Connections, Cultivation and Commitment: New Insights on Voluntary Dues

By Rabbi Dan Judson, Lianna Levine Reisner, Cantor Adina H. Frydman

“Engaging members in conversations about the meaning and value of membership can only benefit and renew the life of a congregation.”

Two years ago, Synergy – a division of UJA-Federation of New York focused on helping synagogues thrive – sponsored research surveying synagogues that had eliminated dues and transitioned to a voluntary commitment model. In a voluntary commitment model, where dues are eliminated and replaced by a voluntary “sustaining amount,” financial transparency and sharing information is paramount, communal relationships matter, and aligning the financial model with values of the congregation is critical. The results of the 2015 study showed almost uniformly that synagogues eliminating dues experienced a small but significant increase in both membership and revenue. The 2015 report was met with a great deal of interest, and Synergy received numerous requests for more information on how the model was being sustained over time. The 2017 study, Connection Cultivation and Commitment: New Insights on Voluntary Dues, provides insights into these questions. The initial study found 26 synagogues that were using the voluntary commitment model. Just two years later the new study found 57 synagogues were using the model, and even more synagogues that have committed to changing their model in this coming fiscal year. In other words, what seemed novel two years ago is now becoming a significant part of the synagogue landscape.

The goals of this newest study were twofold. First, to confirm the findings of the 2015 study and discover any additional information that could help synagogues considering adopting the voluntary commitment model. Second, to answer questions related to the sustainability of the model. This study attempts to present useful data for congregational leaders contemplating a change. Regardless of whether synagogues ultimately choose to make a change, the conversations conducted to review financial models are themselves highly valuable. These conversations will engage members about the meaning and value of membership and can renew the life of a synagogue.

Key Findings

  • Congregations are positive about the transition to this new financial model.
  • Congregations report an average 3.6% annual increase in membership.
  • Congregations report an average 1.8% annual increase in pledge revenue.
  • Congregations of various sizes, from urban and suburban areas, have moved to this model successfully.
  • Congregations using the system for three years or more report positive membership and revenue growth after three years, with the most significant growth in the second year.
  • The positive cultural impact of the change is as important as the financial ramifications.
  • New members are pledging at lower rates than existing members, thus calling for congregations to cultivate members beyond the first year.
  • Congregations that have used the model for more than three years report a need to continue promoting and reintroducing the model to the membership.
  • Congregations struggle to adequately track their financial data. Better tracking and more data could allow them to more effectively sustain a financial change.

The reasons for these positive assessments of the voluntary model are as much cultural as they are financial. The voluntary commitment model aligns with a core belief that synagogues should not operate like a club. People feel strongly that the existing “pay to pray” structure is transactional. In contrast, the values expressed through the voluntary commitment model – transparency, commitment, and connection – reflect relational values more consonant with a faith-based community. As one executive director said to us, “One reason we moved to the voluntary system is that we didn’t want people to feel like there is a dollar sign hanging over their head when they want to join the synagogue. We tell them, ‘This is what it costs to run the place, but you ultimately decide…. You will tell us what you want to do.’ And when we say that to prospective members, it’s like a wall comes down, and people understand we are interested in them as individuals and not as potential money.”

Synagogues remain positive about their decision to eliminate the former dues systems. At the same time, they are grappling with how to sustain the model. One of the key challenges is that most new members pay below the sustaining amount. As one executive director explained simply, “We have more new members, but they are paying less, so the revenue is basically flat.” Most synagogues accept this for now because membership growth is vital for the life of synagogues. But ultimately some, if not most, of these new members will need to increase their giving to sustain the synagogue, and in a system without dues, it takes greater effort to secure higher levels of giving each year.

The context for reexamining financial models is the changing landscape for synagogues today. The traditional dues model was instrumental in bringing in significant revenue for synagogues in the 1950’s and 1960’s and served synagogues in that historic context. Today, most synagogues are graying, and younger generations of Jews are less apt to join institutions, particularly ones with large upfront membership payments. In this contemporary context, many synagogues find that the traditional dues model no longer serves them, and some are turning to the voluntary commitment model as a viable and more relevant alternative.

The first study was criticized by some who claimed the real problems of synagogues are rooted in much deeper issues of meaning – that many synagogues do not speak to the hearts and souls of Jews, and therefore simply changing the financial mechanism is only window dressing. This new study, however, highlights that changing synagogue finances serves as a catalyst for broader conversations about the meaning and value of membership. Sixty percent of the congregations reported that, after making the switch to the voluntary commitment model, members of the community had become more broadly engaged in the life of the synagogue. Synagogues choosing this model are attending to the cultural forces, not only the financial ones. Reconsidering the financial model can lead to broader transformation.

While synagogues may not suddenly become thriving sacred communities simply by eliminating dues, it is clear that eliminating dues has entered the synagogue mainstream and will continue to re-align communities around conversations of connection and commitment.

Cantor Adina H. Frydman is the executive director of SYNERGY: UJA-Federation of New York.
Rabbi Dan Judson, PhD is director of professional development and placement for the Hebrew College Rabbinical School. He was a contributor to UJA-Federation’s publication, Are Voluntary Dues Right for Your Synagogue? A Practical Guide.
Lianna Levine Reisner is the founder and lead partner of Partner for Change, dedicated to building thriving organizations and communities.