Monday, April 12, 2010

UU membership shrinks... a proposal

I read (unsurprised, but not pleased) that the overall membership of the congregations of the Association shrank this past year. A rather small decrease in the grand scheme, but still, a second year of slight decline.

No doubt there are many solutions possible. Some of them might even be worth undertaking.

Here's one that recognizes an unintended discouragement to membership that the UUA imposes on most member congregations. Large congregations, as I recall, are assessed their dues based on a percentage of their budget. It doesn't matter if they have a great couple years and grow by 30%. Their numbers don't directly affect their dues. Their budget drives their dues. Assuming that new members come in (as has generally been the case) paying below average pledges (there are a variety of reasons for this, all of them understandable and... that's not on topic now), the large congregation's budget would grow, but not by 30%. So growth is a good thing for large UU congregations.

But in those below that dues category, dues are essentially a poll tax on congregational members. You're in a small or small-medium congregation and you gain 30% new members? Yay! Uh... but those 30% won't (see above) increase the budget 30% for some time to come.... However, the dues the congregation will pay will increase by... 30%.

There's a direct effect I've seen to this.

In encouraging new members... there's also a frank and honest conversation about what membership means (that's good), and that it costs the congregation for each new member. Some congregations simply require that new members pay the cost of their membership. Others don't. There are explanations and justifications for each viewpoint....

But it's ironic. At the very time that we're leaning harder on our need to be more open to a more diverse membership, without regard to all those categories we could list in our sleep, we have a barrier that is economic. That means that the relatively poor, those who are young and strapped, or those who are financially strapped for whatever reason... are discouraged from membership.

Which drives down the membership of not-large congregations--and drives down membership of the UUA congregations as a whole.

Does it happen? I know of cases. I know of a woman who would be a member of my congregation right now--but she knows she can't give that much, and since it costs the congregation UUA and District dues if she becomes a member, she's not. She gives what she can anyway, supporting the congregation (but not the UUA...). I believe I know of others, but haven't had the conversation with them that would make it explicit.

Want more members? Use one single system for congregational dues that *doesn't* rest on a poll tax. It's discouraging potential members. It may also be helping hamstring efforts at being welcoming and affirming to all who think they could find their home among us.

It's funny, there are those who insist that to *be* a UU, one has to be a member of a congregation. I understand the idea. It has some--but not enough, I think--merit. But if that's the case, then what we're saying is that there's a wealth-test to be a UU, too--unless you happen to be able to be a member of a large congregation.

A simple percentage of budget scheme would make a lot of things easier on a lot of people. We'd still want to count membership for other purposes. But I think using it to determine funding for the UUA and Districts is a bad idea.


Chutney said...

I like your idea of doing a percentage of the budget. You could even scale it like a progressive tax, so that those congregations most able to pay paid more as a percentage.

We finally realized this year that a net growth in membership is a drag on the budget until those new members catch up to the average pledge two or three years down the line (those that are still around, anyway). It's one of the hidden costs of growth.

ogre said...

It's a hidden drag--at the worst possible spot (given our dynamics). We get plenty of visitors. We need to not discourage would-be members from joining... and yet this is precisely that; a real world, hard-dollars-and-no-sense reason to discourage new members who are in the low income category.

Who are, ironically, PRECISELY the people we most want to attract as members and talk about all the time; lower-income folk who find us attractive--older youth (I've one sad story there...) and young adults, as well as ethnic/social minorities who are very likely to be (demographically) lower income than their white counterparts.

It's a classic example of organizationally shooting ourselves in the foot. Over and over, year after year. I'd bet that the effect is easily greater than nominal shrinkage of the past couple years.

Chutney said...

I would still require a monetary donation for membership, though. We let people know that if they can't give, we're happy to make a donation in their name from the minister's discretionary fund. Almost everyone can give something.