Editorial | Voluntary dues at synagogues a rich idea

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Over the years J. has run many stories about the challenges synagogues face in attracting and retaining members while maintaining financial solvency. As costs of membership rise, congregants struggle to keep up, leading to an increasing number of requests for dues reductions that can result in awkward conversations and uncertain balance sheets.

Some synagogues around the country have experimented with a voluntary dues policy, asking members to give whatever amount they feel is fair and affordable. Those experiments have met with mixed success. Some Bay Area synagogues have found a way to make it work, but at least one San Francisco congregation tried and then abandoned the scheme.

As reported in a story in our Synagogue Today section, Peninsula Sinai Congregation in Foster City is taking that experimental model one step further, doing away not just with mandatory dues but also religious school tuition. Yes, the Conservative synagogue initially may experience a shortfall, but the gamble is that it will more than make up the amount by attracting more new families enrolling their kids in the school. According to experts who study synagogue funding trends, it is the first sizeable congregation to take this step.

It’s so bold it just might work.

There are good reasons for taking this chance. Counterintuitive as it seems at first glance, the voluntary dues model has been shown to increase revenues, by as much as 5 percent in some cases. It’s been suggested that congregants who aren’t stressing over a burdensome dues obligation imposed by the synagogue are more willing to pay an amount of their choosing.

There is another important reason for going forward with this experiment that speaks to the idea of what constitutes a community. Synagogues aren’t the only institutions rethinking the classic “fee-for-service” membership model in favor of a more collaborative approach to financial sustainability, one that trades on people’s desire to feel they are an integral part of a given institution rather than a customer. The thinking behind the voluntary dues model is that people become more invested emotionally when they must think deeply about the value a given institution brings to their lives. How much are you willing to contribute so that your synagogue survives? What is its real worth to you?

We commend Peninsula Sinai Congregation leaders on their bold plan, and we hope it results in riches of many kinds.