Time for Jews to lose the dues?
How well is your synagogue’s business model holding up?
That’s the unexpected question being addressed by a series of programs from the Synagogue Leadership Initiative this year.
Synagogue leaders regularly discuss how their roof, air-conditioning system, clergy, and religious school are doing.
But discussing the broader question of a business model — defined as how an organization creates, delivers, or captures value (and not only financial value) — is an unfamiliar undertaking in an institution that has tradition as a core paradigm.
In fact, the general model of synagogue affiliation — you pay dues for the privilege of membership — is so familiar that it has been taken for granted for generations.
However, as Lisa Harris Glass points out, very few companies that are successful in 2013 are running on the same business model as 1963, if they even existed back then.
Glass heads the Synagogue Leadership Initiative, a project of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey and the Henry and Marilyn Taub Foundation.
Last year, SLI’s programs looked at how different generations within a synagogue relate to the institution in different ways. This year, the focus is on what is called “Synagogue Next,” helping synagogues evolve “without defining what the next is,” Glass said.
One way for a synagogue to change its business model, Glass said, is through “significant sustainable collaboration” — where a synagogue joins with similar institutions to share expenses. In a panel discussion Monday night, representatives of area synagogues heard firsthand stories of religious school collaboration, of synagogues of different denominations sharing a building and a sanctuary, and of a synagogue that merged with neighboring institutions.
Another focus has looked at shifts in the business model that a congregation can undertake on its own, by changing from the traditional dues and membership model of affiliation used by every synagogue in the region, bar one, to what Glass calls “alternative models of affiliation.”
In November, SLI convened a panel discussion presenting four other models of affiliation.
In the “fair share” model, members pay a fixed percentage of their income instead of a fixed fee (and have the option of asking the synagogue’s adjustments committee for a break).
The “free will” model goes further: Members are told what their per capita share of synagogue expenses are, but whether they pay less or more is up to them.
In what Glass calls the “tapas” model, members pay separately for different services — like at a Spanish tapas restaurant, where diners order small servings of many different dishes. That’s the one model that has a local implementation: The Sha’ar Communities, headed by Rabbi Adina Lewittes.
“I don’t know how viable that is for an existing traditional synagogue,” Glass said. “It seems difficult to implement if you have a building to support.
“The idea is figuring out a way where people can take advantage of the pieces they want and not the pieces they don’t want, and to thereby change the economic picture.”
And then there’s Glass’s own favorite, one she developed herself — the “investor model.” Rather than changing the actual way in which a congregation handles its finances, this model changes the meaning assigned to money paid by members and so changes the relationship between congregations and their congregants.
Don’t think of your synagogue payments as a monthly bill, this model advises. And don’t think of your congregants’ payments as dues. They are not something that is “due” to the synagogue.
Think of dues as investments — payments into the present and future of a cause in which you as a synagogue member believe.
“They’re giving a big chunk of their discretionary income,” Glass said. Therefore, synagogues have to “move to a framework of gratitude and appreciation from one of expectation and entitlement.”
After a year of paying a monthly membership bill, she said, members will ask of their shuls. “Do you send me a thank you note? What did you do to recognize my commitment?
“It wasn’t easy to write that check every month.”
The investment congregants make in their synagogue isn’t measured only in money. It’s measured in time as well — in the time spent within the synagogue each year, and the accumulated years.
Over time, that investment adds up. Glass believes it should be recognized and appreciated properly.
It might seem that shifting to a fair share model — where dues vary based on income — would be the easiest change to make. But in the discussions hosted by SLI, including a presentation from the head of synagogue in Saratoga, N.Y., that had implemented a fair share model, it proved the least popular.
“People don’t want the synagogue to know how much money they make,” said Stephanie Hausner, who works for SLI as a synagogue change specialist. “There’s a privacy issue.”
Additionally, “how much do you make?” becomes one of the first conversations a synagogue has with prospective members. “That’s not exactly a great way to build a relationship,” Glass said.
Instead, for some synagogues, initial discussions of fair share dues lead to the more radical — but not necessarily less feasible — idea of free will dues.
To those who sit on synagogue boards, worrying about the shul’s budget, the notion of making dues voluntary initially sounds crazy.
In fact, though, most Christian congregations fund themselves through voluntary dues. A recent study by the Forward found that Jewish and Christian congregations raised equivalent amounts from their members, proving no advantage to the membership method.
And some congregations have found that moving away from membership has succeeded in reversing revenue declines.
“They got the same income, but it changed the conversation,” Glass said. “People were opting in, and the community was saying, ‘Thank you for your generosity.’”
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