Surviving the Famine Years …

After a year of thinking about it, I’ve decided to name this blog Pharaoh’s Dream.

The purpose of this blog is to talk primarily and specifically about church finance, but also about non-profit finance in general.

My primary intended audience is the lay leadership of churches like the  Episcopalian congregation of which I’m a member; although much of this will also pertain to all non-profits.

The central theme of this blog is reconsidering how to use one of our main pillars of financial support — those larger sums of capital which usually come from people’s estates, and which typically have been used to create perpetual endowments.   I’m going to argue that, unless such an endowment is the only thing the donor wants to do, a better way to use legacy gifts is to liquidate them and invest them in fulfilling your mission.

The Bible, whether read as the sacred word of God or simply as one of the foundational historical documents of Western civilization, talks a lot about money and wealth — depending on who’s counting, perhaps more than any other subject.

One of the earliest instructional episodes for institutions considering how to handle assets occurs way back in Genesis 47, in the story of Pharaoh’s Dream.

Joseph, the great-grandson of Abraham, had been sold into slavery in Egypt by his jealous brothers, but emerges as an advisor to Pharaoh when he is able to interpret a troubling dream.  In Pharaoh’s dream seven fat, sleek cows are eaten by seven scrawny cows; and then seven full and heavy heads of grain are devoured by seven withered plants.   Joseph  indicates that the dream is a weather forecast of seven years of plenty, which is to be followed by seven years of famine.

Joseph offers a plan from God, which Pharaoh empowers him to implement, to prepare Egypt for the coming disaster by setting aside 20% of the harvest from each of the seven years of plenty in great warehouses.   When the famine years begin, enough grain has been stored to feed the people of Egypt and their neighbors through the times of trouble.

For 3400 years, this story has been used to demonstrate the wisdom of prudence and thrift, of setting aside money for a rainy day.  It is, in fact, frequently cited in books and essays about the need to create endowments.

I’m no Pharaoh, but I am often troubled, sometimes in the middle of the night, by concerns that lean years may already be upon us.  I serve on the vestry of a church that is blessed (and challenged) with an endowment that can support more than half of our current operating budget — if that’s how we continue to choose to use it.  On the other hand, I’ve spent nearly 30 years working with dozens of non-profits that only aspire to having more assets than annual expenses.

I spent those 30 years planning to create endowments, and telling others that estate gifts were the best way to build one, and that building one was the best  way to use estate gifts. Helping Trinity Episcopal Church in Indianapolis figure out how to rethink an endowment that had become a set of handcuffs is what inspired this set of essays.  More to follow.

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About J. Ronald Newlin

Non-profit consultant, museum developer, historian, Episcopalian, blues/punk bassist
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