Free Will Synagogue Giving Versus Fixed or Sliding Dues: Personal choice improves revenue and cash flow in the Reform Movement

Posted: April 21, 2014 in Because I love Judaism I can never be a pure rationalist, My moral code, Politics
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I’m often surprised by the response I recieve when I try to convince my left-leaning friends to consider the possibility that the free-market can actually work in the relative absence of regulation, coercion, and intervention. It does not surprise me when they disagree. What surprises me is the degree to which they refuse to even have a rational conversation about it. In their defense, we laissez faire types are not known for our toleration of progressive economics anymore than they are tolerant of ours. But, I’m still shocked but how impenetrably monolithic people can be.

One case I often try to make, and that I think I could tell compellingly if I were given the chance, is that free people in a society with limited coercion will, more often than not, make ethical, morally defensible decisions. Not always. There will always be some few (sadly, often highly visible, high power, high income types) who are immoral, amoral, or just plain ol’ evil. But, as a group, free people will make good decisions.

For example, left to their own devices, free people across the financial spectrum will be philanthropic if they see a need. Take $10.00 from me and give it to a government to redistribute and I’ve given $10.00. Leave me with the $10.00 to do as I please and I may decide to give $15.00. Not always. But in general, when people feel less coerced and more empowered they also feel better about the world and are more prone to help others. For the record, my income-redistribution-proponent friends disagree. But, guess what?  They generally want to just tell me I’m nuts instead of even entertaining my arguments.

Today, however,  I read an article that gave me a glimmer of hope.

In the Spring 2014 issue of Reform Judaism magazine, there is an article on how Synagogues are rethinking their dues structures. The big change is that some of these institutions are moving to a “free will” model. They no longer have fixed dues, or a “sliding scale”. They let their members “pledge an annual contribution of their own volition” (pg 14). That alone made me happy. But better still was this important point from Rabbi David Judson: “…the fact shows that every URJ congregation that has moved to this model in the past five years has experienced either modest growth or stayed even.” (pg 18 – emphasis is mine).

Here we have a proof point from my very own spiritual tradition that demonstrates the validity of my claims. When you don’t tell someone to give you money, the open-ended ask yields equal or better results! While I often use the word “coercion” with respect to taxation, I have never used it in the context of my shul. But, since Rabbi Judson opened this verbiage up for me I’ll quote him again: “When congregants set their own donation level without any sense of coercion they almost always pay their pledge amount, and do so in a timely way. As a result congregations have fewer write-offs, better cash flow, and more precise budget projections.” (pg 19)  I hope you see where I’m going with this. Letting individual volition drive contributions yields equal or greater revenue and better cash flow. It does not matter whether you are a sole-proprietorship, a multinational corporation, or a nonprofit religious institution, anything that improves cash flow AND revenue seems like a slam dunk.

I have a long way to go to get people to listen to my ideas (please prove me wrong but at least engage!). But I’m glad to see that the community of which I, myself, am part is beginning to see that the free human spirit will tend toward doing what’s right.


  1. John Moss says:


    Great, provocative writing that I know to expect from your blog, as always!

    I don’t equate this discussion in the same category as laissez-faire marketplace economics for government taxation, redistribution of wealth, the maintenance of society or the social safety net. Two, three or more completely different conversations for a different time my friend.

    Nonetheless, I’m not a bit surprised that congregations that have gone with the “Free Will” model have enjoyed greater success. And I completely agree with you that the change needs to come soon if we want a healthy community with more folks opting in instead of out.

    In todays modern Western world, participation in most religious institutions occurs by choice as opposed to compulsion. What people want is a contradiction to what they find. And that is a huge problem that causes so many of our people to think that being stealth is the better path. It’s sad.

    In the case of the Jewish Reform Movement, “Fair Share” translates into compulsory dues based on a percentage of Adjusted Gross Income or some other localized formula. Thus the relationship between congregant (customer) and holy institution (provider) can’t help but be perceived by many, as a tax (punishment) for being a believer. This militates against whatever people think could be a spiritual, holy relationship.

    Cognitive dissonance abounds!

    Everyone understands that organizations need money to be able to survive. What people want (crave) today, if they choose to participate with a religious community or institution, is for the experience of gathering their contributions to come from them as a gift. People want to experience the joy that comes from nurturing their holy institution instead of being taxed. Being taxed emotionally feels much more like a taking, and it is antithetical in every way to the sensation that comes from, and should be most aligned with giving to their loving community.

    The difference between these two ideas and the end result is huge. It’s the difference between feeling good and running away. Or apathy.

    Today, a check is far too often the preferred proxy for engagement, measurement of success, status and power. This to my mind, explains much of the disconnect that is a widening gap between the intentions and needs of the congregant versus those of the institution.

    Worse, leadership and staff, under the current economic model are often put into the position of having to deify the proxy instead of building the real meaningful engagement and connection that people crave and will gladly support with their time, talent, and treasure.


    John L. Moss

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