Donors: To Publicly Recognize or Not to Publicly Recognize?

Posted on: January 20th, 2010 by Hayim Herring

Difficult issues, those which involve competing values, can be argued persuasively from either point of view. In this post, I want to raise one of those issues: should congregations specially recognize donors who contribute significant funds or should all financial gifts be treated equally? In the former case, there are many different forms of public recognition, ranging from permanent naming opportunities to publicity in a synagogue publication. In the latter case, where all gifts are treated equally, that would mean that donations of any amount are either recognized the same way or not recognized at all. 

When it comes to giving philanthropy or tzedakah to a needy person, an authoritative Jewish source ranks completely anonymous giving—where neither the donor nor the recipient know one another—as one of the highest forms of philanthropy/ tzedakah (Rambam, Mishneh Torah Hilkhot Tzedakah 10:7-14). Yet, while this source preferences anonymous giving, it doesn’t dismiss the value of giving in cases where the donor knows who the recipient is, the recipient knows who the donor is, or in which they both know who is the giver and who is the receiver. The issue at stake is preserving the dignity of the recipient. Clearly, when the donor is at arm’s length from the recipient, the recipient’s dignity is better-respected. But even if this condition can’t be met, giving tzedakah is still considered a noble and required act. And this is one of the sources that has more generally influenced the way in which people should ideally donate money, if not anonymously, then at least quietly.

Ideally, synagogue leaders try to embody the highest level of values. While in most of the synagogues that I know the preferred notion of anonymous giving is preferable, publicly recognizing donors is more practical.  Some of the arguments against public recognition are:

  • It can distort values because leaders will “bend the rules” to favor major donors.
  • It diminishes those who give time, an equally needed volunteer gift, but can’t afford to give money.
  • It creates a culture of aristocracy, where human worth is equated with wealth and financial privilege trumps the value that all people are created equally in God’s image.

On the other hand, there are strong arguments in favor of public recognition of significant gifts:

  • It stimulates peer giving among those who can afford to give but might not without a policy of recognition.
  • It honors those who make participation in synagogue life possible for those who can’t contribute financially.
  • It offers an educational platform for contributing significant funds to the Jewish community, which captures a small proportion of Jewish philanthropic dollars.

I know colleagues who have educated their volunteer leaders about not specially acknowledging major contributions to their synagogues. But they are in the minority. While we’re trying to puzzle through these tough financial times and we’re assessing and revising what the new “normal” is in giving, what do you think about this issue? Should congregations acknowledge major gifts, or avoid doing so? Also, share your stories about how congregations have made this decision.

Thanks for helping to create a rich discussion (pun intended).

Rabbi Hayim Herring

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