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July 29, 2014 | 2nd Av 5774

Handling Abatements in Your Congregation
Description, resources and Q&A

This webinar will discuss how to handle financial abatements in your congregation. The discussion will deal with how to best approach this sensitive matter as well as discuss questions to consider regarding financial commitments in the synagogue. It is designed for congregational leaders who are involved with handling these adjustments in their synagogues.

Resources

Questions and Answers

Q: If the relationship between the board and the congregation is strained how do we help shift board members’ views to benefit the [abatement] process?

A: Consider working with the board to create greater transparency and communication. Inform the congregation about what the board is doing and publish a brief board report in each issue of the congregation’s bulletin. Just as we talk about membership being a lifetime commitment and we want to offer things for members at different points in their lives (as individuals, as families with young children, as empty-nesters, as retirees), we should try to see financial support on a continuum as well. There are times when members will be able to give more and times when members may need to give less. Consider that while we need funding to support our synagogues we need the members and their commitment to the synagogue and want to support them regardless of their financial support. We need our members to create our communities. An additional suggestion to help connect the board to the membership is post the minutes of board meetings on the synagogue website. Be sure to remove any personal information from the published minutes.

Q: Would you comment in greater detail on an appropriate method to utilize a member’s skills to improve the quality of the synagogue with respect to “dues relief”?

A: A congregant who needs financial relief may be able to volunteer their time by performing some duty at the synagogue which would normally be performed by a paid employee. For example, the member may be able to assist in the office or help in the religious school. It gives them a way to give of themselves to help the synagogue and shows their commitment to doing what they can. There are many members who are able to volunteer their time and can pay their annual commitment to the synagogue. However for those who are in need financially, volunteering their time shows that they are committed to being active congregants. One thing we don’t want to do is make them feel any less of a member because they aren’t paying their full financial commitment.

Q: If we have a very high percentage of families needing relief, does that reflect that we’re asking too much as annual commitment?

A: We are in a difficult period of time right now with regards to economic conditions so some of the issues regarding abatements may be related to the current economic times rather than a reflection of your annual commitment. You might consider what congregants are saying when they ask for abatements. Is there a majority saying that they can’t afford the commitment only because it is too high or is it because they are having financial issues due to the difficult economy? Knowing that information can help in knowing what might be at the root of the requests for abatement.

Q: We have congregants that are always on relief. Does it become the norm or are there ways to suggest giving more?

A: Consider ways to suggest giving more. Communicating in your bulletin may be helpful. Perhaps an open letter from the synagogue president and/or rabbi about financial commitment would be helpful. Also, explaining what the money is used for can be a good way to communicate the importance of their annual commitment. If you have members who have been on abatement for more than one fiscal year, consider checking in with them at the start of the new fiscal year. Perhaps their financial situation has changed and they may be able to increase what they have paid. There are situations in which people consider other things to be more of a priority than the synagogue. The congregation might consider creating a minimum contribution for those who may want an adjustment but are truly not in financial need. The question that arises however is how to do this fairly without passing your own judgment on whether they need assistance or not.

Q: Is it realistic, especially in small congregations, for a congregant seeking relief to be asked to volunteer instead of paying the full annual commitment?

A: Ideally people on abatements who feel a commitment to the synagogue will offer to volunteer their time without being asked. In smaller congregations you are likely to have more people volunteering since your monetary resources are likely to be smaller than in a large congregation. As part of the abatement process you may want to mention in your communication with the person asking for an abatement that if they are unable to financially afford the annual commitment there are some other things the synagogue needs help with that ask not of their members’ money but of their time.

Q: How can we REALLY know about need if the person’s lifestyle seems to suggest otherwise?

A: Unless the member tells you, there is no way to really know whether or not their lifestyle is indicative of their means. Some synagogues ask for a financial statement to better understand the situation the person is in. If the synagogue does choose to require a financial statement be sure it is explained that the information is confidential and will only be reviewed by the person responsible for financial adjustments. Another approach when someone comes to the synagogue needing financial help is to offer the help based on their word. It is possible that there are some people who might take advantage of this but this is likely to be the exception rather than the rule. Whether you require a financial statement or allow the adjustment based upon the person’s word consider that Judaism teaches us in Pirke Avot 2:4 not to judge people until you have been in that person’s place.

Q: How can we train the people who answer the phone [in our synagogue office] to know how to respond to questions about financial commitments, whether the questions come from prospective members or current members ultimately seeking abatement?

A: Answering the phone is easy; appropriately handling questions about financial commitments takes practice. A suggestion may be to have sessions where the people answering the phone can role play. Have them take turns being the caller and the answerer. Create guidelines or a best practices sheet for answering calls related to financial matters so the person has something to learn from. You might also consider limiting financial calls only to certain individuals who have been assigned to handle these calls. If someone calls the office asking about their financial commitment and the individual(s) assigned to handle these discussions is not available have a process for the office staff to take a message.

Q: Would/should bartering for dues be a formal written policy?

A: The synagogue should consider having written procedures for how this process should work. While volunteering services may be effective because it helps both the synagogue and the congregant you want to consider any challenges that may occur from developing this process. You may want to consider talking to legal counsel about creating a document so that you can avoid any potential issues.

Q: From time to time a congregant who has been paying dues suddenly stops paying anything. Several calls ensue and there doesn’t seem to be any way to induce the member to modify their position. When do you throw up your hands and initiate cancelling membership?

A: This is a process that is unique to each person needing a financial abatement. You might consider creating general guidelines of reaching out to see how the member is doing, perhaps by phone at first and then via a more formal written letter, documenting the contact. At some point your congregation will need to decide whether or not it is appropriate for those individuals to remain members; procedures for ending membership with the synagogue should be clear to all parties and as transparent as possible. Ultimately, this is really a case by case basis. Consider that some families may truly not be able to pay anything due to their financial situation. In those cases the synagogue needs to be there to help them and support them and in those situations you would want to keep them as members.

Q: We have congregants who don’t call and ask for an adjustment in dues, but simply mail in a modified amount. We then need to initiate a contact. Any suggestions?

A: Explaining, on a regular basis, that an abatement process is available and what to do if you are unable to fulfill your commitment may be helpful, particularly in staving off self-adjusted commitments. A suggestion might be to include that information with the membership package and with the statements you send out. There may still be people who will not respond and you will need to follow up with them. There is likely embarrassment and anxiety involved with having to reach out to the synagogue and tell someone they can’t afford the annual commitment. We want to try to make it easy for them to contact the synagogue and try to lessen that embarrassment in whatever way we can.

 

Q: Can you explain why it is suggested that we not use the word dues and talk about the difficulty in changing the language (i.e., many people are so in the habit of saying “dues” it might be difficult to start saying “financial commitment”)

A: The word “dues” makes synagogue membership seem like a fee for services agreement, like a health club or a Jewish Community Center membership. While synagogues do offer different programs and services, congregations are much more than a community center. The synagogue is a place for community but it is also a place that is centered on religious belief and a connection to God. The synagogue is a place where we can pray and learn together. It is a place to come together, whether for comfort during sad times in our lives or for extra smiles and celebrations during simchahs. People are giving money because they are committed to the belief that the synagogue is all these things and not just a building.

Q: What is the best way you could suggest to recruit new members to assist our Financial Secretary with the dues review process?

A: The synagogue leadership needs to think about the process and identify what the best approach is regarding the annual commitment process. You may consider limiting this process to the financial secretary and perhaps one or two individuals if you feel that it might be too much work for one person. Perhaps someone who needs an abatement may be a good person to help with this process since they understand, from experience, what it is like to go through this process. Talk to the synagogue board and recruit from that group rather than the congregation at large. However you choose people to work on this process the person or people involved needs to be caring, compassionate and discreet, as well as non-judgmental in this process. The process should be as pleasant as it can be for the person needing help. In the Mishneh Torah 9:5 there is a discussion about collecting Tzedekah which speaks to having more than one person involved with collecting charity and you may find it applies to the question here:

 

WHO COLLECTS TZEDAKAH?

(From the Mishneh Torah 9:5)

 

Contributions to the alms fund must be collected jointly by two persons, because a demand for money may not be presented to the community by less than two [collectors]. Although the money collected may be entrusted [for safekeeping] to one person, it must be distributed by three persons because it is similar to money involved in a civil action, since they must give to each (poor person) enough for the (poor person’s) weekly needs. [Donations to] the charity tray must be collected by three persons since the contribution to it is not fixed and must (also) be distributed by three (persons).

Q: Volunteerism is a nice way to engage members, but how does that help pay bills that are past due?

A: The board and/or Finance Committee needs to take a look at the bigger picture when considering annual commitments. Is the issue that people not paying their annual commitment is causing synagogue bills to be past due or are there other financial issues? Review the budget and the current financial resources – perhaps there are things that can be done to enhance revenue or ways to cut back on expenses. Volunteers may be able to do things in the synagogue that would normally require additional expenses. You may be able to save money by using volunteers to do those jobs. If the synagogue is having issues with revenue flow consider an enhanced dues program for those who have the ability to contribute more.

Q: Is there a limit to how much relief a congregation can give? What do you do when the synagogue is having financial problems and more members are asking for relief?

A: Synagogues tend to rely on their annual commitments as their main source of revenue. When the synagogue is facing financial difficulty, communicating with the congregation is very important. The synagogue needs to be transparent about financial issues they may be having. There may be congregants inclined to increase their commitment if they know about the financial issues facing the congregation. It might also mean reaching out to those individuals who the board (or whoever is in charge of development) identifies as able to commit more funds to the synagogue. Again, letting them know where their dollars go helps in securing their increased commitment. Also consider other ways to increase income to the synagogue rather than through annual commitments.

Q: Can you give an example of an opening statement you would have with a congregant, encouraging them to prioritize giving to the synagogue while at the same time honoring their financial needs?

A: There is no one size fits all opening statement. The opening statement depends upon the culture of the synagogue community. A suggestion may be to have a committee or sub-committee work together to create a statement that embodies the mission and vision of their particular congregation. When communicating with congregants, explain to them in the newsletter, on the website or in open letters where the money they give to the synagogue is spent. People want to see that their money is being used for beneficial causes and showing how their commitment benefits others is helpful. An example of this from a congregation can be found on the Union for Reform Judaism “Communicate!” page. Go to www.urj.org/comm click on “advanced search” and type in 2602 in the “summary number” field.





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