Should dues model change Survey gives no clear answer

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An eJewishPhilanthropy.com piece four years ago titled “Scrapping Synagogue Dues” recounted one congregation’s journey toward a dues-model change. In lieu of fixed dues, Boston area Temple Sharon asked members to pay an “annual commitment,” choosing an amount they were comfortable with — a model still in use today.

Since then, many reports, articles, studies and books have appeared on the topic, exploring how to raise the revenues necessary to fulfill Conservative congregations’ missions.

Over the last four years, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism has conversed with leaders of hundreds of USCJ-affiliated congregations about their current dues models and the possibility of change, and recently collected data from 295 of them via survey.

Barry S. Mael

According to the results, of the five dues models studied, the fixed dues model is used by 67 percent of congregations, with no other model claiming more than a small share. (The sustaining/voluntary pledge and tiered models are each used in 10 percent of congregations, while the progressive tax/fair share model is used in just 7 percent).

While 65 percent of kehillot (congregations) have considered and researched other options over the last five years, only 18 percent have actually followed through and made a change. Of these synagogues, 40 percent moved from the fixed-dues model to the sustaining model (based on the premise that each member would need to pay a certain amount to sustain a congregation’s budgetary needs).

Since switching, 53 percent indicated their dues revenue remained flat, 39 percent indicated a slight increase and 8 percent a slight decrease.

Also after the dues change, nearly half of the respondents indicated that membership numbers remained flat, 35 percent showed an increase in membership and 17 percent a decrease.

A 2015 UJA Federation of New York Synergy report (“Are Voluntary Dues Right for Your Synagogue?”) reported that 88 percent of the synagogues that had made the move to a sustaining/voluntary dues model had less than 550 membership units.

USCJ data was similar, finding that only 4 percent of kehillot with more than 599 membership units have made a dues change. In other words, large congregations tend not to change their ways.

Reasons could be the size and complexity of the organizations, as well as the need for individual contact with a majority of the membership during this kind of change — a huge human resources burden.

Moving to giving, 73 percent of synagogues indicated they have some endowment or restricted funds, but only 33 percent are actively cultivating donors for endowment, planned or legacy giving.

It became clear from comments in the USCJ survey that fear of revenue loss, uncertainty about risk/reward and fear of change are the primary reasons more of our kehillot are not considering dues-model changes.

However, the data suggests that congregations that have changed their model have fared the same or better than with their previous model, both in terms of revenues and membership numbers.

Equally important, the data points to the urgent need to develop planned or legacy-giving programs to compensate for decreasing dues revenue. While many of our synagogues have some endowment money owing to previous fundraising, mergers or past fiscal policy, most are not actively involved in developing or growing existent endowments, yet this important revenue stream cannot be ignored.

While dues remain and will continue to be a significant part of sustaining Jewish communal life, dues are just a piece of the financial sustainability puzzle.

Barry S. Mael is director of Kehilla Operations and Finance at the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. This piece originally appeared at eJewishPhilanthropy.com.