The fall membership meeting traditionally kicks off our pledge campaign, and so it did again this November. But this year before we got into dollars and cents I introduced a system for tracking another kind of contribution to the society. It is true, of course, that the Society needs money to keep us rolling along. But even with money, we won’t get anywhere unless members also invest their time and talent in the Society.

Many of us, maybe even most of us, already make this kind of donation. But we need everyone to do one thing for the Society this year – or one more thing than they are already doing. There’s so much that goes into running this society – and so much more we can do to enrich it. What you contribute might be a nuts-and-bolts kind of thing, like acting as a greeter or cleaning out a kitchen cabinet, or the kind of things that can seem like bells and whistles but are just as much the life blood of the Society, like running a canned food drive or organizing a social event for members.

And so the membership meeting debut of our new “Deed Donation.” A table was covered with slips of paper suggesting possible Deeds. At the end of the meeting each person chose one, signed their name to it, and posted it on Bart’s famous Sticky Wall to make it official. Some people teamed up to take on a project. Some people dreamed up their own Deeds to post. Some people committed to more than one Deed. The Sticky Wall filled up quickly. (The process continued at the Thanksgiving Festival, and will be around the Society for weeks to come so that everyone is sure to have a chance to chip in – or revise his or her previous choices.)

Then it was time for dollars and cents. We can’t pay special guest speakers or host holiday parties for children living in a shelter or send our graduates to national YES conferences – or, for that matter, pay our leader or turn on our lights – without sufficient financial resources. So the message from me, and the Board, was about the importance of making a financial pledge – and the importance of valuing this place and our experiences here and then making our pledge reflect that value. There was a little tough talk, too. As we know, the current budget is pared back dramatically to account for how much money we have coming in vs. going out – and how far even our financial reserves have dwindled. It can seem like a grim picture.

But we know from our own experiences that one thing our Society is not is grim – including our experience of the energy in the room at the membership meeting, as we shared a middle eastern meal, talked with the new AEU Executive Director about what draws us to the Society and what we’d like to see there, and launched our Deed Donation. That doesn’t mean, however, that we don’t need to dig in and do some real work to improve our bottom line situation. After all the talk of the contributions we can make with our hands, we can’t fail to turn our attention to what we also need to be doing with our wallets.

The experts who study such things tell us that an organization such as ours (much of this work is done on churches and other congregations but applies to any non-profit membership organization) should be covering 80% of its budget with direct member contributions. Not income from rentals, or nursery school rent, or developers wanting right-of-way – money straight from the membership. We are very lucky to have those other income streams (or potential income streams), but for long term health and stability – to really thrive, not just survive – more money must come from us.

We are a long way from that 80%. Each and every one of us would have to double our annual pledge to even get close. Personally, Matt and I have decided to increase our pledge by $500 this year, but honestly that doesn’t bring us up to that doubling level. This is not something that is going to happen overnight. Or even over this next year. But we much choose our goal, claim it, and work toward it if we ever want to get there.

Another way to look at our situation is to compare ourselves to other Ethical Societies across the country. Most of them aren’t to that 80% benchmark either – but we are still lagging behind just about all of them on this measure. We would all have to increase our pledge by 50% to reach the portion of the budget covered by members of the average Society nationwide.

Or we could parse it this way: Our budget, in round numbers, is about $120,000 annually – so 80% of it is about $96,000. With a little over 50 member households on our rolls, that comes to almost $2,000 each. And that’s just to support this latest fat-free budget – no extras, no expansions.
Now I’m not asking everyone for a $2,000 donation.

That’s not feasible for some – and for some it is not enough. Not everyone is in the same situation, financial or otherwise. Some households are one person, some are two, some are four or more. Some are fixed income, some are two-earner. I’m not asking you to give until it hurts. But I am asking you to give, and to give generously. All members have to take the specifics of their lives and checkbooks into account when deciding on their pledge.

So there’s one more way to consider what pledge is right for you. In everyone’s pledge packet there’s a handy reference guide to median family income in the US, New York, and Westchester, and a chart specifying what 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5% of income levels (ranging from $10,000 to $240,000) actually comes out to. There’s no way to address everyone’s personal situation, so I’m going to use as an example a family with the median Westchester income of about $77,000 annually. If that family were going to tithe (give 10%) to the society, as many churchgoers do, their contribution would be almost $8,000. You can breathe out now: I’m not asking you to tithe. (Though you are of course welcome to!) But perhaps more realistic is a 2% contribution, or very roughly $1,500.

What I am asking all members to do is think very carefully about their pledge this year, look at your own personal numbers on the chart, and shoot for that 2%.

There are a couple caveats to all this.

#1: We’re talking about one way to raise contributions from members: more money per member. The other way to do it, of course, is to get more members. That’s really a topic for another day, but I do hope many of our activities and “Deed Donations” serve in some part to further that goal.

#2: Not everyone can afford the same level of contribution. That’s why we don’t place a specific price on membership. If your 2% is $100, that’s just as meaningful to the Society as someone else’s 2% that may be $1,000, or $5,000. But this means that if we want to make budget, for everyone who pays less, someone else needs to pay more. This is part of what it means to be a community: we all give, so we all can receive.

I want to mention one last way you can help the Society financially – without increasing your pledge even more. And that is, to make your pledge in the form of a monthly, rather than annual contribution. And to set it up for automatic monthly payment from your bank (if you do e-banking). No one will complain if you prefer to contribute in one lump sum at the beginning of the (pledge) year. But monthly installments arriving at regular times makes our income more predictable, and spread out more like our expenses are, and smoothes the bookkeeping a bit. So I’ll break it down one more time: That median income pledge of $1500/year would come out to $125 per month. That’s about $30 a week – or, about the price of one latte a day. I hope we all get much more out of the Society than we would get from a daily shot of caffeine. And that we give as good as we get.

– Colleen Kapklein