“Across the synagogue world there is one topic high on every board and staff agenda: financial sustainability. Lay and professional leaders are grappling with how to create a fair, inclusive funding structure and at the same time allow synagogue communities to generate the dollars necessary to fulfill its sacred vision and mission. Over the last century North American synagogues have become dependent on membership dues to meet their operating expenses.” Can Synagogues Live by Dues Alone? – Barry Mael

The percentage of synagogue costs supported by dues varies from congregation to congregation. In 2016, that percentage was as high as 93% for Temple Beth Ami. Today, our synagogues face many demographic and social challenges. For instance, a younger generation that no longer sees synagogue membership as relevant makes it harder today to count on dues for paying the bills and pushes us to examine the options available for alternatives revenue streams.

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To that end, in November, Rabbi Pokras convened a new Development Initiative Leadership Team whose goal will be to create a cohesive and integrated development strategy for the synagogue. Working in parallel with TBA’s Vision 2020 Strategic Planning Process, the group will look at the need for culture change, current fundraising proposals, and various modalities for development as a way to building a secure future for our community.

We need to be practical and creative in order to keep our sacred community relevant to a new generation of Jews. A deeper look into budgetary outcomes from the 2016 Fiscal Year, reveals that 14% of annual commitments to our congregation went unpaid. While it is important to note that Temple Beth Ami’s “Dues Relief” program accounted for over 90% of that short fall, we cannot ignore that a significant number of annual commitments made by congregants at the beginning of the fiscal year went unpaid. Dynamic, successful congregations are based on the building and cultivation of deep, meaningful relationships with current and prospective members. People want to matter and want to feel a sense of belonging. And there is a continued need to prove value to our members. Our competitors are not other synagogues; our competitors are the myriad choices in our society for how to spend time and discretionary dollars.

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Whereas in the past synagogues were basically the sole providers of Jewish education and lifecycle events, nowadays in our area there are independent Hebrew schools to send your kids to; independent rabbis to perform bar/bat mitzvahs, weddings, and funerals; Chabad houses where one can experience Shabbat; and a vast variety of readily available resources on the Internet for Jewish learning. In this environment, Temple Beth Ami lay leaders recognize that we are at a competitive disadvantage by using a funding mechanism that appears so uninviting and out of touch. Writing a check to a synagogue for dues can feel like paying the price of belonging to an exclusive country club, rather than to a sacred community.

If our congregation wants to consider other new models, we need to know the various alternatives. In the current synagogue landscape, there are roughly five dues models:

The Fixed Dues Model - This traditional model has sustained most synagogues for close to a century, and it is the model for membership contributions that we currently use at Temple Beth Ami. This model sets several dues levels, often based on age, family status, marital status, one- or two-adult household, etc. Members who have difficulty paying the fee set for their demographic must request a reduction through our “dues relief” programs.

The Fair Share Model - This model requires each individual, couple or family to make an annual payment based on a percentage of the annual household income. The Fair Share dues system is marketed as more flexible, allowing members to pay according to their ability. It also aims to make membership affordable to all who wish to join.

The Sustaining Model - This model is based on the premise that each member would need to pay a certain amount in order to sustain a congregation’s budgetary needs. That “sustaining” number is calculated roughly by taking the annual expenses of the synagogue (not including Hebrew school) minus projected revenue streams and dividing that result by the number of member units. Rob Carver, a Temple Israel lay leader in Sharon, Massachusetts, explains: “At membership renewal time, we send a letter saying this is the sustaining amount we need – if you can do this great, if you can go above this, even better – but you tell us how much you are going to pay, and that’s what you will pay.”

The Tiered Model - This is a model which incorporates a flat “standard” rate with more fundraising requests, or various levels above and beyond the standard rate. Additional donor categories include benefits to members giving at higher levels, such as tickets to educational programs and synagogue dinners, guest tickets for high holiday services and a reserved parking space.

The Philanthropic Model - Basically, members do not pay dues but rather donate – or don’t donate — whatever they’d like. Cooperation, partnership and expectations for volunteers, clergy and professionals need to be in balance in order for this model to work.

As we embark on TBA’s Vision 2020 Initiative, we will be asking ourselves why change is important. There is no magic answer regarding financial sustainability. Moving away from the traditional fixed dues model brings opportunities and challenges. The progressive or sustaining models ask many people to pay more than they are currently paying in the traditional dues system. The tiered model and philanthropic model require substantial professional and volunteer coordination and follow through. For our congregation, making changes to our membership model will require strategic thinking and action. It will take the vision of community and sense of shared purpose, and it will take an honest assessment of the culture of our congregation.