The Parable of the Endowment Gift

Once upon a time there was a congregation that never seemed to have enough money. It barely had enough to keep the regular parts of the budget going, let alone do all of the things they dreamed about.

Then one day a big check arrived in the office. Actually, compared with the rest of their finances it was a HUGE check. The donation came from the lawyer of a recently deceased member, Shirley, as her estate had settled. The staff and lead volunteers were thrilled at thinking they could finally get out of the anxiety and restraint that always hung over the congregation because of money. They were grateful to Shirley for remembering the congregation in her will and for wanting to set up an endowment, and immediately started making plans.

Word of the gift spread around quickly. The building and grounds folks were excited they could finally fix that bad spot in the roof, and replace the HVAC. The religious education folks were thrilled they could finally modernize their dreary classrooms and hire an assistant to help grow the program. The social justice folks made plans for opening the food pantry they had been trying to launch on a dime from one small cupboard. The music folks were ready to commission a piece of new music and hire professional musicians, and even record the piece! The office staff were relieved that this meant they could finally have a decent computer system that didn’t crash all of the time. And the minister had a really big vision of another worship service and opening the facility to partners from the community.

An all-congregation meeting was held to talk about what Shirley’s gift might mean for the congregation. It was crowded and everyone wanted to speak, so the moderator had to be very strict and enforce people taking turns and talking into the microphone. Pretty soon everyone was unhappy because no one else seemed to understand, as they did, the one thing they had to do with the money. And no one was willing to let go of their dream.

Source: William James via Flickr user Toronto History

Finally Jim stood up and said, “I was very close to Shirley, and I know how much she cared about the plantings around the building. I am sure that she gave us this money so we could beautify the flower beds, reseed the grass, and trim the trees – which is very expensive.” The treasurer responded, “But Jim, Shirley didn’t leave us any instructions for the money except that it was to start an endowment. She just left it to us, so I feel sure she intended for us to decide how best to use it as an endowment.”

At that Claire stood up and said, “What do you mean ‘us’? You mean you will decide, or the board will decide at some closed meeting and we won’t get to do what we want to do!” After that, things pretty much fell apart with some people talking loudly and all at once, some talking through clenched teeth or staying silent. It went on for a very, very long time so everyone was grumpy when the meeting ended. Nothing was really decided, but the board announced that they would meet and talk about it.

There were a lot of people attending when the board met again. It went very much like the congregational meeting went – for a while. Finally the board president made everyone be quiet and said, “One thing I am sure about is that Shirley did not leave us this money to have us all fighting with each other! In fact that is the last thing that she would have wanted. I have a suggestion for the board. Let’s set up an endowment as Shirley wished. We can invest it and save it for a rainy day and only use the earnings we get for the basic things we need to do to keep running.”

Well, no one was really happy with that, yet no one else could think of a solution to restore the peace, so that is what ended up happening. So that bad spot in the roof didn’t get fixed and there was no new HVAC, the dreary classrooms were not modernized and no new assistant was possible, the food pantry operated out of that one cupboard, there was no commissioned music piece or recording, the computer system kept up its crashing, there was no new worship service and the facility remained inaccessible to partners from the community. Worst of all – the anxiety and restraint, which always hung over the congregation because of money, remained.

In fact it got worse, because after the grumpy meeting and decision about Shirley’s legacy gift, some people weren’t sure this was the right congregation for them, and decided not to give as much until something more ambitious started to happen. Besides, they thought, this congregation has plenty of money without me contributing very much.

Moral of this story: Being unprepared for gifts is a recipe for trouble. The congregation creates the endowment, decides it purpose, and determines how it will be used – it is not created by the arrival of a check. Gifts may or may not go to the endowment; wherever they are allocated, everyone can rely on the congregation’s prior decisions and the donors documented intent so the gifts can be well-used. In this way, a big conflict can probably be avoided and your beloved congregant’s (in this case Shirley’s) generosity will be the thing that members of the congregation focus on – now and far into the future.

Mark EwertMark Ewert is a stewardship consultant with the Stewardship For Us team. Mark works with congregations on their Long Term Stewardship programs and can be reached at mewert@stewardshipforus.com, via the UUA’s Congregational Stewardship Resources page, (http://www.uua.org/finance/fundraising/consulting), or through your regional staff.

3 thoughts on “The Parable of the Endowment Gift

  1. It is a parable, so conclude what you will—I agree 100% about being prepared for large donations in advance, but completely disagree that setting up an endowment and spending only the income was the wrong thing to do. I am disturbed about what I see as an increasing “spend it all” mentality in many places, both inside UUism and in our society at large. I am probably just too old and not all that long from now my thoughts will be even less relevant.

    • Thanks for this comment Sally!
      An endowment is a resource for the congregation, intended for long term stability and development – outside of the normal budget. It can have multiple uses without going into “spend it all” mode.

      Wanting to create a more financially stable organization through building an endowment is very relevant! However, if you are actually communicating well about the endowment, and asking people to contribute in an engaging way, then it will continue to build. Please keep in mind that it will be hard to motivate people to give to a fund that is permanently walled-in for some future “rainy day.”

      I’m glad to talk more about this if you want to contact me. Best wishes!

  2. Nan Covert Thermal Belt UU, Tryon, NC

    One way to prepare for an endowment as well as the monetary future of the congregation is to establish long term and short term goals. To create goals takes time for both the present and the future. It takes time for the board to plan the goal making activity and is great responsibility for someone to “head it up”, as they say here in the NC Mountains. But it is energy well spent. Is “Creating Long and Short Time Goals Together” a worthwhile program that the regional stewardship person could develop as a guide for all congregations who might want to create, add to and manage an endowment as part of each year’s budget as well as future planning?
    Think of how this could be done in your congregation and make it happen.

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