The Fund for Our Future: A Conversation with Steve Widdes

Interviewed by Bill Halpern

In May 2012, the Adat Shalom Board established The Fund for Our Future, an Endowment Fund to provide for the long-term enrichment of our community’s spiritual and intellectual life. The Fund is managed by a committee appointed by the Board. Steve Widdes, Chair of the Endowment Fund Committee, is an estate attorney who has helped to set up or enhance endowment funds for Suburban Hospital, JSSA, The Hebrew Home, and the Jewish Day School.

Most of us get lots of “planned giving” solicitations - from colleges, major Jewish organizations, and so on. Why did a modest-sized synagogue like Adat Shalom get into this?

We got into it because of very practical needs. It’s a reality of life in the Jewish non-profit world that traditional channels of giving are not going to sustain these organizations into the future. Synagogue membership is declining, while needs and costs are rising. Asking congregants to take more and more out of their pockets in the form of dues and High Holiday pledges is not the answer. What those who think about these matters say is the answer is “planned giving” – tapping into the transfer of wealth that will take place as the baby-boomer generation ages. Most Jewish organizations will need an endowment fund both to sustain them and to offer programs that will attract

However, it’s a fair question because this is not something local synagogues have done in the past. Fortunately the Federation recognized the need and was able to secure funding for training programs to help congregations like ours establish endowment funds, and for incentive grants to seed them. These are contributions that come to Adat Shalom when someone passes away.

That seems far in the future. What’s the rush about getting this going now?

It may seem like a rush to those Adat Shalom’ers who are first hearing about the Fund but our leadership has been thinking about this for several years. In traditional Adat style we’ve been very deliberate and thoughtful in approaching the subject. 

There is no “right” time to start an endowment fund. The need is clear and we have the organizational and financial skills to move ahead now. And unfortunately all too often we hear Rabbi Fred or Hazzan Rachel announcing the passing of an Adat Shalom member. In fact, the first major donation to The Fund for Our Future came from Adrienne Kohn’s estate, a gift that will help strengthen our ties to her memory.

The focus of the Fund is on “planned giving”. How does that work?

Before we talk about “planned giving”, you should know that The Fund for Our Future also accepts current gifts in the form of cash and marketable securities. We won’t haul away that clunker in your driveway but we can accept non-financial donations like real estate and art with prior approval.

Planned giving can take place in a variety of ways. One common way is to add a specific bequest to Adat Shalom in your Will. It can be stated as a specific dollar amount or a percentage of your estate or trust. Similarly, you can name Adat as a beneficiary on a retirement plan, IRA or life insurance policy. It gets more complex from there with vehicles such as charitable remainder and lead trusts, and so on.

There are two points I want to emphasize. First, estate planning is flexible and complex and you should consult your tax or legal advisor on the best planned giving vehicle for you. Second, when you sign the Adat Shalom pledge form, you’re not asked to specify what that vehicle is or how much money is involved. The pledge you are making is to contribute something in the future that reflects your desire to help the community in a tangible way, or to acknowledge that you already have made plans to do so. How you honor that pledge is between you and your estate planning professional.

An Adat member passes away and the Fund receives the bequest. What happens next?

That depends on the size of the bequest and the intent of the donor. If the bequest is $50,000 or more, the donor can create a named fund and designate a purpose as long as it’s consistent with Adat Shalom’s mission. That’s a “restricted gift”. Anything less than $50,000 is unrestricted and will be used at the discretion of the Endowment Fund Committee, but again only for programs consistent with our mission.

As the fund grows and the amount we can draw from it becomes more meaningful, we’ll set up procedures so congregants can apply for program grants. That means application forms, selection criteria, and so on. Now that the fund is launched and on its way, it’s one of the items on our committee’s “to do” list. What will the money be used for? Are we saving it up for a major buildingproject? No. The primary focus of the Fund is to enrich program offerings. While we seem to have more than enough programming, it’s almost all done by members on a volunteer basis. This is a remarkable attribute of our community but it has its limits. When we want a richer offering, we go to our members yarmulke-in-hand. The wonderful musical Shabbaton we had last year was mostly paid for by a donation from Rabbi Sid Schwarz and Sandy Perlstein.

Endowment Funds often stipulate that you can’t draw down more than 5% of the principal in any one year. So if the fund has grown to something like $200,000, we’d have $10,000 available each year to pay for a Shabbaton or guest lectures or whatever. Looking ahead, it’s possible we could build The Fund for Our Future into the million dollars plus range. We envision an even larger Fund than that but a million dollars would be a nice start. Then the options widen. We could use some of it to provide financial support for ongoing operations or for building projects, as appropriate. That’s a nice problem to have but it is a discussion for a later date.

How is the Fund doing so far? '

We’re off to a great start. We signed up more than twenty pledges in 2014 which qualified us for the first Federation challenge grant, a $7,500 donation to the Fund. This year we’ve added enough additional pledges to qualify for a second grant to our Fund. We’re one of only a handful of synagogues to have done so. Between the challenge grants and other donations, such as the one from Adrienne’s estate, we now have close to $100,000 in the Fund.

This is our spiritual home and it’s important to protect and strengthen it. Our community has been very supportive of this effort and I’m sure that as more of us learn about it, the Fund will continue to grow and keep us a viable and vibrant congregation for years to come. If that vision inspires you, go to the Adat Shaklom web site, click on the Donate tab, and read more about The Fund for Our Future.

Thank you for all the work you have put into this.

I am more than glad to work on this for the community. Adat Shalom has been my spiritual home since the late 1980’s and I believe that charity begins at home.