Will “Voluntary” Synagogue Membership Dues Survive COVID-19?

By Michael J. Lippitz and Rabbi Adam Chalom

In the past decade, dozens of American Jewish congregations have experimented with alternatives to fixed annual dues. Articles on voluntary contribution models appeared on eJewishPhilanthropy in 2012, 2013 and 2015, as well as in major US media. Results have been positive, with most synagogues reporting increased membership and revenues. However, that success was with a growing economy and no social distancing, quarantines or shutdowns. Will these flexible dues models be able to weather this storm? At Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in Deerfield, Illinois – where we celebrate Jewish identity and culture by replacing worship with a belief in human responsibility – we are cautiously optimistic as a new congregational year begins.

From its founding in 2001, Kol Hadash accepted whatever amount members felt they were able to pay, but they had to ask for a reduction. Starting with our 2017-18 fiscal year, membership forms described the congregation’s expenses on a per-household basis (Figure 1) and offered a choice: pay standard, “full dues” (renamed “Supporting Membership”) or select another amount. We called this new membership category “Contributing Membership.”

Figure 1. Congregational costs and contribution guidance information provided in 2017

The bold sentence at the bottom of the form was key to our message. However, Kol Hadash leadership never portrayed dues as “voluntary.” Rather, in a letter to the congregation, we wrote:

We recognize that there is a risk that without the psychological barrier of asking for a dues accommodation, members currently at the Supporting level will choose to commit less financially. It is important to understand that the new Contributing Member category is intended for members who cannot afford to be a Supporting Member, who have special circumstances, or who otherwise might choose not to be a member at all. The success of this new approach depends on all of our members to continue to support Kol Hadash financially to the fullest extent possible.

For three years now, the new approach has been a success. Many members who might otherwise have left – such as families who completed the last of their children’s Bnai Mitzvahs – instead chose to stay at a lower pledge level. Some former members who had been purchasing High Holiday tickets rejoined the congregation. New members were attracted by the lower financial barrier and lack of pressure to jump from our previous $365 first-year Trial Membership to $2350 full dues in Year Two. Total membership, which had been declining every single year back to 2010, increased from 113 to 122 households in the first year, and total dues pledges increased 10% (and have remained steady).

Much of the initial increase in total pledges came from members who pledged more than full dues. This trend has continued, with our Sustaining Memberships – those who pledge an additional $1000 or $1500 above Supporting (“full”) dues – increasing by more than 50% since 2017. Total membership has increased every year and stands at 143 households today.

These 143 memberships are depicted in the right column of Figure 2. Each segment of the stack depicts the number and total financial contribution of each type of membership. The left column shows the corresponding numbers and amounts the year before our new dues approach. Note the substantial increase in Contributing Memberships (top segment of the bar chart), who are now a majority of the congregation. Further, Contributing Members have generally increased their pledges on renewal, as they became familiar with and involved in the congregation. In the 2019-20 fiscal year, 25 increased their pledge, 23 stayed the same, and only 9 decreased. (Those that decreased were not necessarily a loss to the congregation, as likely these households reduced their pledge rather than leaving.)

Figure 2. Kol Hadash Revenues by Member Type, 2016/17 v. 2019/20

We do not know how the pandemic will affect our pledges for the coming congregational year, particularly because we are compelled to forgo in-person High Holiday services. This summer and autumn promise to be challenging months for everyone, and we are preparing for the possibility of a significant drop in revenue.

However, we are not overly worried. While our somewhat older membership population has occasionally been a cause for concern, in this case our retirees and empty-nesters likely provide us some financially resilience. Participation and engagement have increased, as people who would not be able to come to services or join an educational program – particularly those that are vulnerable to COVID-19 or don’t drive at night – are eagerly doing so online. When we are feeling more isolated, the opportunity to connect with others of similar background and interests becomes more valuable, so we intend to continue offering a virtual option when the pandemic is over. Focus group feedback revealed that even members who do not attend many events still feel very supportive of the congregation, in part because our new membership model emphasizes support for the cause of Humanistic Judaism.

All of this leaves us confident that those who are able will maintain or even increase their financial support. And those who need to reduce their pledge this coming year know that they do not have to leave the congregation or suffer the embarrassment requesting a dues reduction. There is a pre-existing no-shame, guilt-free alternative of Contributing Membership to remain part of our community, which has always held the core Humanistic value that membership is about meaning, not money.

Michael J. Lippitz devises strategies for innovation and technology management. He is President of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in Deerfield, Illinois.

Rabbi Adam Chalom is the Rabbi of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in north suburban Chicago, as well as the Dean for North America of the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism.