A Perfect Formula for Dues
by Rob Berkovitz
URJ Congregational Finance Specialist
The truth is… that there is no perfect formula for dues!
There are many possibilities for dues models from fixed minimum models to fair share. All the models can be successful and can be unsuccessful. When the topic of dues comes up many congregational leaders struggle with the issue of congregants who feel that dues are cost prohibitive, that it is too expensive to be a member of a congregation or question when someone needs an abatement whether it is truly a financial need or just that the synagogue is not a priority.
We can be quick to judge these people. We look askance at those who want to attend High Holy Day services but don’t want to contribute financially to the synagogue. We do that because we can’t understand why they feel that way. Why is that? It is because we have found a connection that they just haven’t yet found. Our charge as congregational leaders is to find ways to build that connection because that is what it is really all about: building relationships with our members.
Perhaps those people who place the synagogue at a lower prioritysimply have not found a way to connect to the congregation. Or maybethe congregation has not found a way to connect to them. Maybe I ambeing naive but even those people who come to synagogue on the HighHoly Days for free perhaps come because there is some piece of themthat craves a connection to Judaism. Hopefully it is not just guilt.
There is a spark that exists inside of them, and ourcongregations need to find a way to add kindling to it. If there werenothing there–no spark–they would have not come at all. If we want toengage more people and increase the synagogue’s active and financiallycommitted core, we need to find ways to kindle those sparks so thatpaying dues no longer feels like a roadblock to synagogue membership.It needs to be a mutual and covenantal relationship between anindividual and the synagogue. The return on investment is personal.
A personal story: my wife is more an observer than a participant inour congregation. Having grown up in a somewhat traditional home herrelationship with Judaism was shaped by being forced to attend synagoguewithout any guidance as to what makes Judaism a wonderful beliefsystem. It was an obligation rather than an invitation. However,there are still sparks of connection to Judaism that radiate from her.
When we first brought our daughter to a Tot Shabbat all the childrenwere standing in front of the lit candles. The lights dimmed and tearsof joy were in my wife’s eyes. Some may argue that it is because ofthe emotional tie to our daughter and that is partly true. (She didlook pretty cute up there!) However, if my wife felt no bond toJudaism, she would have refused to go to begin with, and even if it wasbecause I prodded her to attend, she wouldn’t have felt the way shedid.
She wants our daughter to be involved with synagogue life and withJudaism as much as possible. She hopes our daughter will develop thebond she feels she didn’t have as a child. While it may not haveincreased my wife’s involvement at the present time, those moments dobuild engagement and ties to a community. Each person is going to havetheir own “a-ha moment,” and our congregations are the place to create these moments.
Some thoughts to help remove the roadblocks:
- Let all new families join the first year for free! Then itis up to us to keep them engaged, show them how wonderful it is tobelong to a congregational family and that their ROI (return oninvestment) is considerable.
- Consider no longer selling High Holy Day tickets. Some mayargue that they need tickets to ensure enough seats are available.It’s a decent argument. However, ask yourself if that is trulythe reason tickets are sold or is it a way to collect dues from thosewho are in arrears? If you do away with tickets and open the doorson those days, will that many unaffiliated Jews come out of thewoodwork? If they did, would it be such a bad thing? Think of allthe potential members you could gain! And, if they don’t becomemembers and only come once a year, how much will it really affectthe “bottom line” of the synagogue?
Perhaps it is a way to reach the larger Jewish community who has yetto find a congregation they call home. Is there a better way thanusing the High Holy Days as a way to collect dues? Is that reallywelcoming? Does it truly increase revenue enough to make that a policyof the synagogue? If the answer is yes it does, then perhaps we need totake a longer look at ourselves and ask why and how do we change that.Additionally, How do we engage those people if their perception,accurate or not, is that the main concern of our synagogues is aboutpaying dues?
- Consider building relationships to peopleoutside the doors of the synagogue. While you might considercoffee time with the rabbi at the local Starbucks or cocktailswith the cantor as a way to reach people outside the congregation,you, as an engaged congregant can also help make theserelationships happen. Bring the synagogue to where people are. Itmight just lead them to join you in the synagogue.
I have a heartfelt wish that I could solve all the financialconcerns our synagogues have and be able to give out that perfect duesformula that would make all synagogues successful. However, there is amuch bigger picture to look at. The synagogue is really about building connections and that needs to be done in new ways we may have not even thought of yet. I’m hopeful that collaboration like the Reform Judaism Think Tank will allow people to brainstorm about the future of our vibrant congregations. Who knows? Maybe we can do away with “dues.”