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What it Takes to Fund International Interfaith

By William Swing


Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, home of the Episcopal Diocese of California – Photo: Wikipedia

Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, home of the Episcopal Diocese of California – Photo: Wikipedia

At the beginning of my pursuit of a United Religions, I had $158 million worth of construction projects (cathedral, camp, homeless facilities, immigrant center and housing, and more) going in the Episcopal Diocese of California, plus our hospital was hemorrhaging to the tune of $25 million a year. It was exactly then that I started pursuing a United Religions.

Money was immediately an issue. I had to raise $280,000 for an interfaith youth conference. I had to come up with $50,000 to pay for a three-month-trip to meet the religious leaders of the world. Another $50,000 paid for the first Summit of the United Religions. Then I had to take out a line of credit in two banks, $500,000 each, both lines in the names of William and Mary Swing. After a couple of years we were personally in debt for $800,000. After that debt was miraculously erased, I had to come up with 90 to 95 percent of all of the money that it has taken to get United Religions Initiative (URI) on its feet and moving ahead. Over the last 14 years I would guess, conservatively, that I have raised more than $30 million for URI.

Mary and I have lived on a clergy salary for 53 years, and clearly we are very middle class. Nevertheless it has been my lot to spend a great deal of time raising large sums of money for things we believe in.

Now along comes TIO to ask if I have anything to say about fundraising and international interfaith work. Why, yes I do. Here it is.

Intrinsic Difficulties

URI’s global leadership met in Amman, Jordan in 2010. – Photo: URI

URI’s global leadership met in Amman, Jordan in 2010. – Photo: URI

International interfaith is money. If you have it, you do it. If you don’t have it, you talk. And the world is full of talkers. You can list on the fingers of one hand the number of large international interfaith organizations that are solvent and operational. It is not hard to begin to number the international interfaith organizations that are deeply in debt or have gone out of business. Even local interfaith groups get into staggering debt sometimes. This is not a matter of the survival of the fittest. It is a matter of the survival of the fundest.

A key problem is that the genius of interfaith work rests on face-to-face encounters, but hardly anyone can pay for getting everyone at an international face-to-face encounter, much less for an on-going encounter. Usually religious folks and grassroots interfaith leaders cannot afford to show up. Scholarship help of gigantic proportions is needed. If there is a world-wide gathering of interfaith people, I can almost guarantee you that when the gathering is over, some people are going to be left with a colossal debt that will not only take years to pay off but will endanger the very existence of the interfaith organization which sponsored the event.

At URI we learned this the hard way. Although we planned on having a world-wide event every three years, we had to give that up. Too expensive, too threatening. It has been six years since we had a Global Assembly and none are presently on the books. We get by on Regional Assemblies and smaller gatherings. I hope that soon the day will come when we will have our next Global Assembly.

Another big problem is finding the source of financial possibilities. The famous American bank robber, Willie Sutton, was once asked, “Why do you rob banks?” And his reply was, “That’s where the money is.”

Where is the money that could fund interfaith work? If you can’t come up with a good answer or at least a strong intuition about an answer, then my advice is, don’t get started. Often times interfaith leaders, spiritual and scholarly people, are at considerable unease around people with money or matters of fundraising. Today the primary job of a college president might well be the job of fundraising. The person at the top had better fundraise if the college is going to survive. If that is true of colleges which have been around for generations and have thousands of grateful alums, it is more true for interfaith execs of organizations which have only been around a short time and have very few affluent colleagues.

Navigating the Financial Stream

Here’s a thought: why don’t we get a few interfaith leaders together for a retreat on money? And maybe include some others who have expertise and experience and imagination about fund raising? How has the United Religions Initiative navigated the rapids of the financial stream and not capsized so far? Especially since we decided from the start not to accept large amounts of monies from religions or governments? We were trying to create a level playing field, and we thought if we received money from one religion and not from another, the playing field would always be tipped in the direction of one religion. That would defeat our purpose right from the start.

Same goes for governments. We didn’t want to be identified with the security or economic strategies of one country as opposed to other countries.

I think that one of the reasons URI has stayed afloat is that volunteerism was built into our structure. As of April, 2014, we have 650,000 URI people. Of them, 37 are employees and lots of the employees work half-time or part-time. Low global overhead.

Another reason is that URI is frugal. If financial times look bad, we let some staff go and we reduce the salaries of all staff members across the board. And we don’t own buildings: we rent.

Another reason is that our monies are defuse. Since all of our 630 Cooperation Circles around the world are self-funding, away from “headquarters” in San Francisco, ten times as much money is raised out in the world than at “headquarters.” Even if “headquarters” fall on hard times, the basic work just keeps right on going out in the world.

Another reason is that we take money seriously. Our 17th Principle says,” We have the responsibility to develop financial and other resources to meet the needs of our part, and to share financial and other resources to help meet the needs of other parts.” Money has to circulate in the network.

Principle 13 says, “We have the authority to make decisions at the most local level that includes all relevant and affected parties.” The greatest amount of financial authority is invested at the local level.

Principle 18 says, “We maintain the highest standards of integrity and ethical conduct, prudent use of resources, and fair and accurate disclosures of information.” Earning the trust of constituents and financial backers is essential. 

The Meaning of Money

We take our time and try to get it right regarding money. We spent fifteen months simply studying the meaning of money in our international interfaith organization. In the end we came up with three financial purposes, strategies, tactics to guide us as we were drilling down deeper into the principles of our Charter, the principles mentioned above.

The first financial value of URI was to be Self-Sufficiency. We didn’t want to be or to appear to be an NGO dropping money around the world and encouraging infantile dependency. Every body of URI has to be invested and self-sufficient.

The second financial value of URI was to be Solidarity. I confess that we have not figured this one out yet, but we will. Solidarity has to do with each part of URI being part of the whole of URI, most visibly in the functioning of global assemblies. The cost for global assemblies was intended to be carried by everyone in the network, and not rest on the shoulders of a few at headquarters. The unity and sustainability of URI is the obligation of everyone in solidarity.

The third financial value of URI was to be Equity. This has to do with the worth of contributions. Not all contributions are to be understood as monetary contributions only. There is “sweat equity,” and it is to be equally honored in the family of URI.

Of course the mechanics of handling the money needed to be put into place as carefully and thoughtfully as everything else: An Investment Committee and an Investment Policy. Annual audits all over the world. Finance and Operations Committee. A Foundation to oversee the total financial picture. All of this has to do with the essential elements of integrity and responsibility.

In 2008 we calculated that it would take about $5 million to keep the global network functioning at a minimum level when the year 2013 came around. We dreamed about a $100 million endowment. Of course we did not have any prospect of achieving such an audacious goal. Nevertheless it remains our goal, and someday I do believe that we will reach it. You can’t hit a target if you don’t have a target. If we could guarantee the funding of “headquarters,” the global units will take care of themselves. Then we would be in business for the long haul.

And the long haul is the issue for me. Permanence, that’s what matters in order for international interfaith to reach its potential. Today, as the chief fundraiser of URI, I am building a line of succession through the creation of a President’s Council. These people are at home in the matter of money. So with them and with URI’s new executive director, Victor Kazanjian, who also is at home in matters of money, I am optimistic.