The Complexities of Synagogue Management: What Are Tomorrow’s Priorities?

by Robert I. Evans

Synagogue management is an increasingly more complex process, especially with contemporary issues created during the ups and downs of the economy over the past years. This change has also been prompted by demands for more sophisticated approaches to alleviating membership pressures.

Two major organizations, NATA (North American Temple Administrators) and NAASE (North American Association of Synagogue Executives), represent the executive directors of most of the Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist congregations across North America. While NATA relates primarily with Reform congregation executives, NAASE is the entity that focuses on the Conservative movement. NAASE held their annual conference last week and about 130 men and women gathered in Orlando to consider new approaches and discuss successes that various congregations have experienced.

Attendees represented an impressive U.S. geographic diversity, with one delegate coming from Australia and several travelling from various parts of Canada. The common link was that each congregation had similar challenges, primarily brought on by changes in membership and various demands thrust on the congregations because of changes in religious and educational practice.

I had the opportunity to lead a session that addressed the costs associated with synagogue membership today, and it proved to be one of value for many attendees. “It’s not inexpensive to be Jewish” was the premise that started a conversation about what models work best today for affiliated members. The two historic approaches to annual membership commitments have generally been either “fair share dues” or “fixed fee dues schedules.” I reviewed both approaches, acknowledging that fair share congregations generally establish levels based on household income while the other approach usually has “dues” ranging from $1,500 to $2,500, with additional charges for certain synagogue functions. After examining how other faiths establish levels of “membership” for their houses of worship, I contend that the fixed fee dues approach was probably the simplest model but congregations today need to become much more sophisticated about their fundraising efforts and encourage new fundraising strategies to supplement their dues model.

The several basic suggestions that I proposed for all congregations today requires a more professional approach, starting with the creation of a formal plan, hiring a development professional, and then functioning in similar fashion to how other non-profits operate.

Sharing financial information about the running of today’s modern congregation garnered some attention. I urged congregations to publish annual reports that included thanks for those who volunteered as well as those whose generosity helped the congregation. We continue to be amazed at the numbers of congregations today with multi-million dollar budgets who do not share any information about financial practices and needs.

Probably one of the most overlooked aspects of congregational fundraising is planned giving, where congregants are invited to consider ways to make testamentary gifts. Approximately ten percent of all charitable giving today results from planned giving, although most houses of worship in the U.S. receive considerably less planned giving support than higher education, hospitals and arts organizations. For some reason, synagogue leadership have been reluctant to tackle planned giving conversations and to offer programs that make Charitable Gift Annuities (CGA’s) and Charitable Remainder Trusts (CRT’s) (and other forms of irrevocable gifts) available. As congregants are living longer and are concerned that they might outlive their financial resources, these approaches represent important options to enable dedicated Jews to support their congregations, receive tax incentives and still get some income streams.
Endowments for congregations generally fall below best practices for non-profits today and the discussion focused on ways to campaign actively for both restricted and unrestricted endowments. Most NAASE attendees acknowledged a reluctance to address endowments – until recently. We contend that endowments should be linked directly to the sizes of their congregational budgets, with 3-5 times their annual budget as the accepted guide for minimum endowments.

Perhaps the most important thrust of the discussions with the executives revolved around the basic attitudes that are critical today and I contended that “donor friendly” needs must be the mantra. But this also requires clergy, professional staff and volunteer leadership to know more about the proclivities of their members. I encouraged more definitive outreach, especially by clergy, to call and meet with members . . . not only to talk about financial needs but to address programmatic and other concerns.

Dynamic – and successful – non-profits have made concerted efforts today to have focus groups, distribute various surveys, and hold congregational discussions. Too often, we have found, congregations – especially mid-sized and large ones – take members for granted and lose sight of their special needs and concerns. This philosophy requires more in-reach than ever before by all clergy, professional staff, and volunteer leaders. And of course other non-profits seem to work more strategically to obtain information about the giving habits and patterns of their constituents.

With congregations increasingly looking to supplement dues income to support vibrant programs and services, a more complex fundraising approach must become standard – rather than to be seen as something of a luxury. Fundraising in the U.S. now exceeds $300 billion annually and more than one-third of all giving is directed to religion, according to Giving USA. Therefore, I challenged the executives of some of the most important and dynamic congregations to take a new look at approaches and to take lessons from the playbooks of other non-profits. The new normal requires more professionalism and strategic thinking!

Robert I. Evans, Managing Director is the founder and managing partner of The EHL Consulting Group, of suburban Philadelphia, and is a frequent contributor to EHL Consulting works with dozens of nonprofits on fundraising, strategic planning, and non-profit business practices. Become a fan of The EHL Consulting Group on Facebook.