the modern world.  

At The Lapin Group, we often hear from organizations who have determined a financial goal to construct a new building or advance or build a new program (or both) and want to begin fundraising immediately. In almost every single situation, we strongly recommend (or should we say cheerily insist) a pre-campaign phase before the financial asks begin. Donors do not appear out of thin air—even if they are already among your dedicated stakeholders. Here are three suggestions for how you can use the concept of shmita as a catalyst for a bountiful harvest in your next fundraising campaign.  

Take the time to step back and plan for the future

Spend a moment on a strategic step back. Take a deep look at your organization’s value proposition and what you need to do to advance it for current and future stakeholders and constituents. When you are ready to begin the fundraising campaign, it is essential that all those involved, especially those who will be involved on both sides of the most important “asks” are not just clear about your value proposition, but are also wholehearted advocates and believers.  

Reconnect and build relationships

A pre-campaign assessment (PCA) serves to assess the scope and strategic approach of a fundraising campaign, and is an incredible tool to reconnect and build relationships with current and prospective stakeholders. This is a directed fact-finding and “pre-marketing” effort comprised of quiet and confidential discussions with key philanthropic and opinion leaders.  

As an essential fundraising tool, the PCA provides a framework for developing an effective and tailored campaign.  Just as importantly, it provides opportunities for personal touchpoints with members of your current community and with the potential leaders, donors, and advocates you seek to attract. Shmita was a time to provide for the “needy.” In this spirit, it is an opportunity to listen about the priorities of your potential donors, and how your vision and theirs can come together to provide for those who are in need today.

Define your line between “need” and “want” 

The commandment of shmita is a beautiful example of the Jewish value of helping others. If you are planning a fundraising campaign during shmita, consider framing it within this context. Just like the Biblical imperative of shmita provided a means for the “needy of your people to eat,” a shmita year campaign can be built around elements of supporting your nonprofit’s core needs as well as a renewed focus on the underprivileged in your community; food insecurity, student debt, domestic violence or any issue area that may not receive the voice it needs and deserves.    

Shmita only comes around once every seven years. While some nonprofits, like environmental organizations and synagogues, may be the most apt to build it into their program calendar, this is an opportunity for all Jewish organizations, and donors, to show Jewish sensibility, knowledge, compassion and resolve.  

Avrum Lapin is president and Ross Berkowitz is a consultant at The Lapin Group, LLC, based in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, a full-service fundraising, and management consulting firm for leading nonprofits. For full bios, please visit the TLG website here.

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