Years ago, it was pew fees that was the funding mechanism of synagogues. Where one sat at the High Holy Days was the determinant as to how much you were to contribute to your synagogue. The closer you sat to the Bima, the more you were obligated to donate. There are a handful of non-Orthodox – in addition to Orthodox ones, I guess – synagogues today which still utilize this annual funding method.
Post World War II, annual dues became popular. There was fixed dues, fair share dues and hybrid models. Along with what families were paying for religious school tuition, any of these various dues models seemed to be enough to cover the synagogue’s annual expenses. There would be the obligatory building fund one began to pay over 5 years when you joined to cover building expenses. And perhaps an occasional building campaign to renovate, expand or even move and build something new that targeted those with capacity and interest.
During the 1990s, many synagogues began to look to other streams of income. Traditional fundraising efforts such as a High Holy Day Appeal and fundraising events; facility rentals whether it be for a Bar/Bat Mitzvah or wedding celebration, or a long engagement to a school program. Looking to a university model, synagogues were encouraged to create and grow endowment funds in order to utilize a portion of the annual return for operating expenses.
Today, the mantra “if you build it, they will come” is no longer a guiding principle for synagogue leaders to follow. Many Baby Boomers and Generation X leave the synagogue once their children have had their Bar/Bat Mitzvah. Experience and research tells us that Millennials are not joining synagogues in the same way that their parents did.
The synagogue funding model continues to evolve. In recent years, a number of synagogues have adapted a Voluntary Dues Model. 60 synagogues is the current number, double the number from a few years ago. Remember, there are more than 1400 Conservative and Reform synagogues in North America, not counting Reconstructionist, Renewal, Orthodox and unaffiliated. And I am sure that there are leaders of several congregations that continue to ponder whether making such a change would be better operationally and philosophically.
The straight numbers might not make one overly enthusiastic about the voluntary dues model. The average increase in membership was 3.6 %. Average income from dues/annual commitments was 1.8%. From reading the report, though, and a recent article, leaders of synagogues that have made such a change are certainly feeling good about it.
No matter the dues model – fixed dues, fair share dues, voluntary dues, or even pew fees – focusing on engaging people through worship, relationships, and programming to build community is more important than the funding model.
The experiences of synagogues who have adopted the Voluntary Dues model highlight that former congregants are returning. And there is no longer a need for dues relief where congregants had to have uncomfortable conversations with the synagogue treasurer or executive director about their financial situation.
The new voluntary approach, or any dues model, does not take away the need for synagogue leaders to continue to raise funds. For synagogues of all sizes, dues and tuition from Religious School, and Early Childhood programs are still supplemented by the various streams of income: whether that be through traditional fundraising activities like a High Holy Day Appeal or special events; renting out the facility; or growing your synagogue’s endowment fund to generate additional income.