Dues: How Much Of An Increase?

If you needed to raise the dues level for next year’s budget, what do you think?

Jane, the president of a synagogue in a Midwestern university town called me recently. Besides Hillel, Jane’s synagogue is the only game in town. They have a few hundred families. There is a Conservative as well as a Renewal Minyan, and other times Reform is the worship mode of choice.

Jane shared with me that they need to build a couple of classrooms and upgrade the grounds to deal with a serious drainage issue. Many congregants are employed by the University, as professors and in various administrative roles. And a number of doctors.  Current dues are $1400 for a family, and $900 for a single person, and have been at this level for several years. 35 % of the congregation is on dues relief. The synagogue does not have any real history or a comprehensive building campaign of any substance. They have been able to build up a building fund to cover half of the $1 million projected expenses.

Jane said she believes the leadership can raise $300,000 and will be okay with taking out a mortgage of $200,000 to cover the rest. She wants the dues increase to cover the mortgage payment, approximately $12,000 additional to annual operating costs.

How high can the dues go?

If the dues levels were raised by $100 and $50, that would cover the mortgage payment. Jane thought there might be some people who would complain about such an increase, but she could live with that. I asked some questions about annual raises for staff, health insurance (only the rabbi is covered), and what would happen if at some point a new roof was needed, or a new HVAC system – how would the synagogue be prepared for these challenges.

For many people like me, $1400 is a good deal. $1500, too! At synagogues in NY-NJ suburbia, dues are hovering in the $3000 range.

Projecting annual costs and income streams from dues, religious school, and fundraising is both an art and a science. Being able to figure out a synagogue’s annual costs in terms of staffing and its programmatic agenda and sharing that with the congregation should hopefully allow you to present a number for dues that won’t be overwhelming or cause many ill feelings.

I also suggested that Jane call a handful of synagogues that are in college towns within a 3-hour drive, and find out their dues levels. No sense in a comparison of synagogues of similar size in areas with very different economic and competitive forces.

Of course, my fundraiser’s gut made me ask Jane about the possibility for a capital campaign, for either the whole $1 million, or for the $200,000 for which they intended to secure a bank loan. The businessmen and entrepreneurs who were the congregants in the 1970s and 1980s have sold their business and either moved away to warmer climates, to be closer to children and grandchildren, or have passed away. There are handful of people who can give $5,000 or $10,000 who she will be approaching. But a comprehensive campaign just won’t work in their synagogue community.

Adding operating costs to cover mortgage payments that in turn impact dues is not the best way to go for not-for-profits. Capital expenses traditionally come from a comprehensive capital campaign – whether it be at a college, hospital, church or synagogue.

Synagogues can raise the level of dues, but not dramatically. And it is always good practice to engage congregants in a discussion about the reason for the increase, through focus groups and town halls, in addition to emails and other written communication.





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