A substantial discussion of the effects of The Great Recession on Four Quarters,
from the 2010 Members Muse
Previously, I have presented the years financial report as dollars and cents numbers shown in comparison to previous years, and with brief commentary on the various financial categories.
But finances touch upon so many areas of Four Quarters, compounded by the Great Recession we are experiencing, that they serve as a lens through which to view a larger picture. And as I thought this through I found myself wanting to touch upon many subjects that are important to us as Members, and to the health and future direction of Four Quarters.
I would like to share with you my personal thinking on both short term and longer term issues, so this will be a long article of many little parts, with our finances as the theme.
But in short, it has been both a hard year, and a good year.
The Great Recession has touched everyone, and that has been hard. I personally know of many families that are in economic extremis through unemployment, business downturns, or mortgage difficulties. I am sure you do too, as this Great Recession is remarkable in the breadth of people it has affected.
I am very proud, and you should be too, that Four Quarters was able to offer thousands of dollars of assistance to three Member families in 2009, preventing their losing their homes in this very tough year. I remember the kindness that was shown to me personally during the very difficult early years of Four Quarters, when people brought me food and clothing to see me through the winter. It is with profound respect that we can be a small part of our own “give-away” in these hard times.
We knew the hard times were coming, in fact we plastered it all over the 2008 and 2009 editions of the Calendar. And I personally think the hard times will continue, or even worsen; and that opinion drives my considerations for the future of Four Quarters.
As a Members Advocate, and as Executive Officer, I see my job in large part to be that of losing sleep over the “what ifs,” and to make adaptations years in advance for the health and growth of Four Quarters. Your Board of Directors shares that concern, and decided way back in 2003 to attempt the purchase of Four Quarters based on good evidence for a significant downturn late in the decade. That foresight, and gamble, has been redeemed.
The BoD spends a great deal of time discussing our future as Four Quarters, worrying over what the right choices may be and how hard it can be to make those right choices. For the Board, I ask your understanding and support of the very real responsibility that they carry.
Beginning in 2008 we began real cost cutting, and that became even stronger in 2009. We shut down the Members Village during this winter to save heating and power costs. We made changes to our corporate insurance policies and retired the “Bluford” pickup truck to reduce transportation costs, going from 4 registered vehicles in 2008 to two vehicles in 2009. We took a very close look at what improvements could be made in camp, their cost and how they fit into the long term. Fortunately, the truly expensive projects, water and sewer, have been completed; and we had already purchased most of the heavy tools and equipment needed for operations. In 2008 we reduced and then in 2009 eliminated the extra principle payments made on the camp mortgage. But we are certainly in the sweet spot of that loan, and plan to resume our extra payments in 2010. Altogether, we probably trimmed $2,000 a month from our outgoing expenses through cost cutting in 2009.
Every dollar that live-in staff can produce through outside work is a dollar that does not have to come from our operations or from the Membership to support Four Quarters. This is our very long term strategy to ensure that Four Quarters will remain accessible to the Membership regardless of general economic decline. Localized and diversified business is a key part of adapting to the Age of Limits.
The Four Quarters Winery moved from onsite sales, to actual sales to retail stores during this Great Recession, and the outlook is good. This is the beginning of the Winery's third year as a going concern and our 2010 first quarter sales are significantly better than last years. All of the Wineries start up costs have been paid back, sales are slowly increasing, the Winery is covering all of its labor costs and is now able to make occasional contributions to Four Quarters bottom line. The future of the Winery looks promising. Buy a bottle or two!
The second major business venture is my own consulting engineering work for my old company. Yes, I once had a life in the outside world! It has worked out well so far, to the point that I am mulling over seeking out new customers.
The revenues from my business are deposited directly to Four Quarters church accounts; and have been used to purchase materials for the construction of the Loft, tools for the consulting business and primarily to support monthly expenses for the Church. In all, my little business has contributed over $20,000 to church accounts in 2009, making a big difference in the winter months. So far, so good. And the work has been fun, too!
Commercial Line of Credit
One of the things I am most proud of is that our very alternative organization has developed such a good commercial banking reputation. The Camp mortgage is one example and our $20,000 credit line is another. The Line of Credit allows us to pick up the phone and borrow money with no questions asked, pre-approved. We have used the credit line every winter to tide us over the lean months, sometimes entering the new season with as much as $15,000 in debt.
Over this winter we have not used the credit line at all. Zero debt entering into the season!
The Calendar is a major form of outreach for the Church and it is very well received. In fact it is perhaps the last free Earth Spiritual publication left nationally, and in terms of circulation ranks with the few remaining for-profit quarterly magazines still being published. Our peak year for the Calendar was 2007, when we spent $20,000 printing and mailing 15,000 copies. In 2009 we went back to black and white covers and for this year a print run of 10,000 copies, at a projected total cost of perhaps $12,000. We will be restricting bulk shipments to our core Mid-Atlantic region.
You will also notice that we are not shipping additional copies of the Members Handbook in this Members Mailing. That’s more cost cutting!. If you need a copy, give a call or email and we will mail one out.
This year continues our effort to broaden the scope of the Calendar with significant material addressing global issues that pertain to an Earth Spiritual point of view. Yes, this is an acceleration of a trend we began a few years ago, and is part of the new directions Four Quarters is moving towards.
I personally feel that our future as an organization will depend on our voicing and growing the values of Earth Spirituality, and applying them in ways that are relevant to a world changing into one of severe ecological and financial limits. This is not a process to be completed in one year, or even in ten years. Much is unknown and yet to be discovered. But it is a process we must start now, for our communities children and their children.
Membership saw a 15% drop in 2009, from about 390 to 340 Members, with Membership revenue dropping from about $52k to $41k during the year. This is similar to, but greater than the Membership drop we saw in 2002-3 during the previous recession.
Certainly the Great Recession has a lot to do with the decline, we know a significant number of Promoting Members returned to Sustaining Members as an example. In fact, Promoting Memberships dropped from $27k in 2008 to $19k in 2009, contributing about 70% of the total drop in Membership revenue.
But as I like to point out, when one compares Membership revenue to gifts and pledges (about $25k), or total revenue for the organization (about $195k); it becomes very clear that our individual Memberships are subsidized by everything else that constitutes Four Quarters!
I also feel that some part of the decline is due to our new clothing and contraband policy changes, and perhaps to the intentional broadening of our mission towards greater inclusivity. If we have lost Members for these reasons, that is sad and unfortunate. It is also a part of any process of changing. It is my hope that as we continue to grow, change and adapt; that some of our old friends will return as Members and that many new folks will become Members. That is my hope.
(A Note: The greatest loss of Members due to policy changes was in 1997-8, when we raised Membership fees, developed our alcohol and drum circle policies, and subsidized Parental Memberships. It cost us 40% of our Members with much negative griping on the chat lists! In hind sight, it was the single most important positive change we have ever made.)
It's funny, but often the things that you don’t see are the ones that cost the most. That is certainly the case with improvements to the camp. Folks really do appreciate new showers, but we so easily forget the 1,500 feet of buried 4 inch sewer pipe that makes that shower possible!
From 2005 through 2008 we spent almost every extra dollar on infrastructure and equipment, being very conscious that we were experiencing an economic bubble and that hard times were coming. In 2009 we saw the benefits of that foresight. The major and truly expensive investments in the camp are paid for and behind us. The sewage system is largely complete, our water system is finished and state approved. Our kitchen now has a permanent commercial permit.
These things cost many tens of thousands of dollars to install, not to mention months of hard labor from live-in staff and volunteers. And because of Miss Eliza's mortgage, we have a shop to work out of during the winter months and to safely store the equipment that the Church purchased during the “good times.”
All of this has combined in such a way that we are now able to get a lot more done, at a much lower cost, which was the plan. In 2008 we spent about $80k on equipment and improvements, a large part of that finishing the water system and purchasing heavy equipment like the Logosol molder/planer. All most all of that investment was hidden from the causal eye. In 2009 we spent about $40k, installed the Upper Showers and Coffee Dragons hot water, and completed the shell to the in camp Dorm. Because of the Logosol, we were able to raise the shell of the Dorm for about $9,000 in materials. That is a much more visible bang for our buck.
I expect that over the next few years you will see us engaging in improvement projects that are more visible, because we are now leveraging those hidden resources that have already been installed. Its a good place to be.
For 2010 we will be starting one more major project, a deck for our dining pavilion, which I hope will also include proper dish washing facilities, as well as toilets. The good people of SpiralHeart have provided a $5,000 challenge grant that will at least get the deck built by mid-summer, and I hope Four Quarters will have the resources to add in the plumbing systems. In the spring we will be putting a proper roof on the dorm, staining the exterior and adding the front porch with walkway. Late this winter we hope to fabricate all of its bunkbeds in the shop, so that by the beginning of the season it will be fully useable, if not actually completed. I expect we will be two to three years before the dorm is actually finished.
This is a good time to mention our work weekends, which were critical towards getting the shell of the dorm up in time for SpiralHeart to use it for their week long intensive. Many and much thanks to everyone who came to help. You will find the work weekend dates for 2010 in the Calendar and elsewhere in this Members Muse. Please do consider making a date of it and joining us for a work weekend. What a difference you can make.
Gifts and Donations
Four Quarters is unique in many ways. Perhaps one of the most telling ways is the importance of donations. We are one of the very few, perhaps the only, Earth Spiritual organization that has an active donations program. Our pledge program was instrumental in securing the commercial bank loan that purchased the camp, and it provides most of the funds for making the monthly mortgage payments on the camp. It is also a sensitive bell weather for general economic conditions, as over the past 15 years the level of gifts to Four Quarters has accurately reflected the boom and bust cycles of the economy.
In 2009 we have had a significant number of folks on the pledge program call to reduce or cancel their pledges as their personal circumstances have declined. This is something that is very understandable, as we must keep the home fires burning before we can take the warmth to others.
We also had Members whose personal circumstances have weathered the Great Recession step up and make large donations for specific purposes. Purchasing futons for the Loft and Dorm, or raising the funds to bring home three tractor trailer loads of new stones for the Circle.
Taken together we saw a 15% reduction in gifting to the Church, from about $30k in 2008, to about $26k in 2009. This is a smaller reduction than what we saw in the recession of 2002-3.
To be a part of such an alternative organization that has earned this level of trust is very humbling. It speaks to our highest ideals and is instrumental in making those ideals as real as The Stone Circle... and a nice hot shower under the trees!
To all the folks that have reduced their pledges in this year of hard times I say, “Thank You! I have been there, I understand.” To the folks who stepped up and made up the difference, “Much Thanks for sharing your blessings.”
In A Nut Shell
I went into 2009 with a great deal of trepidation, seeing the effects of the predicted Great Recession gives me no pleasure as a Cassandra! And when the BoD made the decision not to renew the contract for the Gaian Mind music festival, we did so knowing that we were walking away from a significant source of revenue. Turning down money in hard financial times can be viewed as more than slightly insane, and as the Executive Officer answerable to the BoD for how money is used, I was frightened! But active cost cutting and careful management of our financial resources made up for that difference and we have been able to continue with improvements to the camp and our operations.
In fact, we have ended this year in better financial shape than in previous years during “the good times.” We have maintained our building fund reserve for the spring, we are carrying no debt on the credit line, and donations continue to make the mortgage payment each month. We will be able to begin the new season in good financial health.
To my sense, we saw something else in 2009. The energy here on the Land, as reflected in the bright eyes, smiles and participation of our Members; was cleaner, more vibrant, more alive. Perhaps it is true that through sharing hard times you will really come to know yourself and those around you. And hug them tighter still!
For the future? It’s good to start with the past. Four Quarters was founded in 1995, and in the following 15 years we have developed into the largest and most stable organization of our kind in the United States. Of course that really means we are a large tadpole in a very small pond, but survival has its pleasures!
We have changed since the years of our founding, which is why we are still here. And we will continue to change, reflecting the people and the tenor of the times. We hope to expand emphasizing practical strategies for living in physical balance, and educating ourselves about the nature of the emerging global predicament of limits.
But that’s not just talk. You see it in the way we live-in staff structure our lives and work, you see it in the slow careful development of the camp. You see it in the way our Members take charge and responsibility for making ceremony and sharing it. You see it in the way people treat the Land with love and respect, visit after visit.
In the physical, I hope over the next few years to see more practical demonstrations of alternative systems here at Four Quarters. Composting sanitation, photovoltaic and solar thermal are prime candidates. I would like to see our agriculture grow to the point that it provides an even larger share of the live-in’s food, and food for the camp kitchen. As travel costs increase we must grow the camp in such a way that it is easier for people to travel light, and have more of their needs for food and shelter accommodated after they arrive.
In the spiritual, I hope to see our values broaden and made more accessible to a greater circle of people. Because I believe they matter. In fact I think any long term social strategy for minimizing the effects of the Age of Limits, has to include a spirituality based on a reverence for the Earth and its ways.
How to make that happen is the great challenge. Out reach is certainly a part of it, making Four Quarters and our spiritual sensibilities more visible and easier to share. Communication is important, as is participation. We have been pretty successful there, but more is needed. I do have plans for a complete rewrite of our web site and discussion boards, but where to find the time? -smile.
At the end of the day, we need to just keep on, keepin‘ on. Make ceremony, raise The Stones, care for the Land. Invite friends, cut a check, volunteer for a Moon Service. Pound a nail, hold someone’s hand. Stand back every now and then, take a deep breath, exhale. Do it again. Listen.
Can you hear it?