Build for the Future
By Mark D. Burkhardt, Director for Outdoor Ministries, ELCA
As I travel around our church and talk with outdoor ministry board members and professionals, I am frequently confronted with the reality that many of our facilities are aging and in need of major improvement. The water, sanitary and electrical systems that were built 40 or 50 years ago are failing and in need of replacement and upgrading. Building codes have changed dramatically and replacing these systems can be quite costly. Meanwhile, buildings that were originally built for summer use have been pressed into year-round service for a multitude of new outdoor ministry programs. Many buildings are in need of major renovations in order to meet these new programmatic demands. The challenge is in finding the financial resources to handle these needed improvements. Where will the money be found? And, if the money can be found for facility improvements, where will the money come from for developing new programs and services?
Unfortunately, there are no easy answers. Each outdoor ministry organization will need to decide for itself where to turn for the financial resources needed to upgrade and rebuild. I suspect, however, that the answer lies in the thousands of committed alumni and current program participants that have benefitted from our outdoor ministry programs.
It would be easy for any of us to blame our predecessors and suggest that our problems today are due to their failure in the past to plan for the future. Sadly, in some cases that may be true. Some organizations have a consistently poor record of planning for the future. On the other hand, who could have imagined 50 years ago (or even 25 years ago) those old summer camps would have developed into the dynamic year-round ministries that we know today? And, who could have anticipated all the new regulations and expenses that we face today in operating safe, healthy and energy- efficient facilities? Instead of lamenting the past we should be planning for the future. Are we in any better position to anticipate the future? Yes, in one sense I believe we are. We now understand in a very personal way the importance of financial planning for the future. While we can’t anticipate all future needs, we can make sure that future outdoor ministry leaders will have the financial resources they will need to solve the challenges of their time.
That’s why it is absolutely critical that every outdoor ministry organization move as quickly as possible to establish an endowment fund for the support of future programs and facilities. And, if your organization already has an endowment fund, to intensify your efforts to increase the value of the fund’s principal by adding new gifts.
I had the privilege of doing an American Camping Association accreditation visit at a camp operated by another faith group. During the course of that visit I couldn’t help notice how well-maintained and equipped most of the buildings were at the camp. I commented on this to the director who told me that they have a unique policy in place at their camp. No new building is built until enough endowment funds have also been raised to fund the estimated upkeep on that building over its expected lifetime. What a great concept!
What does it take to start an endowment fund? Basically, A COMMITMENT from the board of directors and AN INITIAL GIFT to get the fund started. Sure there is some legal work that needs to be done, but the process really isn’t that complicated. In fact, the ELCA Foundation has just published a great new resource entitled, "How to Create a Mission Endowment Fund." In just 15 easy-to-read pages it answers most the important questions that any board would ask. In addition, the ELCA Foundation, in cooperation with the ELCA Board of Pensions, is now offering all ELCA congregations and affiliated ministries the opportunity to invest their endowments with the $130 million ELCA Endowment Fund. By investing in this fund, outdoor ministry organizations will be able to benefit from a level of professional management usually available only to institutions with large multimillion dollar endowments.
An endowment fund is not a quick, easy answer to the short-term challenges of your organization. It will not provide the financial resources you need to meet today’s needs. It will, however, provide some much needed hope for the future of your organization. It will take discipline on the part of your board to commit to seeking gifts for your new endowment. It will be tempting to suggest that major donors contribute to your immediate needs. One wise option is for the board to commit a portion of your organization’s income on a regular basis to increasing the value of the endowment fund principle. Future outdoor ministry leaders will thank you for your discipline and leadership.
Starting and building an endowment fund is one of the most important legacies you can leave your outdoor ministry organization. Start an endowment fund or commit to building your existing endowment - just do it!