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Shortfall Drives Interfaith Group's Downsizing

Decreased Donations Affect Hires, Workshop

By Caryle Murphy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 30, 2005; Page C05

The InterFaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington, which has fostered interreligious dialogue among residents for more than 25 years, is scaling back its operations to cope with a serious financial crisis, officials said.

A drop in donations from its 10 member faith groups prompted the conference to use up its cash reserves, which once amounted to about $200,000. Although the organization finished last year in the black, its anticipated revenue will not cover its operating costs for the next six months, according to its executive director, the Rev. Clark Lobenstine.

"Our greater challenge is to strengthen the long term financial strength of the InterFaith Conference," the Rev. Clark Lobenstine, the organization's executive director, wrote in an e-mail. The conference hopes to get a $10,000 grant and make money by selling art. (Nikki Kahn -- The Washington Post)

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The conference is hoping to get a $10,000 challenge grant from a congregation and is considering selling some religious art it received as a gift, Lobenstine said.

But even with that income, the conference would have a "long ways to go" to raise enough for the immediate future, said Lobenstine, who did not cash his salary checks for several months last year because of the group's cash-flow problem.

"Our greater challenge," he wrote in an e-mail, "is to strengthen the long term financial strength of the InterFaith Conference so that we have good cash flow all year long and enough reserves."

"The audits are completely in order -- there is nothing amiss there at all," said the Rev. Robert L. Maddox, pastor of Briggs Memorial Baptist Church in Bethesda and a conference board member. "There is just an incredible shortfall in funds."

The conference's adopted budget for fiscal 2004, which began July 1, was $420,000.

Because of the crunch, the conference has not been able to hire two full-time interns for the past two years, officials said, and has not pursued its collaboration with the Freedom Forum's First Amendment Center, an effort that resulted in workshops on teaching religion in schools.

Its three full-time staff members and a part-time assistant are all "doing more," said Lobenstine, a Presbyterian minister. "As a result, not everything we did before gets done or gets done as well."

The conference recently paid off a $7,500 credit-card debt by securing a bank loan.

Along with the drop in donations from member faith groups, the conference did not get as much income as in previous years from its main annual fundraiser, a fall interfaith concert. The conference began dipping into its reserves in 2001 and they are now used up.

In 2003, the conference moved to the Arthur S. Flemming Center on Ninth Street NW, a building housing several nonprofits that is owned by Emmaus Services for the Aging. The conference pays $3,100 a month in rent, triple its previous rent. "Our rent definitely increased with that" move, Lobenstine said. "On the other side of that, our space is much nicer . . . and more accommodating."

Founded in 1978, the conference brings together Baha'i, Hindu, Islamic, Jain, Jewish, Latter-day Saints, Protestant, Roman Catholic, Sikh and Zoroastrian faith communities to promote dialogue, understanding, community and social and economic justice.

Its economic problems come at a time when the need for interfaith dialogue is on the rise, Lobenstine said. "Our work has never been more important," he said. "In a post-9/11 world, there is significantly increased understanding of the importance of interreligious collaboration and more awareness than ever before of the problems created when we don't have it."

Among its activities, the conference produces an annual emergency food and shelter directory that is mailed to thousands of area congregations and nonprofits. It also helped create several community organizations, including the Capital Area Community Food Bank, according to the conference's Web site.

At an emergency meeting last month to discuss conference finances, officials decided they needed to become more aggressive in fundraising, according to a written summary of their discussion.

Noting that the "chronic shortfall in income . . . has made it impossible in recent years for the IFC to pursue its full strategic plan," the officials concluded that they need to "create an institutional culture that encourages our Board and Assembly members to ask individuals to make donations." They also decided to look into "the potential of Internet fundraising" and seek support from foundations.

Maddox, who attended the December meeting, said the board is partly at fault for not focusing earlier on the need to solicit donations. "This is an organization that does more on less than any other organization around town," he said.

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