I can’t imagine that my meeting, Central Philadelphia, is alone in our flailing around in the swamp as we try to deal with issues of money.
Of course, we have our own unique situation. As a long-established meeting located in the downtown section of Philadelphia, we come with a long history and have built up an accumulation of trusts with substantial endowments. Our meetinghouse is part of Friends Center, where American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, and a host of other organizations have their home. While this situation creates wonderful opportunities, it also comes with high fixed costs (no option of meeting in the local library for us!) and constrains our autonomy when making financial decisions. All of these factors tend to prevent our members from feeling power over our financial situation.
Some people might envy our problems. I remember back in the ’90s, when the stock market was booming and more interest was coming in than we needed to cover our costs, we spent a lot of time on the question of what to do with the surplus. I was impatient. I found it impossible to think of this money as our own. After all, what energy did we put out to acquire it? I thought—and said—that we should just give it away with as little time expended as possible, so we could save our discernment energy for issues that were truly about us.
There were also voices speaking on behalf of the rainy day, and on the need to be good stewards of that which is entrusted to us. We did have to make some kind of a decision about what to do. We ended up spending a fair amount of time in the swamp of indecision; the solid ground on which to make a faith-based decision was elusive. We made the best of this situation, struggling to act with integrity every year—until the Great Recession brought a whole new set of challenges starting in 2007.
The source of income that we depended on to meet high fixed costs was now significantly less. Without the capacity to nimbly retool our approach to budgeting, we ended up spending down, over the course of two years, a very generous bequest from a recently deceased and beloved member, just to pay our bills. Without other apparent short-term options, there was little dissent this time, but we shared a sense of great sorrow.
The meeting finances have recovered (as has the stock market), and we are working hard to build up our resilience. We have put increasing attention on our Every Member campaign, and have come to a shared understanding that while dead Quakers may support our infrastructure, those who are living today should be paying for the costs associated with the ongoing life of the meeting. I don’t think anybody has any illusions that we are out of that financial swamp.
Now that was a point at which we were standing on solid ground: a small hillock in a very large swamp, to be sure, but solid nonetheless.
As I reflect on how we might find our way to more solid ground, I remember the words of our dear Friend John Woolman in On Trading in Superfluities, “Dig deep. . . . Carefully cast forth the loose matter, and get down to the rock, the sure foundation, and there hearken to the Divine Voice which gives a clear and certain sound.” Where have our decisions about money rung true? Where can we tell we are standing on solid ground?
In the period after the Great Recession, when everybody’s attention was on the damage done by the big banks, the Move Your Money campaign urged us to transfer our money to more community-based financial institutions. I had already moved our family’s personal account and was among a group that asked our meeting to do the same. In response, our treasurer and secretary took it on themselves to do the considerable work (it turned out) of moving all our liquid assets to the local credit union. Now that was a point at which we were standing on solid ground: a small hillock in a very large swamp, to be sure, but solid nonetheless.
That was also the time when the potential significance of fossil fuel divestment began penetrating the awareness of socially conscious investors. With much of the endowment of Philadelphia-area Quaker meetings managed by Friends Fiduciary Corporation, a change in practice there became the focus of a group of ecojustice-minded Friends in the yearly meeting. Since Quakers have a long shared history of screening out “bads” from our investments, adding fossil fuels to that list of unacceptable investments seemed like an appropriate request.
We encouraged meetings to write to Friends Fiduciary, asking the corporation to divest. There was a good response: In 2013 Friends Fiduciary decided to exclude coal companies and related utilities from its investments, release stock in some of the fossil fuel companies with the largest reserves and the worst records for denying climate change, and offer a new alternative Green Fund.
The next step was to encourage meetings to move their assets—or at least a portion of them—into the new fund. This decision came with a cost, since the return from the Green Fund was lower than that of the general fund. It was heartening to see how many meetings, ours among them, rose to the challenge. Here was another occasion of finding solid ground: of taking action that rang true. This may be more than just an isolated hillock. With returns on renewables outpacing those on fossil fuels and many other stocks, an expectation of more movement at Friends Fiduciary seems reasonable.
This was money we had raised ourselves, in honor of both our gifts and our neighbors, and we gave it away with joy.
Our meeting found another bit of solid ground with a fundraiser this spring. Several years ago, another generous and beloved member (still very much alive) gifted the meeting with a large sum, half of which was earmarked for our neighbors in need. Our Peace and Social Concerns Committee, charged with disbursing these funds, polled members to see where they were donating and volunteering, and we chose four groups in the city where we already had some sense of connection to support over time.
Three years into this process, with the original funds beginning to dwindle, the committee decided to hold a fundraiser to replenish the account. We wanted to emphasize the joy of connection, so we billed it as a “Loving Friends Fiesta,” created a fun fair full of activities for all ages, got a gifted member to provide music for dancing, set up a five-dollar-and-under sale, and organized a silent auction. Not only did we raise more money outside of individual donations than (in my memory) we ever had, but we had a lovely time together. Particularly striking was all that we learned about each other’s gifts from the silent auction. This was money we had raised ourselves, in honor of both our gifts and our neighbors, and we gave it away with joy.
Are we so entwined with the financial markets that their good news is ours?
Despite these promising bits of solid ground, I’m pretty sure the swamp will be with us for a while. I think of our yearly meeting summer sessions in 2014. We had gone through some very lean and painful years following the recession, laying off over a third of our paid staff and slashing program expenses to the bone. After several more years of tight fiscal controls, forced savings, and austerity spending, finally, at sessions that year, we heard the good news: spending was stable; resources were up; income was showing a tendency to rise. If the stock market just continues to grow, we can anticipate more reassuring financial statements for years to come.
“If the stock market just continues to grow . . .” Are we so entwined with the financial markets that their good news is ours? Do we want to put our hopes in a system whose internal drive toward maximum interest and growth rates breeds inequality and puts ever more stress on our finite and fragile biosphere?
I think we need to put some effort into getting our minds around the nature and extent of this swamp. The messages that abound about our role in this economic system—we need more stuff; competition brings out our best; advertising increases our happiness; selfishness and greed are the building blocks of a healthy economy—surely won’t lead us to solid ground.
We may stand in opposition, but disentangling ourselves is another matter. It’s hard to have integrity in the midst of an economic system that fundamentally lacks it. While those of us who are in debt face increased indebtedness, others desperately save up in hopes that the interest will provide for our future security. Our beloved institutions depend on the health of the markets. It’s hard to imagine an alternative, yet that may be critical to finding our way forward.
It will help to listen for questions that have the ring of truth, and follow them toward solid ground. Several years ago, an African American Friend in Philadelphia asked why our yearly meeting wasn’t investing in his community. This is a question that rings true. It suggests a new possibility that goes beyond screening out what we don’t want and into investing in what actively matters to us. Of course, there are questions. What about the security of such investments? What about returns? How do we balance fiduciary responsibility with responsibility for being faithful to our beliefs? A group of Friends in our yearly meeting is currently gathering information about options and taking the pulse of the community, presenting these findings to the body.
As I reflect on the experience of our meeting and yearly meeting, our steps appear halting and our successes few. I’m sure there are other challenges ahead of us. Yet I hope that telling these stories might encourage Friends to value more fully what they have already accomplished or to try new areas that may have seemed inaccessible up till now. As we celebrate each bit of solid ground that we are able to secure and get a better understanding of the swamp that surrounds it, we’ll be better able to take up issues related to money with greater confidence, integrity, and perhaps even joy.