08 October 2012

Baha'i Centers & Growth

In November, 2007, the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha'is of the United States wrote a letter to all local assemblies addressing the role of Baha'i Centers as physical assets of communities. The letter announced the formation of a Baha'i Center Assistance organization, with a manual of strategies for Baha'i Centers. I highly recommend reading the letter from the NSA (only 1.5 pages), but I'll share some of the highlights.

It is time to take a fresh look at the role of buildings in building Baha'i communities. Our most precious asset is the vibrancy and love reflected among Baha'is, and our intense focus is currently on large-scale growth. Physical assets and funds must be aligned in support of these goals, and Local Spiritual Assemblies are responsible for maintaining focus.

Assemblies should also maintain a realistic appraisal of the cost, time, efforts involved in purchasing, renovating, and maintaining a Baha'i Center. Building ownership is not an investment, since the day-to-day operating costs will easily swamp any perceived long-term savings. Fundraising, renovations, and "prolonged debates about location, design, and usage," can be detrimental and distract from core activities and growth.

Baha'i community life is moving away from the model of a large area commuting to a central location. Instead, Baha'is are increasingly promoting decentralized activities at the grass roots that serve a much larger population. Considering this shift, Assemblies interested in purchasing or renovating should "give careful consideration to the question of whether such action would support or detract" from the goals of the current Plan of the Universal House of Justice. In most situations, Assemblies should use personal homes and daily rentals for their needs. If a more permanent fixture is desired, a long-term lease of a facility would be appropriate.

"…the best facilities for local Baha'i purposes at the present time are those that allow for maximum flexibility in their use and in the financial arrangements made to secure them."
A 2005 letter to the NSA of the United Kingdom written on behalf of the Universal House of Justice states,
"…the purchase of a building would not be appropriate at this juncture. Beside any financial considerations, the dispersed pattern of activity in the intensive program of growth now unfolding in London will undoubtedly influence future perceptions of the type of facilities required."
These various letters confirm a trend. The inference to a changing community model seems to have solidified. In most communities the Baha'i Center has not played a central role in growth activities. As classes, Feasts and holy days have continued to decentralize, the Centers only become necessary a few times per year, or as a public face with open hours. I've heard from several communities that their Baha'i Center is mainly used for cluster reflection meetings and memorials.

My experience in Oregon and Washington also confirms the trend. Portland purchased a Baha'i Center around 1992. At that time, the community was moving determinedly toward the model of a centralized congregation, and the building provided the impetus for accelerated growth, nearly doubling active participation within five years, and greatly increasing funds. But once the community reached about 150 active participants activity leveled off. Anyone familiar with the science of social groups will recognize 150 as the magic number where group dynamics break down. I wrote about it in a previous post, Monkey Brains, and Malcolm Gladwell devoted a chapter to the topic in his best-seller, Tipping Point.

Decentralizing could help get out of the rut and create new social networks for growth. When attempting to decentralize, a common refrain was, "Why do we own a Baha'i Center if we don't use it? We just need to use it more." Thus, the Baha'i Center became a hinderance to growth, because people felt that they needed to get value out of the center. I hope you consider this issue carefully. To put it another way, people were asking how we can better serve the Baha'i Center, not asking what the needs of the community are, and then asking how physical space can help meet those needs. Taking a step back, the activities that lead toward quality growth are not large events and public talks, they are personal relationships and in-depth study. If a great deal of our funds and energy are spent on the Baha'i Center, then a radical shift is needed to reorient the community.

The model and pattern of growth is far more important, but the case can also be made on a purely financial basis. I'll take the Portland Baha'i center as an example. It was purchased at a fire-sale because it was a 60 year old post office that had fallen into disrepair. The Assembly bought it and spent quite a bit of money on its renovation (by the way, the BCA manual recommends against that). With time, the debts were paid off, so that there now remains only about $20 k of an interest-only loan. Despite the building being essentially "purchased", the costs of owning and operating the center are about $50 k per year. This is because owning is expensive. Besides paying for utilities, professional cleaning, yard maintenance, and frivolities like internet, and several other fixed costs, there are periodic renovation and maintenance projects that can easily reach $40 k each (a good sound system costs $10 k). 

These costs do not include hiring a Center Manager, a job that could easily be 20+ hours per week, and which is nearly impossible to fill as a volunteer. The responsibilities at the center include exterior maintenance, such as yard work and cleaning up human excrement left by campers; interior maintenance, such as cleaning, electrical, plumbing, decorating, organizing, fixing things, stocking, and working with contractors; reservations coordination, such as maintaining a calendar of events, renting to the general public, staffing during events, and running the sound system; or maintaining a public face, such as staffing open hours and coordinating devotions open to the public. These things are difficult to fill with volunteers, due to the hours involved, and many are more efficiently done by a single person. If there is not a manager, or at least a managing committee, a number of issues will be deferred to the Assembly and sap the vitality out of its meetings by discussing how to get the broken lock fixed. The cost of such a manager is at least an extra $20 k per year, and Portland had one during the first two years of owning a center, but not since.

These are normal costs for ownership. Neighboring Beaverton purchased land and built their own Baha'i Center about five years ago. With the extra financing, their cost of ownership is close to $70 k per year, with no paid Center Manager. In both cities, the center takes up over 60% of funds. 

Compare this to another model. Rent a store-front in a central location with a reading room. The price can vary a lot, but it won't be hard to find 130 m^2 for $1500/month ($18k/year). This size would be sufficient for sector Feasts and other gatherings under 40 people. Add on utilities, incidentals, and the price of storage, the cost could generously come to $23 k. For the occasional large gatherings, luxurious  space rentals are often around $200. Let's again be generous and estimate several large centralized events: the occasional Feast and Holy Day, Unit Convention, Annual Meeting, Cluster Reflection Meetings, memorial services, etc. The total cost of such rentals comes to $3 k (remember, nice spaces). That means the same needs that are currently met with a Baha'i Center could mostly be met with half as much money. In both scenarios, a dedicated manager is needed, for about the same price, but in the store-front model, the person is focused on representing the Faith to the public and managing smaller gatherings. The paid service becomes focused on growth activities and less on maintenance. The store-front does not give the appearance of representing the centralized place of worship for all the city's Baha'is, so it's much easier to explain to newcomers that we have a decentralized model of activity. Perhaps the best part of this model is the flexibility. When the lease is up, the Baha'is can simply pack up and move to another neighborhood, or discontinue leasing altogether. If things are going well, another building could be rented in another part of town. The flexibility avoids the pitfall of getting in over your head and having to sell the property at a loss, which demoralizes a community (yes, it has happened).

And then what would we do with the extra $25 k per year that is being saved in such a scenario? Well, that is a good problem to have. Of course, I have an idea on how to use exactly that much money to strengthen the Assembly and get us into sustained growth once more, but that's for the next post.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for the excellent reflection on Baha'i centers and growth. Food for thought