Paying our fair share

June 19, 2013
Washington-area congregations are taking a fresh look at their financial models.
By David Holzel
Senior writer

They pay their fair share at Beth El Hebrew Congregation in Alexandria.

The Reform synagogue sets its annual dues at 1-1.5 percent of members’ income, unless the member can’t afford to pay the amount. In this way, Beth El avoids dues rates that could seem arbitrary.

But 1 percent of a lot is a lot. And Rabbi Brett Isserow says he encounters resistance from some members for whom the amount seems like sticker shock.

“What has tended to happen is, they say, ‘All the synagogue is worth to me is $1,200. Take it or leave it,’ ” Isserow says. “That’s one of the issues of a fair share system.”

To keep that member from walking, he says, “we have to be relaxed about the whole approach.”

As synagogues around the Washington area send out their annual membership bills, Beth El has joined a number of Reform congregations around the country that are taking a fresh look at their financial models. The Conservative movement is also starting a program to reassess whether the ways its synagogues charge dues will be able to sustain the congregations in the long run. Both movements already know that it will take more than money. A big part of success will depend on the strength of the synagogues’ relations with their members.

“How to be fair, equitable and how to get everybody to pay is what we’re all facing,” Isserow says.

The Union for Reform Judaism’s “Reimagining Financial Support for your 21st Century Congregation,” is a two-year program designed to generate ideas that member synagogues will test. In March, a Beth El member joined representatives of 16 other Reform congregations nationwide in Chicago for an initial meeting.

Beth El then formed a task force to examine the congregation’s fair share system and to determine how well it is working. In the months ahead, it will examine other funding models and then recommend to the synagogue board a plan that it believes will work best for the congregation.

“By the spring of 2014, a plan for implementation of some fiscal change will be prepared for launching in individual congregations,” says Lisa Lieberman Barzilai, who oversees the national program for the Union for Reform Judaism. “This could be using a new membership model, a new fundraising strategy or some other financial innovation.”

Following that, the congregations will launch pilot programs they will have devised, she says.

Fixed dues

Unlike Beth El, many synagogues used a fixed-dues system, in which categories of members — families, single adults, seniors, young adults — pay particular amounts. If a member can’t meet the payment, the synagogue will reduce or eliminate the dues.

“Either you have to prove you need relief or the congregation can just give it,” Isserow says.

This system has its own downside. If a synagogue requires proof of need, that can damage its relationship with the member. If it acts on faith, it risks losing crucial funds from members who might actually be able to pay.

The larger problem with fixed dues is that “anyone who comes to the congregation will think the dues are too high and walk away,” Isserow says.

Temple Sinai in Washington was already looking at its future when it heard about “Reimagining Financial Support.”

“The temple was doing strategic thinking about dues and how we welcome people,” says executive director Ellen Agler. “Trends in the outside Jewish world have shifted —- there are diminishing affiliation rates. And there have been changes in the economy” brought on by the recession.

The congregation is stable, with 1,100 member households, she says. “Financially, we’re OK. But we really cannot be complacent. We have to recognize these trends.”

Like Beth El, Temple Sinai has established a dues task force. “We’ve been doing a modified fair share” based on ranges of income, with no proof of income required, she says.

They’re looking into not just how much people should pay, but “what might motivate people to stay longer or get more involved, so they’ll have a greater financial stake.”

Since the Chicago meeting, Temple Sinai, Beth El and the other congregations have participated in a series of webinars. One was led by a rabbi from Chabad, whose synagogues don’t charge dues, yet tend to flourish.

On dues alone?

But the question seems not to be how can you survive without charging dues, but how can you survive on dues alone. Barry Mael, director of kehilla (congregation) operations and finance for United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, says it can’t be done. Not anymore.

“There was a time when people were bringing in a lot of money, when money was flowing,” he says.

Even before the recession began, Jews’ relationships to synagogues had loosened. “It used to be that you joined a congregation because that’s what you do. A new generation looks at membership as more discretionary than required. They want to know, what am I getting out of it? That puts more onus on synagogue leadership.”

Both movements are looking at the “freewill giving model.” As Barzilai describes the approach, the synagogue’s leadership determines what the budget is and what a member’s share of the budget is and leaves it to the member to decide how much to pay — or to not pay.

“They say, ‘X is what we need everybody to pay.’ Some pay more and some pay less,” she says.

“The freewill giving model ties in philanthropy with dues,” Mael says, “with an understanding that we have to combine the two.”

Writing in eJewishPhilanthropy, Rabbi Dan Judson, who studies the history of synagogues and money, describes what happened when Temple Israel of Sharon, outside of Boston, scrapped its dues and instituted the voluntary freewill system.

Membership had been dropping and dues had been rising, which led to a decrease in revenue, when the Conservative synagogue made the change in 2008. The revenue decline slowed, then reversed. And membership increased, Judson writes, adding,

“One of the beneficial consequences of the new system is that the synagogue no longer has to chase people down who have not fulfilled their pledges.”

But success isn’t automatic or destined. “Building relationships is the critical piece,” Barzilai says. “The congregation needs to build strong, deep relations with members.”

Synagogues will need to treat “members more as donors, as customers we need to cultivate,” Mael adds.

Then, synagogues won’t “have to prove why members should give — they’ve already done that work. For most congregations that have tried [the freewill approach], the dues paid have gone up,” Barzilai says.

These are some of the options that congregations like Beth El and Temple Sinai will be considering in the coming months. They’re likely to keep in mind the basic truth that a happy congregant is often a giving congregant.

“If you do feel connected, you’ll find a way to support” your synagogue, Mael says. “People want to feel that they matter.”

dholzel@washingtonjewishweek.com  Twitter: @DavidHolzel

Comments OffComments