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A budget is a moral document

A budget is a moral document

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Erin Thompson
Erin Thompson

On its face, a budget outlines an organization’s financial strengths and weaknesses, and provides a bottom-line number for the organization and its stakeholders to orient around over the course of the year.

Contained within the offsetting revenues and expenses is a story about who and what the organization values, prioritizes, and represents as most directly supporting the organization’s mission.

In the case of the Gandhi Institute, the annual process of putting together our budget is a time of great reflection and consideration. During my tenure at the institute, each year the budgeting process has started with Executive Director Kit Miller and me sitting down to review the current numbers, note any significant departures from projections, and factor in any storm clouds (or blue skies) on the horizon.

From this overview session, I then delve into the details and flesh out the draft budget, which the finance committee and finally the full board of directors will weigh in on and ultimately approve. As you read below, you will see why I derive great joy from allocating funds to fuel our operations.

The Gandhi Institute is a special place. Nestled into the PLEX neighborhood on South Plymouth Avenue, it simply feels good spending time here. The simple, cheerful colors of the wall paint; the ceiling to floor windows that spill sunlight into our community conference room; the presence of the piano and meditation rooms alongside our office spaces; the wildflowers, garden, greenhouse, peace labyrinth and super-sized outdoor murals; the children’s play area; all these physical elements combine to present a welcoming experience to everyone who visits our campus.

Yet it is the people of the Gandhi Institute who are its greatest resource. In my time on the job, I have worked alongside an extraordinary cast of colleagues who have poured themselves into their work, bringing fresh perspectives, bold approaches and practical wisdom to bear was we pursue a just and equitable world for all. Whether engaging community members through facilitated “conversations during tough times” on thorny issues that otherwise tend to alienate neighbors, or standing with fellow Rochesterians to compel changes to our outmoded and deadly policing model, institute staff members are committed to rolling up their sleeves and doing the work. It is for this reason that payroll constitutes the bulk of our budget.

Paying staff a salary that is not only a genuine living wage, but which reflects relative parity between first-year hire and executive director (considerably less than 1:2 ratio) is an important reflection of our
values. We also contribute to our employees’ health savings accounts and have a vacation policy that is unmatched in my experience. These decisions are driven by an understanding that the Gandhi Institute trades on its ability to step into the gap and engage in emotionally taxing, nuanced interpersonal work on a near constant basis. Therefore, our staff members receive institutional support to maintain their internal balance, and a healthy work/life relationship.

We run remarkably lean from an operations standpoint, while equipping ourselves with the proper personnel, equipment and software tools to promote effectiveness. Capital expenses are infrequent and well-researched to ensure maximum utility.

As to revenue, we employ a multi-pronged approach that increasingly emphasizes community training year over year, and we pursue grant funding and donations which enable us to subsidize our work in the Rochester city schools, and offer sliding scales to individuals and organizations looking to participate in workshops but who lack financial means.

This budget cycle marks the final year of my collaboration with Kit on that critical financial map for the institute, as her scheduled departure from the executive director role took effect on July 1. The culmination of years of close work together is reflected in the institute finally positioning itself to establish a proper reserve fund, to help insulate operations from unpredictable future financial shocks. This is no small accomplishment, and I am proud of the way we have navigated tricky financial circumstances and shifting social dynamics while maintaining the core aspects of Gandhi Institute culture, both internally and in the communities we serve. 

I am now focused on offering stability and my organizational experience to our outstanding new director, Gwen Olton. So long as we operate from the framework that our budget is indeed a moral document, I am convinced that the M.K. Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence will continue to be a leader in the quest for uncompromised justiceequity and dignity for all. 

If you are interested in discussing budgets as moral documents or how you might best align your organization’s budget with your team’s ethics and values, I welcome you to email me or better yet, visit the institute and let’s chat! 

Erin Thompson is COO/CFO of the M.K. Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence.