Membership system asks congregants to pay what they can afford

Sheldon Gnatt
Sheldon Gnatt discusses a new funding model with CJC congregants, in 2016 (Hannah Monicken)

12/8/20 6:00 p.m. Update: This article has been updated with additional information. 

It isn’t always easy for a person or an organization to live up to a value system, to put their money where their mouth is and exemplify the moral standards they wish to see in others. This may be even more true during the pandemic and the shockwaves it has sent through the economy. But Columbia Jewish Congregation is sticking with their pledge system.

“We ask people to give what they think they can afford, and we do the best we can to make that financially work for the whole community,” CJC Rabbi Sonya Starr said.

“It’s an opportunity for people to understand that being part of a community is not based on how much money you have,” Starr continued, “and that we want your participation in any way that you can give.”

The initial idea to take a second look at how CJC dues were organized came from Sheldon Gnatt, who at the time served as a CJC vice president. Gnatt explained that, initially, he noticed a pattern where some congregants, such as empty nesters who might be living on fixed incomes, were leaving CJC for other congregations that had lower dues or programming more targeted toward their age group.

“I said to the congregation, ‘Wouldn’t some of these people rather stay and keep the connections going that they felt strongly about, and be able to pay something less to keep the affiliation?’” Gnatt said. “And wouldn’t CJC rather have their lower level financial contribution than to have them not be affiliated at all, and not have any financial contribution from them?”

Gnatt explained that he had also hoped that a voluntary dues model might give congregants cause to think consciously about their connection to the CJC community and the value it holds for them.

“Through those financial determinations, we can also vote on what programs are important and what programs should continue and should be funded,” Gnatt said. “It really puts all of that into the hands of the membership as a whole, rather than just in the hands of those few who serve on the board of directors.”

Rabbi Sonya Starr
Rabbi Sonya Starr (Courtesy of Columbia Jewish Congregation)

This eventually led to a CJC committee, which Gnatt sat on, that focused on studying how other synagogues handled dues, he explained. Gnatt and his fellow committee members contacted other congregations across the country that had adopted alternative systems relating to dues, gathering information on how their systems worked and what outcomes resulted from them. The committee looked at written case studies and welcomed input from congregants.

The committee found that while synagogues who switched to similar voluntary dues systems tended to collect less in dues the first year when compared to the previous year, over time there tended to be something of an eventual “upturn.” Gnatt understood this to be potentially a result of either new members joining the congregation or to some congregants contributing more because of the uncertainty that their fellows may be contributing less than the average.

Following a resolution from CJC’s board, Gnatt said, the proposed new system was brought before the full congregation at an annual congregational membership meeting for additional discussion and a final vote. The new system began in 2017.

“There were some people who were very concerned that by making it voluntary, we were putting our budget at risk,” Gnatt acknowledged. “What if people do not rise to the occasion? What if people do not answer the call?”

At the same time though, Gnatt continued, there were others who expressed that this was a great way of providing people with financial support. Gnatt said that part of his argument to endear people to the new system entailed explaining how it would no longer be necessary for financially burdened members to go through the potentially humiliating experience of personally asking the administration for an exception to the imposed dues.

The new system also eliminated the need for repeated fundraising campaigns throughout the year.

“It’s a good example of how CJC walks its talk,” Starr said. “We were trying to, as we always do, to walk our talk, to live our values, in every aspect of our life, including the business aspect of our life. And so that meant trying to understand what Judaism teaches about money and business and community, and then applying that to how you run a synagogue.”

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