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Raising money through home hospitality

Congregations turn to creative fundraisers.
By Donald E. Skinner
May/June 2005 5.1.05

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There comes a time in the life of every congregation when it asks, "Wouldn't it be nice if we had a way to raise money from people who are not us? That is, from outside the congregation?"

Folks at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Brunswick, Maine, asked themselves that question two years ago when they needed emergency funds to repair a roof and replace a heating system. The operating budget was a little short so they found another way. They offered up their homes as bed-and-breakfast stays. Last summer they raised $2,000 when ten people came to stay. They expect to do the same this year.

Church-sponsored bed-and-breakfast programs are an increasingly popular way of raising extra money. There are UU B&B programs in Maine, Florida, the Chesa peake Bay, and New Orleans, among other places.

In Brunswick, the benefits went beyond the money. "It was a great opportunity to meet new people and for us to work together doing something that was really fun," said Maryli Tiemann, a coordinator of the home-stay program. "Our dream was to organize a weekend where we'd share the best of coastal Maine with UUs who didn't live here."

Last July the congregation held its first "UU B&B Weekend," attracting ten people who spent the weekend visiting lighthouses, a theater, a winery, and art galleries, as well as absorbing history, learning about ecology, and going out on lobster boats. There was also a "full-on lobster feast."

In Cape May, New Jersey, the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the South Jersey Shore is making ecotourism pay. This spring the congregation is holding its sixth "Birding Bed-and-Breakfast" weekend (April 29-May 1), capitalizing on Cape May's location at the southern tip of the state where the Delaware Bay meets the Atlantic Ocean. It is a bird mecca during spring migration.

If the sight of a bright yellow prothonotary warbler or a black skimmer gets you going, this is the place to be. Each spring twelve to fifteen people come to Cape May for the birding weekend, and the congregation nets about $3,000. "We're a new congregation, and that money helps," says John Searight, who, with his wife Betsy, helps coordinate the weekend.

"It has been good for us because we get to know UUs from other places, and this project fits with our Seventh UU Principle about environmentalism," he said. "It gives us a chance to talk with visitors about issues such as habitat preservation."

The congregation's first birding event was the weekend after September 11, 2001. "We weren't sure how that would go, but people came," said John. "It was a very somber weekend, but people also found it restorative. It was one of our best events."

Each birding weekend at Cape May produces its own spiritual experiences, whether it's the sight of dozens of red knot sandpipers feeding on horseshoe crab eggs on the beach or a rare Swainson's warbler.

And what if the birds don't migrate on schedule? "The thing we fear most is a real weather wipeout," he said. "That has not happened, but we've come close. But we have enough places to bird that we can always find birds." Betsy adds, "We ask our guests ahead of time what they hope for from the weekend. One wrote, 'Doing my favorite thing (birding) with my favorite people (fellow UUs). What could be better?' "

An outside fundraiser may not work forever. The White Bear Unitarian Universalist Church in Mahtomedi, Minnesota, for years ran a Prairie Home Companion Weekend, which included a bed-and-breakfast stay and tickets to Garrison Keillor's weekly radio variety show. "We decided to give it a rest after 2003," says Mary Hauser, a coordinator. "We just had fewer and fewer people coming, whereas two years earlier we had to turn people away. Much of it was a fear of traveling after 9/11. And we may have just exhausted the market."

For years First Unitarian Church of Albuquerque, New Mexico, sponsored "Balloons Ole!" a B&B program during the city's annual International Balloon Festival. But the program folded about ten years ago. There were several reasons, says the Rev. Christine Robinson. The hantavirus scare in that part of the country was one. Another was that the organizing committee got tired and hadn't brought in new leadership. Also, guests accustomed to commercial B&Bs began asking for amenities that were hard to accommodate, such as private bathrooms.

"One great thing," said Robinson, "is that we still have visitors on occasion who introduce themselves as having participated in that project."

The Unitarian Universalist Church of Fort Myers, Florida, has one of the most durable bed-and-breakfast programs. Now in its fourteenth year, it accommodates at least twelve families or individuals for periods of a weekend to ten days, from mid January to mid April.

Attractions include birding and shelling on nearby Sanibel Island and attending spring training for the Boston Red Sox and Minnesota Twins. The home-stays generate $4,000 to $5,000 a year.

"We've had one family that's come four times," said Phyllis Brewer, a coordinator of the program. "We've gotten to be good friends." Several others have used the B&B program to investigate the area before moving there and have later joined the church. "The money is just pure profit for us," Brewer said, "and the host families feel good because they're giving a gift."

There are other UU B&B programs, including one at Annapolis, Maryland. The Unitarian Universalist Society of Martha's Vineyard has a year-round B&B program.

Members of the Community Church Unitarian Universalist in New Orleans open their doors to guests during Mardi Gras in February and the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in the spring. The home-stay program is a scaled-down version of an earlier, more intensive fundraiser, which included a costume ball and seafood dinner. "It just became too onerous," said Rocile Muller, a coordinator of the current program. "Then two-and-a-half years ago we started again, but now we just offer rooms and breakfast. All it requires is a little maid service. And I get to meet people from all parts of the country."

In addition to providing money, the B&B weekend in Brunswick, Maine, has yielded other results. "We used to stop church in June. This year for the first time, we're having services all year," said Grace Lewis-McLaren, congregation president. "The weekend showed us that when we decided to do something we could do it, and do it well."

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