“It’s Not a Dues Committee”

Jun 2, 2014 by

By Cantor Jamie Marx, Touro Synagogue

It started as a joke, but the name stuck: in early 2012, we created the “It’s Not a Dues Committee” (INADC). The odd name was intended to help explain the task force’s goals. Clearly, the work of a dues committee is to set dues, raise dues, or enforce dues. In contrast, we wanted to form a task force that would talk about our communal values. When we started, we didn’t even want to use the word “dues,” but we didn’t yet have a replacement for it. Hence, we formed the INADC.

What’s most important to know about the INADC and what we accomplished is the process we took. In the end, the INADC created a new plan for annual voluntary support. But we got there by gathering the right people, keeping the conversation focused on our values, and allowing for as much conversation as needed. More than anything else, we wanted our annual support process to reflect the best of who we are as a community.

 

Step One: Gathering the Team

The INADC began with the president, the executive director, the rabbi, and me. From there, we sought out a diverse group of people representing different stages of life, socio-economic backgrounds, and family structures. The members of our task force were chosen for their deep commitment to the community as well as for their creativity and openness to ideas. We had representation from both the Executive Committee as well as the Board of Trustees. We also made sure that our task force included people who had opinions and would share them. This wasn’t the right place for that board member who “needs to be more involved”. And later on, when we agreed to extend the process to a second year, we added our incoming president and treasurer to the INADC, as well as a few other stakeholders.

Finding the right people took time. We were honest about the time commitment involved: one meeting per month for one year, plus additional homework in between meetings. (It would turn out that we had underestimated the length of time needed, but our original plan was one year.) That definitely concerned some potential task force members and we didn’t downplay it. And with each sales pitch, the focus always stayed on our values, our hopes, and our dreams for Touro Synagogue.

 

Step Two: Defining Our Values

We started this process with a few core questions for our task force and our membership: “What do you love most about Touro Synagogue?” And, “When have you felt most alive, most involved, or most excited about your involvement with Touro?” We took these questions to friends and family in the congregation, engaging them in conversation over dinner and at coffee shops. We listened to their stories. When we gathered all we’d heard together with our own thoughts and ideas, we developed a list of values–a framework through which all possible dues structures would be filtered and tested:

  • Involvement
  • Connection
  • Acceptance/Openness
  • Social Action
  • Clergy
  • Lifecycle Events
  • Worship/Shabbat services

Written at the top of the white board at every INADC meeting was our values list and the following question: “What about this idea reflects our values?”

Keeping our conversation focused on values was essential to having a positive, constructive discussion. We all agreed that there were aspects of our dues process we wanted to change. In truth, the only thing we all agreed on at first was that our current system reflected a warped view of our community, like one of those bent mirrors at the county fair. At the same time, we didn’t want to get caught up in a bunch of small fixes—putting band-aids on a system to address specific complaints we’d heard. The only way to know if our system was the right one for our community was to bring it back to our values and ask, does this dues structure reflect our values?

 

Step Three: Hashing it Out

Once we had our values, we began our research. We read articles covering a range of topics like the history of synagogue dues, tithing in churches, alternative day school revenue sources, cutting-edge synagogue models, and high holy day tickets. (You can see the whole collection of links at www.delicious.com/jamiemarx/.) Each task member read a few of the articles and reported back what they found intriguing, challenging, or thought-provoking. Each idea or opinion became fodder for discussion, so much so that our 90-minute meetings hardly contained the conversation.

Only then, once we’d talked to other members, created our list of communal values, and read through all the literature we could find, did we look at our own dues structure. Ours was a tiered dues system, based on age, with increases based on marital or family status. That is to say, the older you got, the more you paid (maxing out at an seemingly arbitrary 35 years old), and if you got married or had kids, you paid more as well. With due deference to those who had built this system, we recognized that it reflected another generation’s perspectives on the “typical” family structure and career path. The task force reflected on the fact that young adults no longer automatically join a synagogue when they move to a new community; that having kids in no way related to having higher discretionary income; that one’s earning power did not peak at 35; and, further, that income did not necessarily correlate to age at any stage of life.

Our dues system didn’t need a tweak, it needed an overhaul.

So we talked, and talked, and talked. We agreed to give ourselves the freedom to put every idea on the table no matter how scary or irrelevant it seemed. We held meeting after meeting where it seemed as though we had made no progress. But we left each meeting energized by the debate, fascinated with the conversation, and ready to come back and continue the work. Although it was slow, it became clear that allowing the whole task force to deeply engage and “own” the discussion was critical to the success of a proposed dues structure. There were a thousand tiny details to address and we needed to make space for all of them.

As we approached the one-year mark, we recognized that we weren’t ready to offer a complete proposal. We felt that we needed to extend our timeline and continue the conversation in the next fiscal year. So, we tabled our discussion for the summer and restarted the following August.

 

Step Four: Creating a Proposal

In the second year, we focused on honing our ideas into a proposal. We knew that we had about six months to create a proposal. Working backwards, we wanted to present the new structure at our annual meeting in May, requiring us to bring it to the board in February, and thus to the Executive Committee in January. Within a few months, we were down to three proposals: one, a greatly simplified tiered system based on age; two, a blend of a “fair share” system blended with a “voluntary” dues system; and, three, a fully “voluntary” dues system. After another few hours of meetings, we consolidated our ideas into one proposal that reflected our values as a synagogue.

The new proposal doesn’t make judgements about our members’ lives. It asks them to make a good faith effort to contribute to the community. It deals honestly and openly with the fact that all of our members voluntarily associate with Touro Synagogue and contribute financially to its continued existence. It is a bold, visionary approach that will put us ahead of the curve compared to national trends. It is a system our executive director could be comfortable explaining to potential members. Best of all, it effectively ends the need for “dues relief” — forever.

 

Here’s how the new system works:

In just a few weeks, each member of the synagogue will get a form that asks them how much they are comfortable giving towards annual support. It asks them how often they’d like to billed and by what method they’d like to pay. They return it to us, and that’s what we bill them for. That’s it.

The form includes some important information as well. It states that we value each and every contribution, regardless of the size. It informs everyone that our “sustaining number”–the dollar amount we need on average, per member, in order to make our budget–is approximately $2,400, and that we need everyone to try their best to reach that number. If a member can give more, they are helping those in our community who can’t. And it explicitly says that each contribution is a deeply treasured gift.

 

Taking it to the Board

Throughout the process, we updated the Board and the Executive Committee on our work. We didn’t mention any specific proposals until we had one we felt confident in, but we shared our process and our enthusiasm for the work. Crucially, we had enough representation from the Board and the Executive Committee so that when it came time to show the final proposal, there were many voices around the table who could offer support and clarity.

We’re proud to say that the proposal we created clearly reflected Touro Synagogue’s values. It was adopted unanimously by both the Executive Committee and the Board of Trustees, which truly shows the quality of the INADC’s work.

 

Looking Ahead

The truth is, we’re just starting this new process and we don’t know how it will go. Will people return their forms? Will people pay less next year because we don’t “pick” the number for them? Perhaps some people will be moved to increase their contributions?

There’s one thing we can be certain of: we can tell people, with pride, that we’ve created something that is deeply rooted in who we are and what we believe, and reflects the best of what our community can be.

 

Cantor Jamie Marx is a graduate of Hebrew Union College and serves as the cantor at Touro Synagogue in New Orleans. For a collection of links related to synagogue dues, go to http://delicious.com/jamiemarx.  You can follow him on Twitter at @TheShrewdHebrew

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