endowments: curse or blessing

7 Feb

Today, at a special congregational meeting called to amend this year’s budget and to deal with a resulting deficit, the board president mentioned that endowments can be either a curse or a blessing.  I think this is worth expanding on.

When a church has an endowment large enough to be yielding disbursements from the interest, those disbursements can be used in a variety of ways.  I think that it is the choices we make around how to use the money that determine the status of the endowment as either curse or blessing.

When a church uses the endowment disbursements to fund their operating budget, pledges from the members tend to drop.  Substantially.  People feel less invested, financially, in the community.  Why bother making a large pledge?  That is what the endowment is for! In addition, I think that the lack of financial investment can lead to a lack of volunteer investment – let’s just pay someone to do the jobs we don’t want to do. We end up leaning on the endowment and a sense of entitlement among the members often grows out of this type of situation.  This is how an endowment can become a curse.

But there is another side as well.

The endowment interest disbursements can be used for other purposes, and this can turn the endowment into a blessing.  What if the income were used to fund a preschool for low-income children?  Or used to send people to Haiti to help create greater access to clean water?  Or to send a group of members to Washington, DC for lobbying or rallying opportunities?  The possibilities are limitless.

When money from an endowment is used in mission related work, there are many blessings that come out of this.  First, there is the direct result that may be tangibly observed (for instance cleaner water, the creation of a preschool).  But there are intangible benefits as well.  For one, people are more likely to donate to an endowment that is used to make the world a better place.  Plus, the church can take pride in how it is putting money where its mouth is – and this creates a sense of pride and investment for the members, both financially and in terms of volunteer time.

Today, at First Unitarian, we voted to take an advance in the form of a loan from our endowment.  This means that for 1.5 to 2 years, we will not take any disbursements from it as a way to pay back the loan.  We will have to learn how to balance our budget without it.  It will be tough, no doubt, but I know we can do it.  And, it is an exciting opportunity to turn our endowment from a curse into a blessing.

Once we have weaned ourselves off of the endowment disbursements as a necessary source of income for our operating expenses, think of all the amazing things we will be able to do with that money!  My mind reels at the possibilities, its so exciting!

The opportunities are limited only by our vision, and I believe our vision is growing clearer and more expansive everyday.  What a blessing!!

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