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Dave Odom: What does financial sustainability mean in the midst of inequity?

What does having a financially sustainable ministry mean? The one-size-fits-all answer is simple. The revenue coming in is consistently more than the expenses going out. But this simple answer obscures the gap between those benefiting from generations of building wealth and those in Black and brown America who have had wealth stolen across the years. Calculating sustainability needs to account for this gap.

I hope that the current pandemic, economic recession and renewed attention to racial inequity is teaching those in the dominant culture that one size does not fit all. When “we” talk about money, the field is never level.

African Americans were treated as property for generations while white Americans were acquiring land and accumulating money. The starting places for families in these communities today is not equal. Whenever we discuss financial sustainability, we have to examine the conditions that create, or that make it difficult to create, wealth.

Sustainability is a sought-after goal in new-program development. In financial terms, it refers to developing revenue sources that provide funding to keep the program going. Sometimes it is as simple as one funder asking the program to find other donors. Sometimes it means adding fees to the service or getting somebody else’s budget to pay the cost. Often it includes reducing the cost of the service to match the expected revenue.

As a white leader in a dominant-culture organization, I hear the talk about making adjustments and raising more money — and it all seems doable. The pandemic has thrown up a roadblock, so reaching sustainability will likely take more time, but “we” believe that “we” can be back to normal in six months or a year. A few think that “we” are in for a decade of economic difficulty.

The use of “we” covers up the different experiences in different communities. When listening to colleagues in organizations founded by and rooted in African American and Latino/a communities, I recognize that they hear talk of sustainability differently. They have learned to say what funders want to hear, but they translate the words into a different set of actions.

For example, I have encountered a handful of organizations in these communities that recently had applied for but did not receive a $1 million grant to serve pastors. Most of these organizations moved forward to develop and deliver as much as they could of the proposed program without the money. How? Mostly through unpaid labor. People affiliated with these organizations took on a second (and sometimes third or fourth) job to serve pastors. In economic terms, these organizations were investing sweat in place of money in order to do what was both most important and possible.

In financial terms, it looks as if these programs are doing great. In fact, they don’t seem to need the grant money. But when we listen to their stories, it is clear that valuable ministry is being performed by exhausted leaders.

The white-culture organizations where I have worked talk about priorities. These organizations have the privilege of deciding how to serve according to the financial resources available. But I have observed many organizations that are part of African American and Latino/a communities prioritize according to the needs of their communities and the world. The leaders of these organizations do what is needed regardless of the money.

How can I learn from this dedication and not participate in taking advantage of it? One element of privilege is not recognizing the impact of categories like sustainability on those without privilege.

This realization has made me more careful when planning a collaborative project with organizations from different cultural, racial and ethnic communities. For example, I now ask partners about pay equity across the project for the same work. I don’t assume that because employees at my white, dominant-culture organization are paid a fair wage, all the collaborating organizations are able to do the same. How do we plan the project so that people are paid equitably?

In fact, the concern starts in the planning phase. What creates the conditions so that all the organizations involved in planning a project have the resources to do the planning? Those with wealth have the option of choosing to shift their efforts to a new project. Those with no resources have to double up on their work to do something new.

If a project is underway, what would it be like to count the labor of these leaders as part of sustainability? What would it be like for donors to see that they are matching a contribution of labor and recognize that effort as part of sustainability?

What would happen if donors recognized the vast disparity between the assets accumulated by white-dominant organizations and white families when compared with African American and immigrant institutions and families? What if the funding levels were calibrated to address these disparities? What would happen if organizations in these communities had significantly longer to develop sustainability plans for donors?

In the midst of economic challenges, more complex and nuanced definitions of sustainability need to be used. All who donate and benefit from donations can learn to pay attention to the needs in communities, as well as who can be supported to address these needs. Moving too quickly to asking a program to “pay for itself” can continue a cycle that takes resources away from long-disadvantaged people.

As a white leader, I must learn more about the challenges faced by my colleagues in different racial, ethnic and cultural communities and advocate for adjustments that provide a path to more equity. I must not leave all the weight for making this case on these leaders.

Ash Wednesday is still difficult for me to embrace. The churches of my youth did not follow the seasons of the liturgical year. I was in midlife before having ashes imposed, and in nearly four decades of ordained ministry, I have never imposed them.

The Ash Wednesday experience gives me flashbacks to the symbols that the evangelists of my home church would wear or give away — religious-themed bracelets, buttons and the like. Yet I am now surrounded by mainline Christian colleagues who find Ash Wednesday deeply resonant, so I try my best to appreciate its meaning.

Repentance is something that I do understand. Each Sunday worship service at my Baptist home church ended with an altar call. In every service, worshippers were urged to come to the front of the sanctuary to confess our sins, accept Christ as Lord, unite with the church and consider full-time service.

The call to confess was the loudest message. The church celebrated each public decision to confess and accept. The highest of honors was bestowed on those who committed to leave home to become foreign missionaries. Today, when worship ends without a public opportunity to respond to the gospel through confession and dedication, I feel as if something is missing.

When I hear friends refer to the Ash Wednesday service as the most significant service of a year, they may be pointing to a similar sense that the veil between God and us is pushed aside as we offer confession. We see what God has always been offering: acceptance and love. The imposition of ashes makes face-to-face and physical what was represented in my church by “walking the aisle.”

The regular encouragement to confess and repent has made its way into my practice as a leader. This is especially true in times of high stress and change. I find myself apologizing time and time again. When I have been leading a startup effort, genuine apologies and requests for forgiveness are offered daily.

Years ago, “Breaking the Glass Ceiling” co-author Randall P. White consulted in an executive search for my boss. As we discussed expectations and the required experience, he noted that leaders develop quickly and deeply in two environments: startups and turnarounds. He urged us to consider such experience as more valuable than a calculation of years in a job.

Having been involved in several startups, I have seen what he meant. In such environments, everything happens quickly. So many things go wrong and have to be corrected that the setting is a perfect prescription for both learning and repentance.

When trying, failing and backing up are required over and over again, colleagues can lose patience and eventually confidence in their leaders. An apology is a way of acknowledging the pain caused by mistakes and naming what is being learned. In the early years of Leadership Education at Duke Divinity, I needed to apologize to someone for something every day.

I did not have a “strategy” to apologize every day. I was not trying to win people over. Each day, I realized that I had made a mistake or that a person had been asked to do an impossible task or that we had been overly optimistic with a stakeholder about what was possible. For each occasion, a fresh start was required. My understanding of apology was formed by the altar calls of my childhood and youth.

When serving as a team leader, I have found genuine apologies to be a crucial practice. The recipient of the apology knows that something is wrong and can feel isolated by the offense, as if no one else understands it. The apology acknowledges the problem and the pain; it helps distinguish between what “should be” and what “is.” And the apology takes a step toward improvement.

The apology can also mitigate the development of cynicism. When involved in a startup, I have learned to pay attention to how often I am apologizing. One mark that the system is improving is the need for fewer apologies.

This sort of repentance works best when the team leader takes responsibility for more than his or her personal mistakes, confessing the failings of the system as well. Any statement of what went wrong will surely include factors outside the team leader’s control. Yet statements that simply blame the leader can be a way to pass the buck.

There’s a difference between an explanation and an apology. An apology requires that the leader take responsibility for what has happened and acknowledge the pain caused, as well as all that contributed to it.

I wish that I could claim that once an organization is going, the need for repentance and confession becomes rare. I cannot. I make major mistakes in every stage of organizational development. I have not yet served in a place where apologies were not required.

The somber tone of an Ash Wednesday service and the heightened emotion of an altar call both remind me that repentance is serious business. Sin often leaves scars on the sinner and those around them. Apology might be a strategy or a technique in some circles, but as Christians, we have learned that confession is part of transformation.

The imposition of ashes is foreign to me, but the symbolism of branches from Palm Sunday being burned, their ashes then gathered and blessed, is powerful. The call to repent is needed. The church coming together across many traditions and focusing on repentance on the same day is a significant witness.

The power of a ritual is made real in how it shapes our daily practice. I pray that my participation in Ash Wednesday this year will encourage my daily and weekly practices of repentance and open me to participation in the resurrection and new life that is still unfolding.

Sustaining a program is a heavy burden. The program may bring in less money than it spends. Some constituents may question its worth. Additional funding sources when grant money runs out can be difficult to find. Plus, sustaining a program means meeting people’s future needs, which can be hard to predict.

The urgency of discerning how to sustain a program forces leaders to examine every detail: Could we charge more? Do we have to serve lunch? Could the program be shorter? What elements are costing us the most? Could we trim those larger expenses?

If such adjustments to revenue and expenses are possible, congratulations! But for many Christian leaders, the overall budgets of our organizations are so constrained that the minor adjustments we are free to make might not result in sustainability. In these cases, assuring the long-term effects of a program requires revisiting foundational questions about its purpose and impact. For example:

  • What constituents does this program serve? What needs does it meet?
  • How do constituents say this program helps them? How does it change the way they do their work?
  • Why is the program important to the organization offering it? How it is aligned with the organization’s mission?

These questions must be answered at an institutional level, but they are individual questions, too. Why is this program important to you? How is it related to your vocation and the vocations of your key program leaders? Would the program fall apart if you or another team member left? Does the institution’s senior leadership support this program, now and into the future?

With a clearer sense of the program’s purpose and impact, it is time to envision and plan various scenarios. I find it helpful to peel apart the question of sustainability by looking at what is required to sustain specific program elements. For example:

  • What is required to continue the most significant and high-impact activities?
  • What is required to continue the jobs the program created?
  • What is required to support constituents and outside partners?
  • What is required to sustain the ways of thinking, feeling and working the program is encouraging?

Almost 20 years ago, I was part of a grant-funded program to support pastors in my newly formed denomination. As the team evaluator, I was responsible for stepping back from the day-to-day and helping articulate the difference the program was making.

Initially, our focus was on how the program’s activities — the peer groups, sabbaticals and seminary graduate residencies — were affecting the people involved. Participants reported that the activities were life changing, but the donors we pursued were not excited about funding the program.

After a few years of asking questions, our team realized that sustainability was less about the activities of the program and more about a shift in mindset for congregations and clergy.

Our new denomination had inherited from its predecessors a view of pastors as replaceable parts. When a congregation felt disappointed with any aspect of the pastor’s leadership, the easiest adjustment was to simply replace the pastor. That denomination had large seminaries that graduated hundreds of pastors each year. There were plenty of available replacements.

We began to see our program’s goal as encouraging congregations to see pastors as renewable and renewing. The metaphor we used was that a congregation was a garden and the pastor a plant that both needed and provided nurture. The program would be sustainable, we realized, when congregations began changing policies to grant sabbatical time and increase continuing education funds. We hoped to see clergy forming peer groups without the encouragement of money.

In our case, sustainability was not determined by fundraising. We were hoping to see shifts in behavior and priorities — a purpose we recognized only by asking questions about impact from multiple points of view.

In this story, I have the advantage of 20 years of hindsight. Developing sustainability plans seldom has such a clean narrative. In the early years of a program, I have benefited from using these first, foundational sets of questions to gain information and then formulate a few scenarios. In the case of my denominational pastor program, those scenarios might include:

  • What if every pastor had a mentor? How would pastors need to be supported to engage in such relationships? Who would provide such support, and what would the cost be?
  • What if every congregation provided sabbaticals to its pastors? What conditions would be required to support such time away? Who would need to support such efforts, and what would that look like?

Each “what if” question generates a plan. Those planning for sustainability are working to encourage the desired conditions while also watching for evidence that they are being achieved. Over time, the individual scenarios begin to come alive. Eventually, the scenarios can be combined to create a single plan for sustainability.

Sustainability planning requires intentional time and space. I recommend setting aside time at least twice a year to update answers to key questions and revisit the scenarios being considered.

Don’t do this work alone; sustainability is a team activity. Program leaders are most often responsible for raising the questions, gathering information and suggesting alternatives. But the work of future planning necessarily includes your team, participants and stakeholders. The more a program can engage its constituents and institution in the process, the better.

We need institutions, and they disappoint us. That puts all of us in a bind.

We depend on institutions to organize our daily activities, from driving to schooling to recycling. We may feel compelled to entrust our health care, our search for information and our spiritual vitality to institutions. Even when we don’t choose to interact with institutions, we rely on their structures, traditions and services.

Yet sometimes, the more we know about an institution, the less we trust it. Why? Because over and over again, we witness institutions acting to preserve themselves even as their employees and constituents suffer.

Occasionally, we get our hopes up that we can trust a particular institution. Maybe one champions a cause that is beyond itself, like universal clean water or freedom for the unjustly imprisoned or health care for the forgotten. Perhaps we see the institution reflect its missional commitments by selecting women or people of color as senior leaders. From the outside, we can see evidence that the institution is creating the conditions for all people to thrive.

But from the inside of the institutions where we serve, what does trustworthiness look like?

It looks, first, like predictability. In trustworthy institutions, workers and volunteers know how to do their work. They know where to go for resources. Effective, clear processes help them get the work done.

Second, it looks like transparency. Leaders within trustworthy institutions take time to explain the “why” of a decision. They describe who was involved, how options were weighed and the reasons for the final choice. This may not lead to universal agreement, but it does ensure that no one is surprised.

Once trust is established, creating a sense of agency among participants is the next step to helping all thrive. I have been reading about “flat” organizations — those in which people choose their own projects and have the authority to make decisions. For example, Valve, a game development company, describes itself as “boss-free since 1996.” The company’s new employee orientation handbook clarifies expectations and explains that employees are free to focus on their customers because, as a self-funded entity, Valve has no shareholders or funders to satisfy.

That points to a regular challenge in institutional life: so many people have a claim on the direction of the work. Institutional leaders must serve donors, customers, volunteers and longtime friends. That can create the impression that an institution has more bosses than the people who appear on the org chart. In response, employees will often trust a segment of the institution rather than the whole place.

When I worked for a 900-bed hospital, my job was once reclassified in a way that changed my vacation and sick leave. The director of payroll called to explain the change and its implications, saying she was reaching out to me personally because the policy seemed unfair to her. Her attention surprised me. She was responsible for the payroll for 5,000 people. She promised to remedy my situation as soon as the policy allowed and explained when and how I could follow up. Six months later, she did exactly what she had promised.

At that same hospital, the CEO once apologetically explained to managers that a strategy being rolled out did not make good sense but was necessary to comply with new Medicare and Medicaid procedures. He was transparent about the situation the hospital faced and the choices senior leaders had made.

This hospital was not perfectly trustworthy. Yet it had leaders like the payroll director and the CEO who explained decisions and how to navigate them. In my 15 years there, I came to understand how to do my job and whom I should approach when I was stuck.

I meet people who don’t want to go through the pain of figuring out whom and how to trust in an institution. They prefer to start their own organizations or to work with others in smaller, often scrappier enterprises. Such organizations can create and re-create services much more quickly. Such places are great learning environments.

At some point, though, even small places end up relating to large institutions, such as government offices, industry groups, suppliers or funders. Eventually, we all must evaluate which institutions we can trust and how we should interact with them.

Christian institutions that serve congregations are strengthened when they are embedded in networks of dependencies and partnerships. My current work involves creating opportunities to develop the trust necessary for those interconnections to form and grow.

I do this work because I believe that creating the conditions for human flourishing across generations requires healthy, mission-oriented institutions. Given the current state of the world, we need leaders who are renovating existing institutions as well as those who are creating new ones. This requires that we develop or reinvent systems that are predictable and transparent while also creating conditions that give participants the agency to clarify mission and work beyond an institution’s self-interest.