Membership Retention: Community & Curing Isolation

by Midnight Freemason Contributor
Patrick Dey

Some years ago I listened to a presentation by a Grand Lodge Officer discussing membership retention and declining membership numbers in general. He is a Baby Boomer, which means he does not and probably never could understand Millennials or Gen Z, and that is not his fault; older generations never fully understand younger generations. It just tends to work that way. The world is supposed to change, and it is going to change, and we are not always going to understand it.

One thing he said that Masonry provides that young men are looking is “community.” Really? We are humans and we naturally seek communion with other humans. But in this digital era, from a very young age, many young men found and formed communities online. And there is nothing wrong with having online friends, but there is still nonetheless something isolating about online communities. It is great for that immediate gratification of having an interaction with another person, and it is great for sharing ideas and resources. But quickly the realization sets in that these are not people you know in-person, that these people have likely adopted an online-persona that you interact with and not necessarily the same person in real life… these make the feeling of a traditional community — the kind of community our biology craves — feel further away, more fleeting, transient, and just as fake as our online personas. It makes it feel all the more isolating.

That is one thing many younger people feel these days: isolation. The feeling of isolation is almost crippling, with record numbers of people on antidepressant medications, in therapy, et cetera. The phenomenon of increasing loneliness in the modern world is a reality. It’s not just social media, which we can blame all we want, but that does nothing. It used to be that after work we might socialize with coworkers at the bar or go get dinner with each other and bring our spouses. Online work has become more common and is ever more common in this post-pandemic world to work remotely. Many do not even meet their coworkers in person much anymore.

Certainly, social media is a contributing factor to this loneliness, but it is a tool to generate our loneliness. We created it, we bought into it. The criticism that social media has created bubbles that people live in, echo chambers of those they agree with, is valid, but it is nonetheless a tool to isolationism. Humans isolate themselves into echo chambers all the time; we have always done this, and we always will. Do you think the Puritans came to the New World because they were interested in having their ideas challenged and to exchange different ideologies? 

Like the Puritans, we all have created bubbles of isolation. The loneliness may be from sitting on the computer or constantly attached to our phones, rather than being an ocean away from “civilization,” yet the feeling of loneliness is nonetheless there, and it is really taking a toll on the psychology of young people. As Mark Fisher points out, we live in cyberspace. In the early days of home computers and the internet, cyberspace was “over there” or “out there.” Cyberspace could only be accessed by sitting down at your computer at home and logging in. Now that we have our phones in our pockets, we carry cyberspace with us at all times. We are always plugged in.

We are not handed a physical menu anymore at the restaurant. We see a QR code on the table, take a picture of it and follow the link to the menu as it is posted online. We don’t physically visit an office and hand the receptionist our resume, we apply online. Physical works of art are being burned and the digital image of the art is being sold for thousands, millions of dollars as NFTs online to “transfer the art into the meta.” (Bataille shrugged and Baudrillard sighed). I even look at the bylaws of my lodge or the Constitutions of the Grand Lodge and see that certain things need to be sent via certified post, and I chuckle and send an email.

I could get deep into Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation or Derrida’s “dangerous supplement,” as they are valid, but the reality is that we are losing our sense of the “real.” Baudrillard’s whole thesis is that the copy, the miniature replica replaces the original (what Derrida terms “dangerous supplement,” cribbing Rousseau), and that reality is so broken down that there is no longer a sense of original versus copy that we now reside in a simulation. Baudrillard calls this “the desert of the real.” And our sense of personal relationships and sense of community has suffered in a way that our psychology and biology cannot reconcile.

One appeal of Freemasonry is that it is a physical, in-person community, and that is one thing that is attractive to young men. But it is not a community by virtue of being an institution. Do not confuse the institution of Masonry with the community of brothers within Masonry. The institution of Masonry just exists to regulate the means and methods of being a Mason and of being a lodge of Masons. It is the brothers themselves that form the community, and no amount of institutional regulation can accomplish that.

I think those new young Masons who join and then leave saw the Masonic fraternity as a community, a group of men of intelligence and good morals that will be in their lives regularly, and then it fails to live up to that perception. They see it as a means to make real friends, likely friends for life, maybe even meeting their best friend, and a way of curing their isolation, and possibly to have some means of support and community to guide and lift them up. Then they find themselves sitting by themselves or ignored during dinner, sitting by themselves in the South listening to minutes and bills, and never hearing a word from a single brother until the next meeting. Or worse, seeing Masons forming cliques and factions and observing those cliques actively working against each other. The Lodge is the clique. There should not be sub-cliques within the clique of the Lodge.

But we are not just a clique; not just a community. We are community for life. Friends move away, we move away from family, neighbors sell their house, we graduate from school and move on, but when you join Masonry, you will very likely be hanging around the same guys until you see them into the graves, and the rest will be there with you until they see you into your grave. Sure a few will move and lose touch, but most are going to be there with you for life. Even the guys that drive you up a wall, no matter how many there are, never compare to the few incredibly amazing guys you meet and grow close with. You are likely to meet your best friend in Masonry. You are likely to make friends who will be your friends until one of you dies. Why can’t the whole Lodge be exactly that? Why can’t the whole Lodge be your best friends? (“Best friend” is not a singular title, it is a tier).

Many will propose having a mentor to guide and work with them, but that is not the issue. A mentor is not a community. They are helpful in guiding new Masons through some of the peculiarities of Masonry that are a bit perplexing at first and to coach them through the catechisms, but that is not a community. 

There are loads of proposals of what can generate better community in Masonry for younger generations, and it is more of the same. A couple of years ago, one of the lodges I am member of was looking for ideas of what we can do together to garner more community with the younger members. More outdoor meetings, bowling league, more fellowship nights, et al… all “more,” more of the same. Then one of the younger members finally got a chance to speak after the older members were done pitching the same ideas, and he said: “How about a game night? We got that big ole TV over there… let’s play Halo together.”

My jaw almost dropped. Of course! Why not? Are we not seeking some means of encouraging young men to unplug from the computer at home and get together? What is wrong with unplugging at home and plugging in together at the Lodge? And it briefly worked. They had a couple of game nights. They ordered pizza, played Call of Duty, Dungeons and Dragons, et cetera. Then some of the older guys took it over and turned it into watching football on Sunday afternoons. Then it died. It was sad. It felt like the older Masons were doing what Mark Fisher criticizes in Acid Communism: “They cannot abolish the young, but they can seek to abolish the youth of the young, the very ability for young people to be the bearers of the future in both consciousness and action.”

More of the same is not going to solve either the isolation the young feel nor declining Masonic membership. More education will not solve it. Masons say they want more education, but no matter how much education is provided, they never engage it or go for it. Clearly wanting “more education” is just a placeholder, something to say when they don’t know what they want. More esoteric education is worse. Masonry eschewed the esoteric for so long that esoterically inclined Masons over a century ago started the Golden Dawn and OTO to serve the void Masonry created. Masonry cannot reinvent itself around a failing it committed decades ago that prompted other organizations to form and corner that market. “More” is not the answer. Something entirely different is needed.

In an age of extreme isolation and anxiety, in an era when we are still finding our foothold in cyberspace and the impacts it is having — like living on the frontier — we need to recognize that old ideas do not even remotely work (pun intended) in the digital era. Fundamentally, we need to address the failures of the digital age. It promised many things, and everything came up short. It promised global connectivity and we got pointless internet arguments. It promised fast information and we got more advertisements. It promised the future and we got the 20th century on high-definition screens. What has drawn the young to the internet usually fails our basic biological and psychological needs. If Masonry is to be relevant to the young, it needs to give them a reason to unplug and come hang out; it needs to provide actual community, actual personal connections, not just mere institutional structure. It needs to not only get with the present, it needs to set itself up for a future the young want to engage and build upon.



Patrick M. Dey is a Past Master of Nevada Lodge No. 4 in the ghost town of Nevadaville, Colorado, and currently serves as their Secretary, and is also a Past Master of Research Lodge of Colorado. He is a Past High Priest of Keystone Chapter No. 8, Past Illustrious Master of Hiram Council No. 7, Past Commander of Flatirons Commandery No. 7, and serves as the Secretary-Recorder of all three. He currently serves as the Exponent (Suffragan) of Colorado College, SRICF of which he is VIII Grade (Magister), and is a member of Gofannin Council No. 315 AMD and Kincora Council No. 8 Knight Masons. He is a facilitator for the Masonic Legacy Society, is the Editor of the Rocky Mountain Mason magazine, serves on the Board of Directors of the Grand Lodge of Colorado’s Library and Museum Association, and is the Deputy Grand Bartender of the Grand Lodge of Colorado (an ad hoc, joke position he is very proud to hold). He holds a Masters of Architecture degree from the University of Colorado, Denver, and works in the field of architecture in Denver, where he resides with wife and son.

Project Delta - An amazing undertaking to help children by a group of brethren in Massachusetts

by Midnight Freemason Contributor
WB Darin A. Lahners

Project Delta Kits assembled awaiting distribution to First Responders

Recently while honeymooning after my elopement to my beautiful bride, Lisa Goodpaster (now Goodpaster Lahners), we were in Salem, Massachusetts.  While in Salem, I endeavored to find the Masonic Lodge there.  I just happened to bump into Worshipful Brother Jon Hinthorne, who is a Past Master of Delta Lodge in Braintree, MA.  Jon was there to distribute kits for something he named Project Delta.  

WB Jon explained that Project Delta, named after the lodge to which he is a three-time Past Master, has an objective of providing comfort kits (small bags containing stuffed animals) to first responders to give to children who may be dealing with trauma stemming from the crisis situation to which the first responders are responding to.  All too often Police, Fire and EMS respond to calls where children are in the middle of an unpleasant situation. The program can allow these first responders to comfort the child or children involved in the incident and help to redirect their attention away from what they are going through at that moment by giving them a stuffed animal.  

WB Jon told Lisa and I that the kits were borne out of having an excess of stuffed animals due to his autistic son's uncanny ability to beat what is commonly known as the Crane (Claw) Game. The Crane game normally has stuffed animals of varying sizes and sometimes other prizes in which a contestant, pays a sum of money to play the game. Using a joystick to position the crane over a prize, the contestant will press a button to instruct the crane or claw to descend and grab the prize beneath it.  It requires a tremendous amount of skill to win at these games, because normally the animals are positioned in a such a way that they are stacked on top of each other or buried under each other. Having mastered the game, Jon's son soon found himself with an excess of these animals. Out this excess, Project Delta was born.  

So far Project Delta has been able to distribute just over 250 kits. I don't know about you, but it is my belief that the entire purpose of the kit and its objectives in providing relief to a child in distress aligns perfectly with what Masonic Lodges should be doing. Upon returning to my hotel room, I emailed our Grandmaster in Illinois, MWB Michael Jackson, regarding the project.  He stated that he would be discussing it with the director of The Illinois Masonic Children's Assistance Program, Gale Kilbury. It is my hope that it is something that they will adopt and help to make a reality here in my Grand Jurisdiction.  If not, then I will take up the torch to implement it. 

WB Jon was kind enough to send me a kit, and as you can see below, the bag is high quality, along with the animals inside of it. 

If you are interested in helping to bring Project Delta to your lodge or jurisdiction, you can reach out to WB Jon Hinthorne at or


WB Darin A. Lahners is our Managing Editor. He is a host and producer of the "Meet, Act and Part" podcast. He is currently serving the Grand Lodge of Illinois Ancient Free and Accepted Masons as the Area Education Officer for the Eastern Masonic Area. He is a Past Master of St. Joseph Lodge No.970 in St. Joseph. He is also a plural member of Homer Lodge No. 199 (IL), where he is also a Past Master. He’s also a member of the Scottish Rite Valley of Danville, a charter member of Illinois Royal Arch Chapter, Admiration Chapter No. 282, Salt Fork Shrine Club under the Ansar Shrine, and a grade one (Zelator) in the S.C.R.I.F. Prairieland College in Illinois. He is also a Fellow of the Illinois Lodge of Research. He was presented with the Torok Award from the Illinois Lodge of Research in 2021. You can reach him by email at

The Progressive Line Strategy: How to use it - To beat it. Part Two

by Midnight Freemason Guest Contributor
Bro. Mark St. Cyr

First, the disclaimer…  

This following is not intended to denigrate the idea of a PL, nor the  Brothers that dedicate themselves to the tasks they bear. What this speaks directly to is how to instill a necessary change into any management practice (our example will be the PL) that has allowed itself to calcify, for whatever reason. Many times those within it (PL) may not be aware to just how hindering the practice has become. The following is a respectful roadmap for those that do, yet, just haven’t been able to decipher a way through.  

So, with that out of the way, here we go… 

In “Part 1” I left you with the premise that to begin, in earnest, you need seven other like-minded Brothers within your Lodge. Doesn’t matter if they’re current, past, or never held office. It’s the amount that’s important. 

The number is important not for some symbolic attribute, but rather, if everything went to plan you and your contemporaries could potentially fill every seat simultaneously during a year in office. e.g.,  

WM,SW,JW,SD,JD,SS,JS. This would be the ultimate resolution if realized and should be the collaborative goal of all those involved. (secretary and  treasurer are for another discussion)


Now let’s get down to ‘brass tacks’ as they say while mincing no words or obfuscation of premise… 

What you (e.g., seven) are going to embark upon is a very legitimate strategy for a tactical takeover (or coup, if you will) of the current working structure of your Lodge to both instill change and install a fundamental transformation for a new working paradigm going forward.


However, let’s also now be clear on something else… 

Not only must (repeat: must! ) every single item, agenda, ________ (fill in the blank) you now propose to implement adhere both by/to the letter of your Grand Lodge code and rule books, it must also be seen to be adhering to masonic values of anything unwritten. The reason why should be self-evident, but for those that may not see it clearly, here’s why… 

Because when you are challenged (and trust me, you will be relentlessly assailed) the only arguments that will withstand said assailing will be those which are precisely that. e.g., to the letter, by the code, and adherence to Masonic ideals and principles. 

There can not be any wavering on these points, both in your pledge for adherence, as well as your steadfastness to standing behind them when trouble comes your way, which I’ll remind you most surely will, usually from places (or persons) you least expected. Trust me on this.

Only by doing things both by the book and in accordance with masonic values will any success be plausible. If not - you’ll not only gain the ire of your Lodge Brothers but also the G.L. and almost assuredly charges. So think about this very carefully before you even begin. 

This ain’t kid's stuff, nor should it be. 

Let me give a relevant hypothetical as to the reason why something like the above should even be considered. Again, this is just one example, for there are myriads, yet it sets the example tone for relevancy… 

Your Lodge assembles for typical ‘green bean’ paper plate dining, does nothing more than read minutes at a meeting, ritual, and degree work is shoddy at best, and you appear to lose more members a year than raise,  with no one seeming to desire anything for improvement. 

I know some of you right now are saying “That’s more than one!” Yes, but in reality, that’s about the most common response or set of responses you hear when this issue is brought up.

So for this exercise - it’s one, OK? Let’s keep going. 

For your seven… 

Although it doesn’t matter if any are serving as officers or have, if one is,  currently? It is a bonus, just not necessary. What is necessary is that the seven of you are completely committed to this endeavor and are giving each other your sacred honor to see it through as a team - not a  committee. 

If you think of this in any shape manner or form from a committee viewpoint - you will fail. Period. No matter what you’ve read or heard from some “management guru” book or audio tape series. Again, period, full stop. 

“Why?” is the next question in case you don’t know (and most of these gurus don’t either) for it is this… 

On a team (think baseball, football, soccer, etc., etc., etc.) the members of a team will do whatever it takes to win for the sake of the team. i.e., an all-star hitter batting .400 will sit out a championship game at bat for a rookie batting .200 if the team has decided that is the strategy and tactic for the best chance to win the game. They may not like it, but they will do whatever it takes, regardless.  

A committee on the other hand will argue (actually the argument will eventually devolve into) why their argument for the .400 batter deserves to be chosen over the argument for the .200 batter. For in a committee structure, it’s not about winning for the team - it’s about the players constructing the committee winning their argument over the other committee members or arguments. Winning the game is secondary. It’s only winning their argument that counts. 

Don’t let that point be lost upon you. Think about it very carefully for true understanding. It’s an insight that alludes most, yet is a primary cause of why most can’t fix what they know is broken. 

So now you begin, and here are the parameters you should all now agree to. They need to be concise and deliverable, and best practice is to limit it to no more than three, while simply one or two is perfectly acceptable. 


An allotment of time no less than 30 minutes but no more than an hour will be set aside for a full presentation of masonic education (M.E.) at every stated meeting and will not be allowed to go unfilled or canceled other than extreme emergencies or true degree work. 

Now that’s only one and you can have more, however, that one alone can be a very big one all on its own. 

In some places, all that may be needed is to sure up an already M.E.  schedule in place that’s just fallen adrift, so you could add another like:  And we will call for all Brothers to be dressed in a dark suit and tie for all stated. But just like the first, this second itself in some places is a major one all on its own. So choose accordingly, but I’m sure you get the gist. 

So now some of you are asking “OK, this all sounds good but how do we get the seven? How do I approach any potential members of this group of seven? What do we say to each other, what exactly are we agreeing to? How do I or we start?” 

All great questions and the right ones. And we’ll discuss precisely that in the next installment. 

See you then. 


“The Shade of Trees They’ll Never Sit Under”: Investing for the Lodge and Your Future Brethren - Part 3

by Midnight Freemason Contributor
Phillip Welshans

Part 3: Endowments and Spending Rules

This material has been prepared for general and educational purposes only. This material does not provide recommendations concerning investments, investment strategies, or account types. It is not individualized to the needs of any specific investor and is not intended to suggest that any particular investment action is appropriate for you, nor is it intended to serve as the primary basis for investment decision-making. Any tax-related discussion contained in this material, including any attachments/links, is not intended or written to be used, and cannot be used, for the purpose of (i) avoiding any tax penalties or (ii) promoting, marketing, or recommending to any other party any transaction or matter addressed herein. Please consult your independent legal counsel and/or tax professional regarding any legal or tax issues raised in this material. All investments involve risk, including possible loss of principal.

So now that we've set the ground rules and are going to think about your lodge as an institutional investor, what next? What kind of institutional investor should your lodge be? The answer is fairly straightforward, in my view: lodges should be managed within the framework of an endowment. This is primarily because the overarching objective of your lodge's investments are exactly the same as a university endowment, even if there are some key differences. But at its heart, your lodge's investment objective is to invest in capital markets to provide both a savings and growth mechanism that will allow your lodge to meet its future obligations into perpetuity. The key aspects, then are:

  • Preserving capital while growing assets to meet ongoing obligations
  • Investing on a very long, intergenerational timeline

This is a rather long post, but I’ve broken it up into sections. We’ll talk about what endowments are and dispense with some myths about them. We’ll define what spending rules are and why they’re important. And finally, we will look at a hypothetical example of two imaginary lodges that approach their spending very differently to illustrate our points.

Endowments: Myths Dispelled

Universities, hospitals, and other large organizations have used endowments for decades as a means for managing a large pool of money in perpetuity. This is because institutions have found that operating costs often cannot be covered by fees, tuition, or hospital charges alone. However, there are a number of misconceptions about endowments and what they’re for.

First: not all endowments are gargantuan. A pool of money held by an institution need not be the size of, say, the Harvard University endowment ($51 billion as of 2022), in order to be considered an endowment. Broadly speaking, Harvard's endowment fund should be managed with the same general objectives as an endowment for a smaller, less flush school.1 You might not have $51 billion to manage, but you might be surprised to learn that your concerns for your investments are not all that different from Rick Slocum, the Chief Investment Officer of the Harvard Management Company, which manages the endowment funds. His primary focus every day is making sure the endowment can provide the funding Harvard relies on for operations, while also not blowing up the portfolio to do it. This should be your goal as well!

Second: endowments are not hedge funds. Endowments of all sizes are bound by strict regulatory and legal frameworks that define how they should manage their assets and require investment committees to act as a fiduciary.2 This means endowments have established processes and bodies like investment committees in place that meet regularly, discuss investment performance, and assess potential new investments. For the big guys, this means entire staffs of professional managers and analysts and administrators overseeing how money is invested. It's not just one guy with a Bloomberg terminal buying and selling securities. For your lodge, you probably won’t need to hire a staff of managers, but there are important takeaways here for how you might want to think about managing your investments.

Third: endowments are not untapped slush funds, but instead serve important roles in operations. Yes, the size of endowments continues to grow (see Harvard's $50+ billion assets under management (AUM) above), but so too are the spending requirements. At their heart, every endowment is designed to exist forever while also providing some amount of year-to-year boost to an institution's operating budget. Let's use Harvard University's endowment as an example. In 2022, the AUM was about $51 billion, yet the endowment also distributed $2.1 billion to the various schools within the university, and overall, about 36% of Harvard's operating revenues for their fiscal year came from endowment funds.3

Spending Policies

To strike this balance between managing for the distant future while helping to fund today's operations, endowments use clearly defined spending policies. These policies help to determine what sort of expected investment returns they need to achieve in turn.4 We are going to take this basic concept and apply it to lodge investment management.

A straightforward way to craft a spending policy is to reverse engineer it. That is, start with defining what you want the endowment to help pay for, and then settle on a spending policy that gets you there, while preserving the long-term capital of the endowment. Try to answer these two questions5:

A. Will you look to add to the endowment via fundraising or any other routine capital contributions? In other words, are you going to rely just on investment returns, or will you be chipping in from time to time too?

B. What percentage of your lodge's operating budget will the endowment support?

The answer to the first question will vary from lodge to lodge, but basically your spending rule can be adjusted if you think you'll be getting some additional capital each year from contributions. Question B is more pertinent for all lodges. The general rule for this answer is an endowment can pay out between 4% and 6% of its assets per year for this purpose without imperiling the principal. The reason is that all else equal, for every 1% you pay out, you've got to earn 1% in investment gains to replace it. The more you pay out, the higher the required return, every year, needed to maintain the endowment. And since markets can be volatile year to year, while spending and budgets tend to be relatively static or at least slow-changing, this can create a mismatch between the needs of the lodge and the realities of the capital markets. Going back to the Harvard endowment, it’s dispersal of $2.1 billion in 2022 worked out to a roughly 4% spending rule on the total size of the endowment. The absolute number is huge, while the proportional number remains reasonable.

There are a number of basic models for a spending rule, but one of the more popular is what is called a market value spending rule. It pays out a set percentage of the endowment's asset value each year (again, typically between that magic 4-6% range). The asset value used to compute the amount withdrawn for spending is a moving average of the previous three to five years’ market value of the endowment assets. The idea here is that you're trying to smooth out the endowment's value and tamp down any single year's outsized gains or losses. The advantage of this kind of rule is that it is simple and easy to apply. The downside is that it is pro-cyclical, meaning that in periods when markets go up, the dollar amount of the annual payout will go up, and vice versa. That's not necessarily a bad thing, so long as the endowment's contribution to the budget is relatively small. But if that amount is large, then you've got a dilemma: do you stick to your spending rule and potentially draw down the principal of the endowment as a result, or do you pay out what you can without reducing the principal, knowing that your lodge's operating budget will be negatively impacted?

Prudence vs. Charity

Let's end this post with a very basic example that will illustrate the importance of spending rules and considering how your lodge’s assets will be managed and tapped in the years to come.

Say two lodges in town, Prudence #101 and Charity #202, both happen to inherit $100,000 from a wealthy brother's estate (he was a plural member at both lodges) in 2002. Both create an endowment for managing the funds and supplementing their operating budgets. Prudence Lodge wants to use the proceeds to pay for an anticipated new boiler in the next few years, and to sponsor some social programs, including an annual scholarship award. The lodge, under guidance from a few brethren, some of whom work in financial services and some who don’t but who have experience investing and managing their own monies, adopts a market value spending rule with a 5% threshold and a 3-year average market value measurement.

Charity Lodge wants to dramatically increase its charitable activities, both monetary and events. Their lodge has a long history of being generous in the community, sponsoring numerous events and organizations. But due to a combination of overspending on these activities, falling membership rolls, and dues that hadn't gone up in 20 years, Charity's coffers were bare. The lodge also lacked any brethren who had any professional or personal financial expertise. They did not institute a spending rule per se, instead agreeing that the Worshipful Master would have discretion to pull from the funds as needed, and with approval of the lodge. The first year the Master pulled $10,000 and that set a precedent where Masters started assuming $10,000 as a contribution to their annual budgets. Call it a “George Washington 2-terms as President” moment: the first guy took $10,000, so the next several guys did the same thing and soon it was expected.

For the sake of simplicity, let's say both lodges decided to invest 100% of their endowments into an S&P 500 ETF.7 So, both portfolios are getting the same investment returns year after year; the only difference is the spending rule (or lack thereof). And let’s assume both lodges somehow manage to invest their money on the same day, December 31, 2002, so that they have equal track records which begin on January 1, 2003. Here is a table showing Prudence #101's endowment over the proceeding 10 years:

Here you can see the "pro-cyclicality" of the market value spending rule. The run up in US stocks in the years before the global financial crisis in 2008 helped push the absolute dollar amount of the endowment's contribution to an all-time high just as markets were imploding. A tough combination, to be sure. But proportionally, the $7,062 withdrawal in 2008 was still just 5% of the average market value of the preceding three years. And with the recovery in the market in the years after the crisis, by the close of our 10-year sample period, the endowment was a bit over 20% higher than it had been at the beginning; and more than 40% higher from the 2008 nadir. That's the conservativeness of the market value spending rule in action.

By contrast, the more spendthrift approach of Charity Lodge lacked those guardrails of prudential spending amounts and smoothed market values. Here is how those ten years went for that lodge's endowment:

The higher spending rate actually doesn't make that big of a difference for the first few years. It's only when the gravy train of the mid-2000s bull market end suddenly in 2008 that the math starts to conspire against the endowment. The spending rate, which began as the equivalent of 10% of the market value in 2002, decreased to about 8% thanks to good years for the S&P 500 in '03-'07. However, the global financial crisis crushed the endowment and sent the spending rate above 14%, where it stayed the rest of the decade despite the strong post-crisis recovery in stocks. The higher spending demands, with each Worshipful Master taking his $10,000 to make the budget balance and make sure “his” year measured up to his predecessors’, was a millstone around the neck of the portfolio.

To really illustrate the point, if we extend our examples all the way through the end of 2022 using the actual returns for the ETF, Prudence Lodge's endowment would have entered 2023 with a balance of over $257,000. By contrast, Charity Lodge's endowment would have shrunk to a little over $60,000, a decline of almost -40% in 20 years. Now, of course this is a very simple and extreme example that allows for no changes in spending rules in any way, which is unrealistic. It's possible the brothers of Charity Lodge would have turned over management of their portfolio to a financial advisor at some point who would have been able to rein in the spending and rebuild some of the principal capital. Maybe a Master would have ended the $10,000 precedent in the name of saving the endowment. But maybe not! Masonic lodges tend not to be fast-movers and in a situation where money that Masters have been able to count on for decades might need to go away, not every lodge will make the hard choices.

Nonetheless, I think this example is illustrative of the overarching point here: endowment spending rules are your friend when you're managing your lodge investments. Don't make the mistake of tabling that discussion for later, at the risk of letting precedent undermine long-term capital preservation. Maybe 5% spending is too low for your lodge. Maybe you've got a hard dollar amount you want to set. Whatever it might be, make sure it's thought out, debated amongst the brethren, and that it doesn't become a sacred cow of the lodge. A year like 2008 doesn’t happen very often, of course, but a prudent and thoughtful spending rule can be the difference between a portfolio dwindling to nothing, or surviving and even thriving in the years afterward, helping future brethren achieve the missions of the lodge, long after you've gone to the celestial lodge above.

1.  While your objective should be the same, how you achieve those objectives will be quite different from a huge endowment fund. I'm going to spend the next post in this series telling you why you shouldn't try to be like Harvard and Yale.
2. Fiduciary duty means that the person managing the assets must act in the best interests of their client at all times. Some financial advisors are not explicitly bound to act as fiduciaries, and this can create all sorts of conflicts of interest that advantages the advisor over their client. A classic example is advisors might invest client money in mutual funds with so-called "load fees" which are fees a fund charges investors either at purchase or sale, a portion of which are then sent to the advisor. It's basically a kickback and it erodes the investor's return over time.
4. Endowments also fundraise like crazy and most universities (and colleges and private high schools, etc.) have separated out fundraising from endowment management because while they're both important, they require very different skillsets and professionals to do each one well. If you ever see a portfolio manager presenting at a conference of financial advisors, you will immediately understand why fundraising is a skill.
5. There's actually a third question endowments will need to answer and that is if it or the university will be able to issue debt. Obviously, your lodge is not going to be issuing debt, so I left this one off.
6. This is a very simplified way to think about spending rules and payouts and ignores all manner of considerations, not least of which is inflation. For example, inflation in the U.S. as of the writing of this post is about 5%, depending on your preferred measurement, which has major implications for an endowment's ability to preserve its capital after its spending rule. 
7. Here I'm going to use the returns of the SPDR S&P 500 ETF, a large and well-known ETF that follows the S&P 500 Index. And yes, you wouldn't put 100% in just one fund like this, but we'll talk about asset allocation later; it's beside the point of this example. Perhaps we will return to Prudence and Charity Lodges down the road…


Phillip Welshans is Senior Warden of Palestine Lodge #189 in Catonsville, MD under the Grand Lodge of Maryland A.F. & A.M. He is also a member of the Maryland Masonic Lodge of Research #239, and the Hiram Guild of the Maryland Masonic Academy. As a member of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite, S.J. in the Valley of Baltimore, he has completed the Master Craftsman programs and is a member of the Scottish Rite Research Society. His interests are primarily in Masonic education, particularly the history of the Craft, esotericism, and the philosophy of Masonry.