Alternatives to the Alternative: Voluntary Dues and Other Variations on a Theme

duesBy Amy Asin

The report issued this week by UJA-NY Federation’s Synergy, Are Voluntary Dues Right for Your Synagogue? A Practical Guide, contains useful information about 26 congregations across North America – many of which are members of the URJ – that have implemented voluntary dues models.

As we work with congregations that are experimenting with dues models in our Community of Practice on Reimagining Financial Support for the 21st Century Congregation, the URJ has uncovered several trends worth noting:

1. Most congregations no longer operate on a functional fixed dues system, although some that do are eliminating or greatly reducing their abatement process. In some congregations a third to half of all members can be on reduced dues. With that many members paying less than full dues, even the congregations that aren’t planning any major changes are asking questions: What are we really doing? What should our policies be? What should we call our dues structure?

2. Voluntary dues aren’t the answer for every congregation. As the Synergy report notes, “Sometimes, the best answer for a given synagogue may be to wait or to find a more fitting model.” Unlike the early adopters of the voluntary dues model who did so because neither an abatement committee nor the need to have dues reduction conversation with members and potential members was consonant with the culture or values of the synagogue, more congregations today are looking for revenue enhancements. Although voluntary dues models appear to lead to modest revenue gains, many congregations are looking for even more funding, or have concerns about the efforts necessary to implement the model and/or the risks involved once it is in place.

3. In addition to voluntary dues models, there are many other options congregations can consider:

  • “Give Once” campaigns in which the largest contributors have the opportunity to make one contribution to operations, possibly even pledging over a two- or three-year period with a built in increase. Other contributor cohorts can be defined and approached with sensitivity and respect to their situations. This strategy not only can increase revenue, it also builds financial predictability into the system.
  • Fair share dues models or models that use income as a guide to contributions can be a less risky way for congregations to transition from a fixed dues model toward something more akin to voluntary dues.
  • Eliminating the barriers dues create for specific cohorts. For example, some synagogues offer very low or no dues to new and young members under a certain age. Combining this strategy with creative programming to engage specific populations can be successful.
  • Offering free membership to families that enroll their oldest child in religious school beginning in kindergarten. This approach brings young families into the congregation without their having to make a large financial commitment.
  • Although planned giving campaigns and endowments can provide financial support, the funding may not be realized immediately. Nonetheless, they are important given the advancing age of a large segment of the congregational population.

4. Working with other congregations to learn and experiment helps support creative solutions and lowers the risk of moving forward. Some experiments have included conducting focus groups and town hall meetings, adopting new language and messaging, and seeking deeper engagement with members before they shift to a new model. They are then able to share learning with and learn from other congregations.

Helping congregations design and implement realistic, workable dues models, including but not limited to voluntary dues, is one way the URJ demonstrates its commitment to strengthening congregations so that they stand out as relevant, effective, and thriving Jewish communities.

Amy Asin is Vice President/Strengthening Congregations at the Union for Reform Judaism.