24 October 2012

Paid Service

The first Local Spiritual Assembly of Bekune, Cameroon (1960)
I previously wrote about the changing role of Baha'i Centers and how they are no longer central to the model of Baha'i community growth. Changing how we meet our space needs could (on paper) reduce costs by around $25k/year. That amount of money is just enough to hire someone full-time.

I also previously wrote about the problem of incumbency in Baha'i elections and how current membership status should not be considered when casting votes.

These offer a backdrop to a related topic that has the potential for significant positive change in Baha'i communities. There is a stumbling block lying ahead for communities as they grow, but the bump is avoidable.

Oregon currently has three large Baha'i communities: Eugene, Beaverton, and Portland. These have at least 100 active participants, a Baha'i Center, and a history of many decades. Each city has for the last 15+ years had a dedicated Assembly secretary who acted as a workhorse, providing upwards of 15 hours every week of their free time (aka, retirement) serving the local assembly. Within a few years of each other, all three left their posts due to retirement or other work. Filling in behind them was a cadre of working parents and others who looked on the appointment with a kind of horror realizing the magnitude and criticality of the work.


Here is roughly what happened in Portland. The new secretary looks in the Guidelines for Local Spiritual Assemblies to see what to do. Can't resign from Assembly, but can resign from being an Officer. Ok. But Shoghi Effendi really really doesn't like that. Ok. Guidelines outline duties of Secretary. Yep, the duties are well articulated and extensive. Aha! There it is!

"These duties can be divided up among various different secretaries or other officers if the Assembly should choose to do so. Some larger communities have found it helpful to further divide the workload of their Secretariats. For example, they may have any or all of the following: a General Secretary, an External Affairs Secretary, a Recording Secretary, a Membership Secretary, and/or a Personal Status Secretary. In some larger communities, the work of the Secretary may warrant hiring paid staff, in addition to any volunteers."
Then the thought comes, "What do churches do?" There are some obvious similarities. A brief trip to Google returned the answer. The average church has one full-time paid employee for every 70 congregants, and on average they spend 50% of funds on staffing. "Lean" churches spend 35% on staffing. In Portland, the Assembly was spending less than $5k (6%) on paid service for the bulletin, website, and others duties, but nothing for Assembly functioning. A "lean" church would be spending $28k on staffing in a similar situation. Could it be that the lack of dedicated, paid staff is holding back the growth of the Portland Baha'i community?

Pro: Vision

There are several lines of reasoning indicating that the lack of paid staff is holding back growth in numerous Baha'i communities. The first is vision. In a 2005 message, the Universal House of Justice wrote,
"Maintaining a vision of the potential size of future communities is essential to the further development of Local Assemblies. To administer the affairs of communities whose membership will swell into the thousands, and to fulfill their purpose as the ‘trusted ones of the merciful among men,’ those who serve on Spiritual Assemblies will necessarily undergo intense periods of learning in the years ahead."
When a seed matures, it does not just grow in its current state to become a large seed. It transforms and changes. Similarly, local assemblies will transform their functioning when administering the affairs of thousands. They will need to maintain focus on high-level issues like appointments, policy, and fund allocations while leaving details to staff. In smaller communities, it would seem absurd to pay someone to do Baha'i work. In larger ones, it would seem absurd to rely entirely on volunteers. With time local assemblies will increasingly look like higher institutions, such as the US National Spiritual Assembly with 3-4 members on salary working full-time, along with many paid staff and volunteers. The NW Regional Baha'i Council has a dedicated full-time secretary, along with part-time paid service positions and many volunteers.

The question is, where is the threshold between a small and a large community? Based on the experience of churches, it is around 70 participants. If that number is accurate, Portland should have two full-time staffers where it currently has a small fraction of one. In communities hovering around 70 people, even if the immediate need for paid staff is not recognized, a community ten times larger would require it, so forward-thinking communities should act as if the growth will happen and set up the administrative framework for that reality.

For example, an Assembly could set aside a few thousand dollars to pay for some of the heavy lifting, such as website, bulletin, marriage issues, or whatever they are struggling to accomplish. There will always be some people willing to provide volunteer service, but more often people will appreciate the funds and would not have otherwise been able to put in the hours.

Once the Assembly gets its feet wet and has some experience paying for service, it will be easier to expand and adapt as needs arise. It is far easier to increase a budget line item than to create it from scratch.

Pro: No Burnout

There are two recommended methods for dealing with the heavy workload of the Assembly's Secretary. One is to spread out the work among several members, another is to centralize the work and pay someone.

Anyone who has served on the Assembly of a large community will quickly recognize that spreading out more work among members is generally undesirable. Just being a functional member of the Assembly can easily take 3-4 hours/week. Although this is within reason, membership is compulsory and cannot be turned down. Spreading out the work and increasing the responsibilities of members leads to burnout and absolute avoidance of membership. I've even heard people say that they intentionally remain inactive because they don't want to be elected to the Assembly. Obviously such ideas carry flaws, but they reflect a real problem. I've also seen overburdened Assembly members put their marriages in jeopardy or sacrifice time with their children to perform Assembly work.

Centralizing the work not only has the benefit of causing less burnout among members, but much of the work is better done by a single person. For example, the person maintaining a calendar needs to be broadly aware of events across the city, so it's more efficient for the person in charge of correspondence to also maintain the calendar. Excluding the issue of burnout, spreading out the work still requires someone to coordinate the tasks and triage incoming requests, otherwise the work becomes fragmented. Without someone dedicated to address issues as they arise, the Assembly's response to critical issues may be painfully slow or fall through the cracks.

The problem of burnout is compounded by the additional 15+ hours/week of the secretary, and less-so the treasurer (they can be the same person, by the way). Very few Baha'is are in a position where that time commitment is even possible, notwithstanding their dedication and desire for sacrifice. If the Assembly has no framework in place for paid service, they will have to resign.

Pro: Quality

Centralizing and paying for the work of the Secretary has one significant benefit: quality.

Votes cast while electing an Assembly should be based on merit and character, not available free time or previous experience on Assemblies. This is imperative for the quality of decisions being made.

The election of officers is similar. Votes should be based on merit and character, not available free time or previous work as an officer. It's hard to emphasize this enough. The Secretary has the role of presenting issues for consultation and representing the decisions of the Assembly to others, among other things. The quality of such work should be not sacrificed, so a mature Assembly would focus on the qualities of office when electing officers, not focus on whoever has free time.

Votes for officers are cast by secret ballot among Assembly members, so there is no opportunity to declare one's desire (or dislike) for the position. Once the vote is cast, the Secretary may wish to volunteer their time to fulfill the duties, or request multiple secretaries be elected, but if neither of those methods work then paid service or resignation are the only other options. If the elected secretary has to resign, the quality of the Assembly work will suffer, so paid service seems like an appealing option.

But sometimes money doesn't matter. Someone with a family and a high income, even if funds were available, would not necessarily quit their job to work for the Assembly. In such a case, the Secretary could take on oversight of a paid position, either on or off the Assembly. If on the Assembly, how is the individual selected? If off the Assembly, how do you go about hiring someone? Can they handle confidential matters? (yes, they can) Do you choose someone and ask? Do you ask for applicants? There is the potential for hurt feelings if someone is overlooked. What if several people apply and nobody is qualified? These are issues to discuss ahead of time.

Pro: Growth

The question of growth is more subtle, but it is also a strong indication that communities should look toward paid service.

In a letter to the Counsellors dated 28 December 2010, the Universal House of Justice wrote,
"[those involved in Bahá’í administration] should not imagine that such service entitles them to operate on the periphery of the learning process that is everywhere gaining strength, exempt from its inherent requirements."
Members of Assemblies should be in the forefront of growth activities, and growth activities require time. In general, electors should be voting for those already in the forefront of community building, not those who remain on the periphery. If Assembly members spend most of their time with core activities, then their contributions to Assembly consultation will be richer. If they are bogged down with administrative tasks, or if membership is avoided due to the time commitment, then the Assembly's decisions will be less focused on growth.

To be in the forefront means to be engaged in activities of growth, maintaining old friendships and forming new ones so that their network of friends extends into the wider community. If administrative tasks are spread out among members, they will be drawn away from the forefront, because community building cannot be done in spare fleeting minutes.

In other words, Assembly members and Secretaries will perform their duties better if they are leading healthy and happy lives with involvement in growth activities. Working 15 hours per week in addition to a full-time job and family obligations generally detracts from such a life. However, maintaining the day-to-day operation of the Assembly can be done as a full-time job, leaving both the Secretary, and other members, with a reasonable amount of time dedicated to the work of teaching teams.

Even more, there are always administrative tasks that could be done to further develop the community or address issues more thoroughly, but when people are doing things in their spare minutes, only critical work gets done. I've noticed that people often make recommendations to an Assembly as if the institution has an employee. For example, there was a Feast recommendation that the Assembly organize studies of a recent message from the Universal House of Justice by selecting several hosts and providing each host with a list of Baha'is living close-by to be invited. This is a good idea, but such organizational tasks always fall to the secretary, and such tasks are above and beyond maintaining the basic functioning of the Assembly.

Con: Money

So hire someone? Sounds logical. The only obvious issue is funding. That's where the $25k comes in that could be generated from changing facility needs.

My experience tells me that this is a difficult hurdle to overcome while growing from a small to a large community. When most communities hit 70 active Baha'is, they start looking toward building a Baha'i center, not hiring staff. Ironically, building a Baha'i center dramatically increases the operational budget while at the same time dramatically increasing the workload of the secretary and treasurer (in Portland, the treasurer estimates that the work increased tenfold). Then the tighter funds make it even more difficult to hire people.

Humans naturally love giving money to capital projects, like purchasing or renovating a building, but ongoing expenses require consistent and ongoing sacrifice, and that's just not as much fun. Expense money pulls from income instead of savings. I see the same expense lackluster in my company, where operations and maintenance budgets are squeezed and scrutinized, but capital projects can ask for an extra $10 million without blinking. This is the stumbling block. Paid service comes from expense money, while building projects come from capital money (followed by underestimated expense money). If Baha'i communities start buying facilities before providing for the basic functioning of the Assembly, it's like getting the cart before the horse.

At roughly 60% of median income and 40% more than minimum wage, it would be difficult to accuse someone of profiting from the funds of the Faith by working full-time for $25k. Also consider that payroll tax eats up $3,500, and healthcare another $5,500. The effective income is around $16k per year, minus income tax. $25k might seem high when paying, but it's not much of an incentive when receiving.

My experience also tells me that discussing how to prioritize funds requires exceptional maturity. It is incredibly difficult to identify value and balance fund allocations. It is surprisingly like making a piece of fine art, which is best done by inspiration, not committee. What the Assembly can do is discuss priorities, and someone will have to interpret that discussion into a budget. The important thing is to maintain a realistic appraisal of the relative cost and value of paid service versus other large costs, such as a building.
The first National Spiritual Assembly of Cameroon (1967)

Meanwhile, back in Oregon...

Back to the three communities in Oregon. One elected a new secretary who was also retired, but the new individual resigned after the first year and the situation is still tenuous. Another elected three secretaries who each contribute about 5 hours/week in addition to Assembly meetings, but they are stressed. Another put out a request for paid service to assist the Assembly and hired someone 10-15 hours/week.

In Portland, the lack of paid staff and the lack of coherent decentralizing contributed to a dramatic leveling off of growth about 10-15 years after purchasing a Baha'i center. This is nobody's fault. In fact, I'm almost certain that I would have been among those cheering on the Baha'i center 20 years ago, but hindsight and experience tell another story. I'm not opposed to Baha'i centers. I think they're great, but they're a luxury. This is a question of priorities, and paid staff supporting the core work of the Assembly should go before acquiring buildings.

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