Framing the “BIG Conversation” about TCFM Reserves

Dear TCFM Friends,

At the January MWB we approved our annual budget for 2014 with very lukewarm support. We recognized we do not have agreement on the assumptions underlying that budget. We have agreed we will have a “BIG Conversation” on our underlying financial assumptions, especially how much money TCFM holds in its reserves. This conversation is already under way and will likely be continued at the March Meeting for Worship with attention to Business. In this post I would like to look at the broad outlines of this BIG Conversation. And the even larger questions that follow. The BIG Conversation is the first of two parts. 1. What do we want to do about reserves? 2. What will we actually do about reserves?

Background considerations

Let me spend just a moment on the second part, the part that is still outside the BIG Conversation we are undertaking. WHAT LEVEL OF RESERVES WILL TCFM ACTUALLY MAINTAIN, over the next decade? I believe we need to have the BIG Conversation as a valuable foundation to what we discover TCFM actually does about our reserves, in the years ahead. I raise the “actually” topic in advance because I see a big financial crunch coming to Industrial Civilization, a crunch that will make the 2008 recession look like an early warning. I know a significant portion of the TCFM community has a sense of foreboding about “big changes coming.” Hopefully we are wrong. I bring up the “What will we actually do” topic as a way of encouraging us to have our current “What do we want to do” conversation for two reasons:

  • Whatever actually happens to the global economy, it will be very good for TCFM as a community to have practice talking about money. Whatever the next decade brings, we will be better off for having had the BIG Conversation about how much of our community resources it seems right for us to hold in TCFM’s reserves.
  • I think TCFM members are having trouble really engaging with the issues of the BIG Conversation because we differ among ourselves about how seriously we take our sense of foreboding.

So I say to you, “The BIG Conversation is about what we want, what we value in our financial stewardship of community resources. This is an important conversation for us to have, whatever actually shakes out over the next years. Let’s have a conversation, recognizing the background uncertainty of what’s ahead, but not focusing on it. The values-conversation is much-needed now. Whew! So now I can turn my attention to how big our conversation about values could get, should get.

Two core issues

To my mind, in the smallest-possible framing of the question, the core issues that need to be addressed are:

  1. How much money do we, as a community, desire to hold in TCFM reserves? I’ll call this issue “How Much?
  2. How do we want to name, and report to ourselves, the money we have available in our community accounts? I’m going to call this issue “Accounting & Reporting.”
Accounting & Reporting: How many pots of money?
We are currently reporting our money as “it’s all in the same pot.” We are saying that the money we will need for a new roof in 15 years is in the same category, or pot, with the money Building & Grounds will spend on snow removal next month. Finance Committee has been taking the position that

“what we’ve got is what we’ve got, and we are fooling ourselves if we claim we are setting aside ‘roof money, that can’t be touched,’ believing that, if we get a foot of snow in April, the snow will just have to sit there if Building & Grounds has exhausted their budget.”

A different approach to Accounting and Reporting is to say that the “one pot” method of reporting creates problems as we try to think about How Much. If our one pot has $130,000 (130k) in it, that may seem like more than enough. The alternative, two-pots, approach says it will help TCFM if we have a separate pot for big-ticket maintenance we know is coming, even if we are not sure exactly when. If we know the big-ticket pot is going to have to come up with $100k between now and 2030, then having a total of $130k doesn’t seem excessive. Maybe.

Personally, I’d like to see a Three-Pot Accounting and Reporting system:
Pot 1. Big-ticket maintenance we know is coming. We expect to spend this, down the road, and we’d better have it on hand or be saving for it.
Pot 2. Annual expenses, like food for fellowship, routine repairs and contributions to other organizations. We expect to spend this each year, and we need to know how well we are doing in sticking to our budget.
Pot 3. A pot for things we don’t expect, like our beautiful walnut tree in the front yard falling on the house. Sure, insurance would cover most of it, if it did happen, but it would be good to have some money in a pot just in case we needed to hire a construction crane and some emergency roofers in a hurry.

I know what the one-pot folks would say: “You don’t need pot #3, you just borrow emergency expenses from pot #1.” Maybe they are right. Friends, we need to talk about this. It is less important whether we decide on one pot or three, and more important that we as a community have a shared understanding of the issues, and an agreement about Accounting and Reporting.

How Much?
Personally, I don’t yet have suggestions about how much reserves TCFM needs. I don’t yet know how to think well about these things. So far, I have identified one aid to thought: often the How Much question is discussed as “compared to a year’s worth of regular expenses.” So, if we spend $130k on regular expenses yearly (pot #2, above) then we might decide we wanted to carry a years’ worth of reserves in pots 1&3. Or maybe we say “half a year’s worth of reserves,” or “three months.” I think using “TCFM’s usual expenses for a year” is a helpful standard of comparison.
Of course, it gets more complicated.

  • Our current annual expenses include paying off a big loan for MOMSAH-related reconstruction expenses.
  • Our annual budget of regular expenses includes about $30k that we donate, mostly to Friends organizations. It is optional, in a way that keeping mold out of the building is not optional.

So we might want to refine “annual expenses” to some slimmed-down version which includes only “regular annual building expenses,” or some other relatively uncomplicated number. This is one area where we move beyond the core questions to the values that surround them.

The values surrounding the core questions

A person might advocate that being good stewards of our property needs to be our top priority, and that we need good-sized reserves in order to be good stewards. Someone else might advocate for giving more money to people who are struggling, either members of TCFM or folks on the other side of the world. They would say it’s our relationships, not our possessions, that need to be the core focus of our community. It’s a balance, of course, and different TCFM members will have differing points of view on what TCFM priorities should be, thank goodness. The biggest philosophical question of all is

  • “how much is TCFM, with it’s little building at 1725 Grand, a thing unto itself, an entity that needs to care for its own interests, and
  • “how much is TCFM simply a fragment of a larger wholeness, ready to merge with the larger flow, even if that risks the loss of TCFM and its ownership of 1725 Grand?

Another values question is: Can TCFM, the organization, count on getting money from (say) Richard’s bank account if and when TCFM needs it, in an emergency, or does TCFM need to get Richard’s money ahead of some supposed emergency, and keep it in TCFM’s own bank account? Different TCFM members will have different thinking about this. We need to hear this range of opinion. And what do we think WILL happen? If there’s a global financial emergency, will Richard (and other TCFM members) have money they can spare, for the welfare of the TCFM organization? We can’t know. We CAN have an understanding of what values most TCFM members share, and what we don’t. Friends, there are not “answers” to these questions in the way that there are answers to math problems. And TCFM may not even need to discuss some of these philosophical questions. Still, these big questions are important to some of us, and our community needs to be willing to hear Friends’ opinions on them, as they come up. Another background question is

  • “How much does the TCFM community leave these financial decisions to experts on and around the Finance Committee, Friends who understand these things better than most of us do, and
  • how much should each TCFM member feel a responsibility to understand the basic issues in our own way, and to offer our point of view to the decision-making process?”

Friends, Community Development and Fund Raising Committee urges you to engage with these issues, each in your own way. And to offer your opinion into the decision-making process. Come to March MWB, or talk to a member of a relevant committee. Bob Nechal, Rob Axtmann, Tami Swiggum and myself are particularly good people with whom to share your opinions. Or talk to your close friends. It is you and your friends who will make the donations that determine what we actually do, over the next decade. We in TCFM need to know the range of community values we have, as we prepare for the time ahead.

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