Thursday, March 09, 2006

Milking Stones

It's budget time; we're taking on a DRE and a Music Director, along with all the normal "creeping costs" that help a budget to grow each year. We're also building a new building--and naturally--the first solid estimate came in way over all the carefully researched, conservative estimations that the project was approved on.

Another call for more money, piled on another.

To those involved in trying to make these things happen--the budgets that the congregation votes for, the building they approve--it feels like milking stones. They want it, but they don't want to pay for it.

Which is, of course, very human. Free would be nice, whatever it is. Of course, we don't really appreciate things that are free the same way that we appreciate and care for things that we really have invested in (money, or blood, sweat and tears. Or both). But we'd still like it free.

We shuffle figures. We find creative ways to spread the cost, to make clear how much we're getting for how very little. It's a shade embarrassing, somehow, in the midst of this, to look at some data from nearly three years ago. The large (but incomplete) fraction of the congregation that returned our survey indicating their income ranges; about 75% of households reported. Had only those folks donated 3% of their incomes then, we'd have exceeded our pledge target for this year by nearly 5%. But we've grown, and there's reason to think that the average and median incomes have risen....

I'm not sure where to go with this. I'm not interested in brow-beating anyone. But for all that "this" seems to mean to people, what they're willing to donate seems... well... painfully tight.

How much of this is the mindset of "no taxes" that the political culture's been aiming for? The idea that if we just cut the fat.... There's no fat. None. Amazing things are being done with absurd budgets. With $50 in the budget for Social Justice, we somehow raise and donate... oh, perhaps 20% of the actual operating budget to Heifer, to tsunami relief, to Gulf Coast relief, to flood relief in Transylvania, to supporting and assisting a New Orleans refugee family in resettling and transitioning out of poverty, as well as at least a dozen local charities.

But scraping up a few thousand dollars to pay for the music that's become so vibrant, that so many appreciate every Sunday (at least), that's hard?

What's it take to get people to pay to get what they really want?


LJ said...

For us, it took a more-or-less straightforward statement of what the average annual contribution was to get us (new members) to pony up. We were excited about the building plan, but our main reason for belonging is spiritual/emotional/familial. If the worst somehow came to pass and the bldg project was put on hold, the benefits of membership still outweigh the cost of being in a small older building (to us anyway).

Speaking only for myself here --if everything the congregation wants can't come to pass with existing funds, I'd rather we sit in our old building but have honest, healing fellowship with folks, uplifting music, and continued nurturance of those social causes to which we already contribute. But we're newbies and don't know much about the history of the build plan or what different things ppl want but won't/can't pay for.

So I guess I don't have an answer to your final question--

(Maybe a lot of it is the high cost of housing? If anyone's moved in the past three years, I can imagine how cash-strapped they'd be right now. Honestly, I don't know how recent homebuyers or renters are making it, even with raises and such.)

ogre said...

Thanks, lj. That's a useful observation. One thing that's been decided is that we'll do a face-to-face canvass of new members as they come into their first full pledge-year of membership. It's nothing intense; just what we did with all members last year... and which people actually found was pleasant and beneficial in terms of making ties, as well as raising the pledge. That, without ever talking about how much people were giving... just about what the place meant to us all, and was "worth".

Putting the building plan on hold isn't a viable option--for two reasons. First, given the rocketing cost of building materials, I'm estimating it might require raising $15,000 a month for the building project just to stay even with where we are now. Shocking, but true, and likely to remain true.

Makes me wish I'd flogged building with straw bale (at least in part) much harder, but we're way past that point now.

The other reality is that we're often right at capacity. There've been several services recently where we had maybe three empty seats, in a room crammed with every seat we could find a way to squeeze in. We have to act. We could go to two services (an idea that strikes terror into some people...). And we may have to do so on a "crisis basis" (we should have done so already, but that's one baton that was bobbled, and in part blocked by some of the folks bitterly opposed to the idea). The problem is that most people report the existing congregation splits with about a 65%-70% attendance at one service and 30-35% at the other, when it's done. It'd be a reasonable stop gap measure for us....

But not as an excuse for building. Our over-packed situation is likely keeping some people from coming regularly, and others from getting involved. So as soon as the "pressure" drops and there's space, it's likely we'll see an increase in attendance. Which is good.

It also means that the larger service would likely very rapidly race right back to the 80%-full mark that starts making visitors feel it's "too full" and that "there's not enough space for us...".

Existing funds... well... we're in a rare, and very fortunate situation. about 40% of our projected (now!) costs are covered by the value of land sold some years ago--a gift from an early member. It's a rare barely-mid-sized congregation that already has almost a million in the bank for construction. We've also not carried any debt for many years, at all. People have become used to the low operational costs that resulted in the early members moving heaven and earth to pay off the mortgage taken to build the existing building, and to do so early.

The larger we grow, the more space is needed to run the various programs going on. It's already easy to go to the Fellowship many evenings and find all the rooms occupied with activities of one sort or another, or people who rent space from us. So just to accommodate our own increasing activities--the perfectly normal result of becoming mid-size--we need more space during weekday evenings.

There's plenty of money, we believe, to pay for all this. The congregation "stepped up," most of the way, to catch up with what it should have been paying our previous ministers (but wasn't), when we got an interim minister. It stepped up the rest of the way when we called our minister. It did all this while continuing to donate heavily to various charities. In fact, our joint donations to various good causes has risen in both absolute terms and in terms of being a percentage of the budget, even though the budget's risen swiftly for a couple years.

One shock this last week was to discover that when we last did a congregational survey and asked about income distribution (anonymously; the purpose being to have an accurate sense of who we are, and to provide a sense of our financial abilities...), just those who responded, had they given at the UUA suggested level of 3%, would have funded 105% of this coming year's pledge goal. That's a congregation that is now three years older, larger by about 30 members, and... it assumes that only those who reported income ranges donated at all. Not everyone returned surveys, and not all of those whodid filled out that question. And... given the very large percentage of elderly retirees in our congregation, the income distribution is skewed far lower than one might have imagined. Or, it did, then.

So, the bottom line is that there are now more people, with a higher average income (we have reason to believe), and... we could have afforded the operating budget for next year, three years ago.

But many people are just used to not having to stretch a little.

Building the building and the new programs will mean some stretching. But there's actually a financial plan for that, and it's for 3-5 years, with an eye beyond that. The real risk is modest, and the upside is... well, a congregation that's going to be incredibly active and busy, in a building that's going to be very appealing to both members and passers-by.

Yeah, the cost of housing is just nuts here. I can't fathom how it works; we couldn't currently afford the house we're living in, but we bought in 1998....

ogre said...

Whoa. Sorry about that. Should have reined myself in....

All the answers and opinions you cuold want there, and then some.

LJ said...

No problem to ramble on...the info is helpful. Thanks for taking the time to reply.
I was thinking after I commented that it wasn't realistic of me to expect that we could support all our programs in the old building. There just isn't enough room. I love the building but we all do get crammed in during services, and equally importantly, I know there are many who would like to become involved in more RE activities. This is as much of a draw to me as the Sunday service!

M and I have already agreed to tithe above our initial pledge. I think with an older child in college, our fmaily could do another 1% max.

Somehow I get the sense that we new members are more comfortable with the reality of things costing more, but that's just a totally subjective sense. Having never formally belonged to a church, I admit to having been shocked at the amount we might be expected to contribute, but our concerns dissipated after realizing the many benefits...the opportunity to practice our faith and get involved with others.

I'm disappointed in the general lack of awareness or acceptance of alternative building materials in our area. Maybe it's too difficult considering earthquake standards have to be met?

This is coming from a former mobile home dweller who would gladly return to one if it provided enough room. Prefabs or modulars seem perfectly adequate for residential housing, yet don't get built down here (that I can see anyway). Somehow I doubt my utilitarian outlook is shared by many others in our affluent community, though.

ogre said...

Ah yes, the notorious UU mince-step around fiscal realities.

We are trying to do better.

The short form is that the average pledge (this year) needs to be about $1,165 per household (pledging unit). For us. Obviously, not everyone can... and some can exceed that.

The current building is something most of us are attached to. New (you), newish (me... really) and old (the folks who've been there 15-45 years). We looked hard at modifying the existing building to expand the sanctuary... but the cost was prohibitive. It would have been something like 80% of what we're spending on a new, larger building, and we would have ended up with the same space within the old building, just shuffled.

I understand the shock. It's something we went through, too. So did others. Mostly those of us who were (like you) "unchurched" essentially. It's a shade easier to grasp in smaller bites.

$1165 is a chunk. But that's about the price of two adult movie tickets, every week of the year. Not that we get to do that--or that you do. But one of our past presidents liked to talk about giving up her Starbucks fix a couple days a week to pay for it all. What sacrifice, eh?

I was disappointed that alternative materials got such short shrift from our architect. But so it goes. He does understand that there's a major interest in being "green," even as we face the serious overrun on the estimated budget. Next time, I'll have a better idea about how to get something better still....

I'd envisioned getting the fellowship community, and some the other local UUs (and other interested folk) to help raise straw bale walls....

It is funny to find myself helping spent this much money, and providing as much of it as we are, having... at one time... lived in the back of a '64 Dodge Dart with my dog.

The original building was remarkably utilitarian in many ways. It's been prettied up. This one... well, I think that there's a desire to build something that might be here as a bit of a local landmark for a century. Utilitarian's good, but there's a place for art and architecture. From what I can see, the added cost for the artiness is actually rather small. I'll bet it isn't more than 5% of the total building cost (ignoring the site preparation and landscaping work, which is about a quarter of the total).

I think we're starting to figure out how to get people to help pay for what they really want. Some of it's follow-the-leader. Some of it is sharing enthusiasm. Some of it is just being transparent and honest about what it's really going to cost.