[The Kosher Cooking Carnival for Kislev is now on-line here]
Over the years, I've heard people say, from time to time, "We should run our synagogue like a business." This sentiment generally arises when discussing budget deficits, charging for shul programs, and raising dues.
I understand what they mean to suggest. They mean, "We should not give aliyot / classes / the rabbi's time away for free," "We should charge people based on the cost of our programs / staff time / facility maintenance."
What they don't really mean to suggest is, "We should run our synagogue like a business." Indeed, one board member of mine once commented that this sort of suggestion is rarely heard from people who have actually run businesses.
To me, running a shul like a business means studying the potential consumer base, broadening and deepening the product line, lowering the cost of entry, investing serious time and money in advertising, and building a community of committed consumers who will network with their friends to promote your product.
Businesses certainly do give things away for free. Businesses do not charge for their products/services based on their real costs. Businesses provide loss leaders and other incentives to get people in the door – just as synagogues do, actually.
I know of synagogues which think it "business-like" to charge people to be on the shul mailing list. But what business would do that? Businesses would gladly pay you for permission to send you information – and they do, regularly, in the form of raffles and the like which are created solely in order to harvest names and contact information.
I know of synagogues which think it "business-like" to publicize their programs only to their members. Is that "running the synagogue like a business"? What business would do that? Is this an attempt to squelch growth?
The truth is that synagogues have a hard time developing a good business model, because much of their product is generally available for free. It's hard to come up with a system by which the synagogue can provide a full range of services and survive economically. But if we think the answer is to run the synagogue "like a business", then let's do it for real – studying the market, designing a great product, reaching out, making sure our services are priced right, and welcoming in the masses of people we will doubtless attract.