Synagogue Dues: Can’t it be More Personal?

I worked on a project with a leadership group of a synagogue in the South. It is near a couple of major universities with teaching hospitals so its membership is comprised of many academics and physicians.

The congregational leaders told me there is a neighboring Presbyterian church that is half the size of the synagogue and has double its budget. I asked how this could happen.

Utilizing the model of stewardship that many churches follow, the synagogue leaders explained, there is a period of a few months each year when the church leaders meet with in person or call every congregant. They ask how things are going for them and their families. They also inquire how the church has impacted their lives.  At the end of the meeting or the call, the church leader thanks the congregant for their time and says, “Last year, you and Sally were so generous in supporting our stewardship drive with a contribution of $1800. We hope that we can count on you this year for an increased gift of $2200.”

It is the personal conversations that seem to be missing when it comes to synagogue dues.

At many synagogues, the office staff will soon be sending out dues statements. There may be an accompanying letter with the salutation “Dear Friends” that explains the need for an increase in dues, or notes that the board was able to keep the dues at last year’s level. The letter might also review some of the achievements of the synagogue:  adult education, religious school, or community programs.  All the letters are the same, though your kids might be in college or you were unable to attend any programs.

Few congregations have veered off the traditional path of the tried and true.  Several months ago, an article at ejewishphilanthropy.com told the story of Temple Israel in Sharon, MA that revamped their dues program to allow congregants to pay the amount with which they are comfortable. The leadership makes a concerted effort to share with the congregation the costs per family that will be incurred in the upcoming year to carry out its programmatic agenda, pay the clergy and staff, and of course all the other related expenses that a synagogue serving 700 families incurs.

Temple Brit Achim in King of Prussia, PA, is following a similar model.  Congregation Sukkat Shalom in Wilmette, IL has followed this model for several years.

In these congregations, there is no longer the need for any type of dues relief or abatement process. That is probably a big relief in terms of both time and anxiety for the treasurers or executive directors, those who in the past have had such conversations with congregants.

I am suggesting that synagogues adopt the personalized concepts of the church stewardship model to their dues programs.  You might ask, “How can we have personal or phone conversations with all of the families in our synagogue?” Select 100 or 200 families the first year. Or select all of the people who have contributed over and above the set dues level that is established.  And here are some questions to make your conversations meaningful:

-What does Temple ABC mean to you and your families?

-How has Temple ABC impacted your lives?

-What is your vision of Temple ABC in 5 years in terms of new programs?

-How can we strengthen Temple ABC to be an even more vibrant sacred community?

Be sure to thank them for their contributions in the prior year. And ask them to consider an increased gift – give them an amount to think about – for the upcoming year.

In this way, the dues process becomes more meaningful for everyone and helps build stronger connections among congregants, essential for turning a congregation into a sacred community.

Posted in News
12 comments on “Synagogue Dues: Can’t it be More Personal?
  1. Michael Kayman says:

    Very perceptive approach/suggestions. I agree that a higher degree of “touch” will lead to more dues (but it is very hard to do and very time consuming) and that dues end up being capped with a minimum dues structure. People’s perception of value they get from the synagogue, fairness compared to what others pay, and share of the wallet perception often limit dues/giving.

    • admin says:

      Hi Michael,

      Thanks for your comments. Congregants thinking about value and what they get for their dues is very common today. I am suggesting that the more of a connection people feel to a synagogue, the question of value will dissipate. The stronger the connection, the better collections a synagogue will have as well.

      Thanks again for taking the time to post here.

      Best,

      David

  2. Bonnie Lasky says:

    Thank you for researching and providing this important information. I have sent it to our executive committee in hopes that we will focus our efforts on this very subject.
    Bonnie Lasky
    Past President
    Congregation Shir Shalom

    • admin says:

      Thanks, Bonnie. I am happy to have helped begin a more in-depth conversation on this important topic.

      Best,

      David

  3. Alice Miller says:

    Great article. While we specify dues categories, each family is given the opportunity to discuss their situation. We do not ask them to fill out any forms or prove their need. If they say they can’t pay the full amount, I ask them how much they can pay on a monthly basis.

  4. Larry Kaufman says:

    You suggest getting started with a “high touch” contact program by talking with 100 or 200 congregants. I suggest there is a step before that. The conversation has to take place with every member of the temple board, for all these reasons:

    1. Presumably these are the people with the greatest understanding of the costs involved in running the synagogue.
    2. By agreeing to serve, they have already affirmed a commitment — but now they need to put their money where their mouth is.
    3. Most temple board members understand that serving as a role model is one of the responsibilities of board membership, and advocacy is another. The congregation will ask, What has the Board done? And if the Board hasn’t done enough, the congregation will do less.
    4. I like the suggestion to ask for the congregant’s vision for the congregation, but the interviewer should also be ready to articulate the leadership’s vision. Everyone reading this blog knows that people don’t give to problems, they give to opportunities.

    With all due regard to the confidentiality of all these discussions, it’s also important to be able to tell people what their peers are doing, and therefore to get permission from “good givers” to share the information.

  5. Victor S. Appell says:

    One of the first things we can do is change the language we use. No one likes paying dues, whether it is to a professional organization or to a health club. I do believe, however, that if we are able to, we will offer our support to causes and organizations that share and promote our values. “Financial support” or “financial commitment” may not role off the tongue as easily as “dues” but it may be the first step in changing how we think about supporting our congregations.

  6. Ann Wenger says:

    This idea sounds much like a fair share dues commitment. I feel it could work if the temple has the right people with this talent, to make the congregant feel comfortable discussing what how they feel about their experiences and to share what they can afford to give.
    My temple has a set dues and many congregants give above that amount. Then we have people who anonymously give to support special programs.
    I think the best way for a temple to be financely health is to start an endowment fins for the future. Costs are going very rapidly and due will not be about to catch up

  7. Laura Schwartz says:

    Hi, David,
    It seems to me that a combination of many of the techniques suggested in the preceding comments must be used to maintain the financial health of congregations. An endowment is essential, and can help motivate donors, as is a planned giving alternative. I think your idea of “high touch” is excellent, but means a change in the culture of many synagogue communities. Boards of synagogue need to join the rest of the nonprofit world and see that part of their role as fiduciaries is fund raising, which means being part of the team that reaches out to congregants in the way you describe. I’ll be sharing your post with the rest of my board.

    Laura Schwartz,Vice President for Membership and Fundraising, Congregation Beth Chaim, Princeton Junction, NJ

  8. Thanks David
    This is really helpful and reminds me that for most of my career I as in Arts Non-Profit Management – where donor conversations took place daily about the direction the organization was going and what could they do to help. Religious organizations are even more in the business of pleasing and working with people. Without them we don’t have a reason for being. Call them dues or donations they are really people we want and need to connect with on a daily bases. Sorry I got to go and send out my yearly “Evil Dues” letter asking for an increase . . .
    Thanks again for your blog – very helpful. I am now hooked and look forward to next weeks

  9. Morry says:

    I think this is a great idea for large shul’s of greater than 400 member families. We are a small shul that has only been in existence for 5 years. We have 140 member families. We have a part-time rabbi and cantor and along with a vibrant Hebrew school with 60 children, teachers are paid. We are in the midst of a capital campaign to move to a permanent facility. Dues are our main source of operating income. If you can tell me how the math will work for small synagogues I would be happy to use this method.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>