Our Financial Model: "Voluntary Commitment"
In 2019, Shir Hadash adopted a financial model called "voluntary commitment." The decision was the culmination of three years of research and debate by the synagogue's Membership Committee about how to make membership more affordable and accessible.
Under the synagogue's former dues model, there was a minimum contribution, and those who couldn't afford it could apply for "consideration," a process that is typical for most synagogues around the country but that some members found onerous or embarrassing. Under the voluntary commitment model, there is no longer a minimum contribution. Instead, the synagogue provides transparent financial information, breaks down the costs of meeting its financial obligations by adult member, and trusts its members to self-assess their dues. The voluntary commitment of each household is kept confidential.
First Year of "Voluntary Commitment Was a Success
The results are in from our first year using the voluntary commitment model, at it was a huge success! Contributions for 2019-2020 exceeded our proposed budget for dues by more than $34,000 and we gained more than 30 new member families (a net gain of more than 18 for the year). 49% of our current member families increased the amount they paid in the previous year by more than 10%. We knew that our members would “step up” and they did. Everyone gave according to their means, at a level of comfort and ability that avoided those uncomfortable financial consideration conversations.
Information for Our Current Fiscal Year (2020-2021)
For 2020-2021, the break even (the total expenses divided by the total number of adult members) has, to our favor, dropped from $2,028 per adult to $1,510 per adult. This break even is the total of the voluntary commitment and other contributions, such as the High Holidays appeal, made to the synagogue. It does not include religious school voluntary commitment or the building fund, which is becoming increasingly important in our 45-old building. As we know, this year is different. We do not know what the effects of the pandemic may have on our members' financial resources, or on ours. We want you to become or remain a member, to decide what you can afford to be a member, and to remember that no one will ever second guess your commitment amount. The more members we have, the lower our break even becomes.
NEW IN 2020: The synagogue has also adopted voluntary commitment for religious school fees!
A New Trend Across America
In recent years, at least 60 U.S. synagogues have adopted a voluntary commitment model. This model is not simply a financial model, but a reflection of the values of community and transparency. Since the start of the recession in the late 2000s, membership and revenue in non-Orthodox synagogues has steadily declined. In addition to the economic downturn, other factors affecting synagogue affiliation rates include the changing generational attitudes toward synagogue membership; the transactional practice of finance in synagogues; the lack of inclusion; and synagogues' fear of change. As a result, many synagogues are turning toward voluntary commitment to increase membership.
Shir Hadash meets a number of the criteria that tend to make voluntary commitment successful. Our geographical location near a large city, our smaller size, the long tenure of our Rabbi, and our strong lay leadership means we fit the profile of synagogues who do well with voluntary commitment, according to a 2017 national study conducted by UJA Federation of New York.
According to the 2017 UJA study, synagogues that have adopted voluntary commitment experience rising membership rates, recruiting and retaining members is easier, level of membership engagement increases, perceived value of membership is heightened, and revenue increases. None of the synagogues report problems with "free riders"; i.e., people taking advantage by paying no dues at all. Synagogues find the most significant membership growth occurs during the second year after adopting this model. No congregation reports a decline in financial stability after the dues model change.
From a historical standpoint, synagogue dues were a 20th century invention. Dues came into existence after World War I. At the time, synagogue members purchased a seat at the beginning of the year, and the people who could afford better seats had the seats up front, and everyone else was in the back. Jews at the time felt that the system created a class system and wasn't egalitarian, so they invented the practice of synagogue dues instead. But for more than 5,700 years, Jews paid for their institutions without having traditional dues.