The “Pay What You Want” Model is now mainstream. An article last week in the New York Times has made it so.
What really troubles me is that many people are talking about this “Pay What You Want”, or “Pledge Model”, as the best thing since the discovery of white bread (or is it sliced bread, I can’t really remember).
Michael Paulson in his New York Times article wrote 30 synagogues “across North America are “striking a new trend” by eliminating dues and adopting a “pay what you want model”. Eric Goldstein, the CEO of the UJA Federation of New York, added that while it is a very small percentage of the synagogues in the country “it is picking up steam”. The SYNERGY report, from the UJA Federation’s synagogue group, highlights the 30 congregations that are utilizing this approach in lieu of the more traditional dues models.
Think about this:
There are 900 Reform Synagogues in North America.
There are 675 Conservative “Kehilot”.
And 103 Reconstructionist synagogues.
This of course does not take into account the Orthodox and Renewal synagogues, unaffiliated congregations and independent Minyanim.
Is it a groundswell in the synagogue world – at least for Conservative, Reconstructionist and Reform synagogues anyway – when less than 2% of synagogues are doing it?
Don’t get me wrong. There are elements of the pledge model I like very much:
- Financial transparency by the board with congregants is something all congregations – and not-for-profit organizations – should be doing. Recently, the financial challenges of FEGS – akin to what many of us know as Jewish Vocational Service with a budget of over $200 million – and the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, have been in the news. Stuff like this happens in synagogues, too. Financial transparency with stakeholders helps create and strengthen trust between congregants and board members.
- Focusing on the mission and values of the congregation is also important. For as long as I can remember, there have been many synagogue leaders doing this well as a matter of just being a sacred community.
- Abandoning the dues relief process that is actually so painstaking for people asking for dues relief and even for some representing the synagogue’s leadership. Years ago, I remember visiting synagogues where they were still asking people requesting dues relief to submit tax returns. This practice, too, has been on the wane.
Synagogues that continue to use more traditional dues models and that are not struggling financially already incorporate some or all of these elements in their transactional approach and in everything that they do. .
The data in the SYNERGY study is helpful. Membership growth and a 4% increase in income are certainly good. But what about the numbers of people who are no longer members?
Efforts to engage Baby Boomers – and others – so their synagogue involvement is an integral part of their lives will also do much for the fiscal health of synagogues.
While I am bothered by some of the math – I am not sure that 2% of anything is a true indicator that new business practices are taking hold – it is still just a new model for the primary financial transaction congregants will conduct each year. It won’t replace other fundraising efforts (High Holy Day and End of Year appeals, the annual Gala, rummage sale and the like).
More to the point, why aren’t we talking more about how to better engage congregants in being Jewish? How do we help people find meaning in Worship, Jewish learning, and Social Justice?
Many thanks to Nina Badzin, who penned an article for kveller.com in response to the New York Times article. She expressed so well that synagogues need to focus on showing people the joy of Judaism and how it can give meaning to their lives. Synagogues need to focus on this, and people will feel more engaged – and be more supportive financially- in their sacred communities.
“Engage members with discussions on how to be a better person, a better parent, sibling, spouse, friend, and a more ethical business person, and they will come back for more. If Judaism cannot answer the big questions in life and be relevant in our homes and everyday life, then members will go somewhere else and take their dollars with them”.
Synagogues as well as our North American institutions – religious Movements, Jewish Federations, JCCs, and others- need to devote resources and be mission driven to help Jews to grow Jewishly.
Then the financial challenges will take care of themselves.