During the first five years of my first call as Executive Director and Co-Pastor at Pres House we spent $500,000 more than we brought in. That’s right, our Presbyterian campus ministry ran a negative budget every year for more than five years!
I know, this sounds very irresponsible. A nonprofit spending more money than it brings in for years is a long-term recipe for disaster. As I studied for my M.B.A., I understood the importance of cash flow and budgeting. But I also understood that, in this instance, it was necessary. We were trying to resurrect a dormant ministry and develop a long-term funding plan. We were stepping out in faith and taking a big risk to redevelop the whole organization, trusting and hoping that God had something in mind for Pres House. So we had to really go for it—even if that meant running a negative budget for five years. Often church entities and nonprofits are too cautious with our efforts, and we ensure failure before we even start. There are times when we need to go “all-in,” to commit fully to make a real go of things and get our projects and organizations off the ground.
As an amateur bike racer, I find a lot of commonalities between building a nonprofit and riding a bike. Running a negative budget for some period of time is one example of a key practice necessary for both organizational development and bike riding—you have to let go of the brakes.
Think back to when you learned to ride a bike or when you watched a child learn to ride a bike. One of the most counter-intuitive aspects of balancing on a bike is that the faster you go the easier it is to balance. The temptation when starting out riding is to be cautious, to go slow, to keep one hand on the brake. But doing this makes the likelihood of falling much greater than if you simply let go of the brake and go. As the bike speeds up, it becomes easier to balance. In order to ride successfully, you have to take the risk, trust the physics of the bike, release the brake, fully commit, and pedal forward. For most children who have initially mastered two wheels, the hardest part of riding becomes the start and the stop—when the bike is moving slowly. This is also why you will see bike commuters slow down at stop signs but not always completely stop. It is hard to get going again, and the chance of falling down is greatest when riding slowly.
The same is true when leading an organization—especially when leading birth, growth, or change. We cannot expect to launch successful new ministries or rebuild organizations if we have one hand on the brake the whole time. Too often I have seen the church try to start campus ministry on a grant of $1,000 per year, insist that the youth program budget be limited to the funds that are raised at an annual pancake breakfast, or avoid trying a new program because something similar failed 10 years ago. Yes, careful, prudent planning is vital, but trying to get riding while being so overly cautious dooms the project to crash and fail before it even has a chance to get started.
I have a good friend who recently launched a new company in Silicon Valley that develops digital tools to help people pray. His business, Abide, spent more than $400,000 in their first year of operation. And that was well below the average cost of launching a tech start-up. It takes major investment and a willingness to take risks to start something new.
At Pres House, we embrace risk. In fact, we have embedded that very language into the primary principles that guide our decision-making. We are thoughtful about our risk-taking. We run seven-year financial projections to try and anticipate the future. We engage in rigorous program evaluation, fund development, and strategic planning. We recognize that everything we try may not work and some things will fail. But we are committed to letting go of the brake and making a real go of it.
What does this look like in practice? As I have already mentioned, we spent over half a million dollars more than we brought in during the first five years of our rebirth. We hired the staff we needed to launch a new worshipping community, quadruple our database of donors, and manage a rapidly growing organization. And we paid them competitive wages. We invested in good quality computers, website development, and database software. The biggest risk of all was borrowing $17 million dollars to pay for the construction of a seven-story apartment community for 250 students.
Letting go of the brakes isn’t only about taking financial risks. We took a risk to engage members actively in worship by sitting small clusters of chairs rather than rows of pews. We tried programs that we thought people would love but nobody showed up to. And we tried programs that we thought nobody would show up to but they loved. The truth is that every one of these decisions could have led to failure (and still could today, or in the future). We could have crashed and burned, and we came close many times in the past decade. We did fall down at times, and it was (and is) terrifying. But if we hadn’t taken these risks, if we had kept one hand on the brake, we would have certainly failed. A half-hearted effort would have sputtered and died before it had a chance to really thrive. The greatest gift the Board of Directors gave Pres House was a willingness to invest fully in the effort, to take risks, and really go for it. And it worked!
Within ten years of our start-up, we had fully recovered the $500,000 that was spent initially out of our endowment. In 2004, we were serving zero students at Pres House. Today we reach more than 750 each year and have served more than 4,000 in the last decade. We increased our annual budget 1,500% from $150,000 to $2.2 million per year and the total value of our organization has grown ten-fold.
Perhaps most importantly, we gained momentum. When you let go of the brakes and start to roll faster, you pick up speed and momentum. Participants see what is happening and want to be a part of it. Leaders catch on that they can try new things and that energizes them. Donors get excited and want to give to successful programs. In 2004, donors gave $10,000 per year. After letting go of the brakes we have raised almost $5 million in the past 12 years. The bike is really moving now.
The specifics of my context at Pres House are just that—specific. They may not apply to you or your organization. But the principle does: let go of the brakes. Don’t hold back for fear of failure. Doing so will be a self-fulfilling prophesy, and your wobbly bike will fall. Go for it! Commit fully. Trust that God will do great things. And if what you try doesn’t work; if your bike gets out of control and you crash—trust that God remains bigger than that, too. We don’t serve a God that wants us to bury our talent in the ground and play it safe. We don’t serve a God that punishes risk-taking or failure. We serve a God who is so much bigger than even our grandest ideas or dreams. So let go of the brakes and ride!
This is the third article in a four-part series on the story of Pres House. Coming soon, Mark will explore the last step: Don’t Forget to Oil Your Chain. Other articles in this series include:
Just Like Riding a Bike: Some things can only be learned through experience. (Part One)
Look Ahead to Where to Want to Go: Focus your attention on where you want to be. (Part Two)
PODCAST The Distillery, Season 1
Mark Elsdon has served as Executive Director and Campus Co-Pastor at Pres House and Pres House Apartments since 2004. Born in the Midwest to immigrants from England, Mark has also lived in the Southern, Western, and Eastern parts of the United States. He is married to Rev. Erica Liu, and they have two daughters. Mark has a BA in Psychology from the University of California at Berkeley, a Master of Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary, and will graduate in May 2017 with an MBA from the Wisconsin School of Business at UW-Madison. When not hanging out with college students, Mark can be found training and racing his bike in the hills surrounding Madison or trying to keep up with the silliness of his daughters. Mark is available for consulting and coaching conversations with ministry and nonprofit leaders, boards of directors, or organizations seeking support to launch, grow, or rebuild.