Building An Endowment? If You Ask, They Will Give

By Donald E. Skinner

Pennies and nickles from church school children, combined with larger donations from adult members, helped the endowment fund at Cedar Lane Unitarian Universalist (UU) Church in Bethesda, MD (917 members), grow past a million dollars last year.

November is Endowment Month at Cedar Lane, and that's when envelopes decorated with cornucopias go to the church school and come back filled with coins. It's also when adults are especially encouraged to give to the future of the church.

"It took about fifteen years to raise a million dollars," says Bill Shoemaker, chair of the Cedar Lane endowment. "We bill it as a savings fund for the church's future," says Shoemaker. "We advertise in the newsletter, make announcements, and invite people to financial planning sessions."

Silvio Nardoni, treasurer of the Pacific Southwest District, lists reasons for giving to an endowment fund. "For some, it is the pleasure of giving back to a community of faith that has enriched their lives. For others, it is the chance to ensure that particular aspects of church life remain vital beyond their personal involvement."

Don't wait until you've developed a brochure before talking to potential donors, says Marcy Bailey-Adams, the Unitarian Universalist Association's (UUA) director of legacy gifts. "People give to people and to something they care about deeply," she says. "A brochure alone will not bring in gifts. You will."

Her advice: "Identify at least ten people you can ask for a planned gift this year. Identify ten more you will visit this year or next. Encourage everyone to complete a legal will and include a gift to our UU future." Other suggestions: Create a bequest recognition society to honor people who include a contribution in their estate plan—by will, trust, life insurance, or retirement benefits. Refer people to the UUA’s Stewardship and Development Staff Group for information about planned gift options that can be administered for the benefit of congregations and the UUA, such as charitable trusts, gift annuities, and a pooled income fund.

"Every church should set up an endowment fund for visibility, even if it has no money in it," says Peter Henrickson, an Olympia, WA, certified public accountant. Give it a clear purpose, and ensure the desired rate of return is compatible with how assets are allocated, he says.

The First Unitarian Society of Madison, WI (1,049), has an endowment of more than $1 million, dedicated to: (1) a purpose designated by the donor, (2) introduction of new programs, (3) construction, repair and expansion of facilities and equipment, (4) preservation of the society's historic Frank Lloyd Wright building, and (5) a fund for "other extraordinary purposes consistent with the society's mission and needs."

"Until recently, the funds have not been substantial enough to have a significant impact on the annual operating budget," says church administrator Kent Mayfield, "but small amounts have been used to fund social justice initiatives and building maintenance." In the past few years, endowment earnings have funded a lectureship on sexuality, youth scholarships, a concert series, and a revitalized campus ministry program.

"We want the endowment to provide some support to current activities, says Mayfield, "but our highest priority is the long-term health of the congregation."

About the Author

Donald E. Skinner

Donald E. Skinner was the founding editor of the InterConnections newsletter for congregational leaders and a senior editor of UU World from 1998 until his retirement in 2014. He is a member of the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church in Lenexa, Kansas.

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