On May 16, two years after issuing a report on 26 synagogues that adopted a non-traditional voluntary dues model in response to changing social and financial realities, UJA-Federation of New York presented findings of a follow-up report, Connection, Cultivation, and Commitment: New Insights on Voluntary Dues, that found the trend is growing among a diverse group of congregations around the nation. With UJA’s backing, report authors Lianna Levine Reisner and Rabbi Dan Judson revisited 19 of the 26 synagogues identified in the first report and contacted 30 additional synagogues that were since found to have eliminated dues.
The report provides data, case studies, and information to help synagogues considering adopting the voluntary commitment model and answers questions related to the model’s sustainability. The voluntary dues model is defined as synagogues that allow members and prospective members to pledge a financial commitment of their own choosing (with guidance from the synagogue) rather than paying a fixed amount. Prior to 2009, only five of the nation’s synagogues were using this model; that number is projected to be well above 60 by the end of 2017.
“In just two years, voluntary dues no longer feel like a novel and almost revolutionary model, and instead is becoming a significant part of the synagogue landscape. Many congregations are finding that in contrast to so called ‘pay to pray’ financial structures, the voluntary commitment model is a more viable alternative — reinvigorating current membership and encouraging prospective families to join,” said Cantor Adina Frydman, executive director of SYNERGY, a division of UJA-Federation of New York focused on helping synagogues thrive, which funded the research.
All Synagogues found that after going to a voluntary commitment model, congregations reported a 3.6% annual increase in membership and a 1.8% annual increase in pledge revenue. Congregations are almost uniformly pleased with the change, and no congregation reports an interest in returning to traditional dues models. Many congregations report that the positive cultural impact of the change is as important as the financial ramifications.
Nearly 60% of congregations reported an increase in congregational engagement after instituting voluntary dues and Congregations report positive membership and revenue growth after three years, but say the most significant growth typically occurs in the second year after the switch.
Congregations are concerned that new members are pledging at lower rates than existing members, but an average 38% of congregants give at or above the sustaining level.
Congregations that have used the model for more than three years report a need to continue promoting and reintroducing the model to membership. Congregations struggle to adequately track financial data. Better tracking and more data could allow them to more effectively sustain a change.
Reform congregations made up the majority synagogues in the original report, but the new group includes more Conservative congregations than Reform, as well as some Reconstructionist congregations.
No congregation reported a decline in its financial stability as a result of the dues model change, a significant departure from the findings in the previous report. This suggests it may be possible for synagogues in more challenging financial circumstances to benefit from – or, at a minimum, hold steady financially – when changing to the voluntary commitment model.
The report presents in-depth case histories of three geographically diverse congregations with varying lengths of experience with voluntary dues: Congregation Beth Shalom in Santa Clarita, CA, a Conservative synagogue with 236 households that doubled its size since moving to the voluntary commitment model in 2013; Temple B’Nai Or in Morristown, N.J., a Reform synagogue with nearly 500 members that went to voluntary dues in 2014; and a pioneer in the movement, Temple Israel of Sharon, MA, a Conservative synagogue with 630 families that instituted voluntary dues nine years ago.
The full report is available for download at
UJA-Federation does not endorse this funding model or any other model for synagogues. This guide was developed to be a resource for those considering alternatives to the traditional dues model.