Jewish Non-Profits and Social Media - Do They Get It?
02/16/2012 - 08:17
Rabbi Jason Miller
Are Jewish Non-Profits adding social media to their arsenal of marketing tools?
Are Jewish Non-Profits adding social media to their arsenal of marketing tools?
Cross-posted to

As a rabbi who is a social mediaologist, I find myself consulting a lot of synagogues and Jewish nonprofits on their social media strategy. The leaders of these institutions all recognize that they require a social media strategy, but the plan for how it will be implemented varies greatly.

Many synagogues in 2012 have yet to budget for social media marketing so they look for the quickest and cheapest solution. In most cases this comprises of identifying a volunteer lay person or existing staff member who is willing and able to set up the congregation's social media presence across the major networks. In some instances this is a teen who claims to be a Facebook wiz and over-promises and under-delivers. With many volunteers, congregations often get what they pay for.

Jewish organizations seem to be a little further ahead than synagogues in the social media department. Third party retailers like Target and Home Depot have forced nonprofit institutions to get on the social media bandwagon quickly because of their online contests in which the retailer partners with nonprofits for fundraising prizes. These crowd-raising initiatives have required nonprofits to bolster their social identity online to compete in the contests.

While businesses in the for-profit world have allocated serious funds to their online marketing initiative, the nonprofit world is still light-years behind. That should be no surprise because nonprofits often take a wait-and-see attitude when it comes to change.

Robert Evans and Avrum Lapin recently wrote on the eJewishPhilanthropy blog about an unofficial survey they conducted to investigate how Jewish nonprofits are "utilizing social media and how it enables them to meet the demands that they and their leaders are facing." From the outset, they assert that the picture is not entirely positive and quote a synagogue software system developer lamenting that "most of the Jewish world seems frozen in the 20th century when it comes to being technologically advanced."

Our recent survey demonstrated a significant lack of human or dollar resources invested by Jewish groups into Facebook and Twitter. Very few synagogues even seem to have any presence on Facebook or Twitter, although they all have websites, many of which are reasonably interactive. Robyn Cimbol, director of development at New York City’s Temple Emanu-El, noted that her congregation was probably the first Jewish congregation to have a website but today they have no specific plans to foster Facebook or Twitter activities, citing other pressing priorities and no apparent demands from their 2,800 member households. “We have limited staff resources and capabilities for this,” she noted, “but we are gearing up ultimately to recognize social media as one communications opportunity,” she told us. She did emphasize that “a number of staff members do use Face Book [sic]… to communicate with specific constituents but it is not used Temple-wide.”

Facebook reports that 89% of 1.3 million U.S. nonprofit organizations boast a social networking presence, offering opportunities potentially for fundraising. However, fundraising on Facebook is still a “minority effort,” despite recent gains.

The authors of the study recognize that the Jewish nonprofits that have succeeded the most in social media marketing have been those that have participated in social fundraisers with third parties, such as mega-retailers or major foundations. Many organizations that find themselves competing in these online social fundraisers have allocated staff time or in some cases hired dedicated part-time staff to manage these initiatives (if they win there is a good return on investment).

The Jewish Education Project and JESNA’s Lippman Kanfer Institute (in partnership with UJA Federation of New York) have launched the Jewish Futures Competition, which will dole out $1,800 prizes for Jewish nonprofits to advance their social media identities. As more synagogues and Jewish nonprofits become more focused on bolstering their social media exposure (moving from building their fan base on a Facebook page to increasing their brand amplification through likes, comments and shares), they will integrate their email marketing (Constant Contact, MailChimp, etc.) and online fundraising (Razoo, CauseCast, DonorPages, etc.) into their social networking.

Evans and Lapin's study demonstrates that nonprofits do understand the value in using social networks for fundraising. "According to this year’s Nonprofit Social Network Benchmark Report, four out of five nonprofit organizations find social networks a 'valuable' fundraising option." However, these same nonprofits aren't able to quantify why that is. It is important to remember that social media is still in its infancy. As it grows (and its exponential growth doesn't seem to be slowing down any time soon), more synagogues and nonprofits will get on board by allocating the necessary resources to its success.

As they say, the "proof is in the pudding" and the ROI will be noticeable for the synagogues and Jewish nonprofits who dedicate the necessary time and resources to building their brand/mission exposure through social media. Change is never easy and the nonprofit world is more risk averse when it comes to technological innovation. At least the conversations about social media integration are taking place in the Jewish nonprofit world, and the studies are showing that a realization exists that this is a necessary form of communication, marketing and fundraising in the 21st century.

Rabbi Jason Miller is an entrepreneurial rabbi and technologist. He is president of Access Computer Technology in Michigan and blogs regularly at Follow him on Twitter @rabbijason.


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Rabbi Jason, thanks for another important and thoughtful post.

Elaine, I'm not familiar with any studies that suggest that nonprofits have been slower to adopt social media than, say, the business world. In fact, I've seen that the opposite is true - and for exactly the reasons you mention in your second paragraph: stewarding and serving membership.

"US Nonprofits' Social Media Adoption Outpaces All Other Sectors for Third Year in a Row According to New Research"

"Nonprofits Ahead of the Curve Using Social Media"

I agree 100%, though, that nonprofit organizations across the board need to first look at their value proposition (and their own values) before diving in. Any communications or social media initiative needs to be grounded in values, vision, and real-world work if it is to be successful.

Arnie, I think your instincts are on-target. Adopting social media as part of a communications (or fundraising, or friendraising, or networking, etc.) strategy implies a huge cultural shift. The social media world demands transparency (or "organizational nakedness" as I've heard some call it), realness, and openness on levels that can feel very intimidating. But getting comfortable with the tools, language, and culture of social media now will give Jewish organizations a huge advantage in realizing their visions as social technologies continue to develop and become more deeply integrated into our lives.

Nonprofits, in general, have been slower on adapting social media. Of those that use it regularly, studies show it has not been a boon to fundraising as one would hope. In fact, many nonprofits are not measuring the ROI of using social media with effective metrics. The reason has a lot to do with the fact that they don't have a marketing plan, from which evolves a social media strategy.

In my own experience, as a congregant and nonprofit marketing consultant, I would say that the energy congregations consider putting into social media would be better spent developing solid membership retention strategies first. After all, the whole point of engaging online is to steward and serve members. If they're lapsing and congregations don't have a clue why, I'd say they need to find out and look at their value proposition.

Elaine Fogel

One challenge of the use of social media by Jewish non-profits, is the level of comfort with a culture of transparency, as pointed out by Allison Fine and Beth Kanter in their book, The Networked Nonprofit. Many Jewish nonprofits still want a culture in which they (and their communications or branding consultants) want to control their message. Social media's world, on the other hand, is all about the "crowds" being in charge of the messages. Again, to quote Allison and Beth, most nonprofits are somewhere on the continuum between total control of messaging and radical transparency.

My hope is that Jewish organizations will find that the gains of transparency will prove to be so compelling that they will take the journey and the risk needed to move from top-down communication to the culture that is part of the world of social media.

Rabbi Arnold D. Samlan
Founder and Owner
Jewish Connectivity

Good article, but I think you are doing a disservice by linking fundraising to social media use. The vast majority of dollars raised will continue to come from a small number of mostly older Jews who could care less about FB and Twitter. The main return on appropriate use of social media will come out in event participation, easier access to information, stronger sense of community, better community engagement around social issues, stronger links to young people graduating out of BM programs, more success reaching non-affiliated Jews, etc. All that might occur, and even result in a small fundraising boost - but a synagogue would be hard pressed to prove a link after the fact.

The best argument for synagogues to invest in social media is to examine the Pew numbers around how people communicate. 40% of people's day is spent in front of a screen. Imagine that 10% of the day is spent with Facebook and Twitter open on your desktop. What is the impact of synagogues making themselves absent on that channel? The answer is still coming in, but it's not good.