Sacred Giving: How Reform Congregations are Reimagining Financial Support

July 21, 2015Amy Asin

Nearly every congregation today faces the challenge of trying to increase or stabilize revenue, so it’s no surprise that in the last few weeks alone, the Jewish press published three separate pieces on the subject:

And that’s not all. In February, SYNERGY, a partnership that “seeks to strengthen synagogues as vital centers of caring, learning, and spiritual renewal,” published a report titled “Are Voluntary Dues Right for Your Congregation?” With more than 1,250 downloads, it’s clear that congregational leaders are in search of reliable resources to help them explore these issues within their own unique communities. These recent articles are representative of the discussions happening on an organic, grassroots level, too. In fact, a search of the word “dues” in The Tent, the Reform Movement’s online forum for congregational leaders, results in 124 conversations, two dedicated groups, and 151 files on the topic. (We hope you will join these robust and ongoing conversations.) It’s inspiring to see so many Jewish communities engaging in conversation, experimenting, and trying new strategies. To further the conversation and provide congregations with a tangible resource, the Union for Reform Judaism is proud to publish Reimagining Financial Support for Your 21st-Century Congregation: A Report from the 2013-2015 Community of Practice. This new, interactive resource provides tools for congregations to begin this work by codifying the findings of our pilot Community of Practice (CoP) on Re-Imagining Financial Support for your Congregation. Launched in early 2013, the CoP engaged 17 congregations in conversation and innovation in their dues structures. Some communities tried voluntary dues structures, while others took varying approaches to revenue collection. Reimagining Financial Support details 10 of the best principles derived from these congregations and research into alternative revenue collection. These 10 concepts, which any congregation should consider when reimagining financial support, include such tactics as focusing on engagement, recognizing distinct segments of the population, removing barriers to entry, and aligning any new financial model with the congregation’s vision and values. Though no one best principle dictates the right approach for any one congregation, thinking through the implications of each will help determine a starting point. Three very different examples illustrate this point:

  1. The Temple, Congregation B’nai Jehudah in Overland Park, KS, focused on reducing as many barriers to entry to congregational engagement as possible. The proceeds from selling the congregation’s urban synagogue building and instead making its suburban location the congregation’s permanent home made it possible to do away with its customary upfront building fund. In addition, members who now request dues relief will no longer be required to submit their tax information (which don’t give any indication of fixed expenses) or fill out a myriad of forms; instead, they have a friendly conversation with the executive director or a member of the board, who expresses how important the member is to the community and asks what they can do to make membership affordable for them.
  1. Congregation Shir Hadash in Los Gatos, CA, realized that their problem was not their financial model but the way they talked about it – so they changed course. To top donors, they expressed appreciation and then, after reviewing the congregant’s giving history and the impact it made on the congregation, offered the opportunity to make a single annual commitment rather than receiving multiple appeals throughout the year. The majority of top donors took advantage of the opportunity, and total commitments increased by 20% from the previous year. The congregation also targeted a middle tier by identifying their “sustaining amount,” dividing their total operating budget by the total number of members, and encouraging those whose past contributions were near that amount to increase to that level. Finally, recognizing that not everyone can give at the same level, they implemented an “every dollar counts” approach to acknowledging that, as long as a congregant makes a gift that is meaningful to themselves, it is meaningful to the congregation, as well.
  1. As part of their communication strategy, Congregation Shir Hadash also revealed to congregants that the synagogue was paying $25,000 per year in credit card fees, and then urged members to begin paying by check rather credit card. Making financial matters of the congregation more transparent to everyone in the community helps establish a foundation of trust. When the congregational budget and major financial decisions are visible to everyone, congregants gain a better sense of how their dues or philanthropic gift makes a difference to the health and sustainability of the congregational community. It can also lend credibility both to specific requests for support and to the case that leaders make for changing the financial support system.

The URJ is now in the process of launching a second Community of Practice on this topic with a new cohort of congregations. We look forward to sharing the results of their learning and experimentation with all congregations who are considering changes to the way they collect revenue. Workshop sessions related to this topic will also be offered at the URJ Biennial 2015, taking place November 4-8 in Orlando, FL. In the meantime, we encourage you to add your questions, comments, and experiences either in the comments below, or join the discussion in the Finances group in The Tent, the URJ’s online platform for congregational leaders. Reimagining Financial Support for Your 21st Century Congregation is one in a series of three publications that helps leaders strengthen their congregations by offering best principles and a range of resources. The others are Paving the Road to Meaningful Young Adult Engagement and Engaging Families with Young Children. Jessica Ingram, manager of the URJ’s Communities of Practice, also contributed significantly to this post, as well as to the creation of Reimagining Financial Support for your 21st-Century Congregation: A Report from the 2013-2015 Community of Practice.  

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