Endowment is the money or property donated by a benefactor to a non-profit organization that is designated to be spent over a period of time, typically invested to generate interest or dividend income. An organization that accumulates cash reserves might also choose to invest this cash reserve for interest or dividend. Although the principal amount of the endowment can be dispersed over time, a non-profit could also elect to operate on interest or dividend income of the endowment alone, perpetually.
The concept of perpetual non-profit is an interesting one, especially when designated a charitable purpose. But what I have seen is that a church that survived on endowment from generations ago grew complacent over the years because of the guaranteed income. They became a landlord that leases out their church building to other churches rather than doing the kingdom work themselves. The tenant churches thrived, but the landlord church dwindled. It is like the description of two of the churches in the Book of Revelation:
To the Church in Sardis: “‘I know your works. You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God.’——Revelation 3:1-2
To the Church in Laodicea: “‘I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.’——Revelation 3:15-17
There are several reasons I think why the endowment fails to achieve its originally intended purpose.
Giving should come from the heart
When it comes to giving to the needy, there appears to be no restriction on where the money comes from, as long as it is given with a cheerful heart.
“Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.”——2 Corinthians 9:7
Herein lies the problem with endowment. Interest income comes from a contractual obligation of the borrower, so it bypasses the heart of the giver. Dividend is allocated to the shareholders of a company from its profits. This too has nothing to do with the heart of the giver. But charity is a calling from God for our heart’s own good.
“For I desire mercy, not sacrifice,
and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.”——Hosea 6:6
This automatic, guaranteed, passive income from an endowment is problematic because it robs the giver a chance to examine his heart.
Giving should be actively engaged
Interest income is also the least one could give. In the parable of the three servants with gold, the first two servants actively traded with the gold they've been given and each yielded 100% in return. The third servant buried the gold and hid it.
26 But his master answered him, ‘You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sown and gather where I scattered no seed? 27 Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest. 28 So take the talent from him and give it to him who has the ten talents. 29 For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. 30 And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’——Matthew 15:26-30
In order to be the good and faithful servant, we are to put our giving into good use, not just put it in a bank and receive interest. An endowment eventually succumbs to the pitfall of lacking an effective overseer who actively engages the resources into good use.
Giving is a response to our living God
Someone who is self-reliant understands the importance of savings because of the uncertainties of tomorrow. Savings is part of the planning for the future. But following God challenges this notion of planning and self-reliance. We are to specifically rely on His provision day after day.
When the Israelites were led out of Egypt into the desert for 40 years, God gave them bread which the Israelites called Manna. No matter how much one gathers in the morning, everyone ends up with the same amount. If you keep it until the next day, it goes bad.
Moses said to them, “It is the bread the Lord has given you to eat. 16 This is what the Lord has commanded: ‘Everyone is to gather as much as they need. Take an omer for each person you have in your tent.’”
17 The Israelites did as they were told; some gathered much, some little. 18 And when they measured it by the omer, the one who gathered much did not have too much, and the one who gathered little did not have too little. Everyone had gathered just as much as they needed.
19 Then Moses said to them, “No one is to keep any of it until morning.”
20 However, some of them paid no attention to Moses; they kept part of it until morning, but it was full of maggots and began to smell. So Moses was angry with them.——Exodus 16:15-20
Except for the day of the Sabbath, twice the amount would be given on the day before, and the ration does not go bad.
In the Parable of the Rich Fool, Jesus also taught specifically against hoarding.
16 And he told them a parable, saying, “The land of a rich man produced plentifully, 17 and he thought to himself, ‘What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?’ 18 And he said, ‘I will do this: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. 19 And I will say to my soul, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.”’ 20 But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ 21 So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.”——Luke 12:16-21
In the Old Testament, the Israelites were instructed to give tithe, a tenth of the produce, as an offering to God, and to the priests who are the God's servants.
“‘A tithe of everything from the land, whether grain from the soil or fruit from the trees, belongs to the Lord; it is holy to the Lord. Whoever would redeem any of their tithe must add a fifth of the value to it. Every tithe of the herd and flock—every tenth animal that passes under the shepherd’s rod—will be holy to the Lord.’——Leviticus 27:30-32
“To the Levites I have given every tithe in Israel for an inheritance, in return for their service that they do, their service in the tent of meeting...”——Numbers 18:21
Note that the tithe comes out from the produce of the day, not from what was stored up earlier. All in all, these instructions are to show us that the God we serve is a living God.
“... have you not read what God said to you, ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not God of the dead, but of the living.”——Matthew 22:31-32
And a living God desires a living giving.
Running a charitable cause perpetually through the interest or dividend income from an endowment is an interesting idea, but it ultimately goes against many principles taught by the scripture. It does not entail that the giver to give with a cheerful heart, it does not entail the charity to execute the giving in a good and faithful manner, and it is not showing faith in response to a living God. In the end, it leads us astray from what the Lord called us to do.