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The Companionship of Philanthropy and Spirituality

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My mother occasionally recalls the day a stranger stopped us as we walked down the main street of the small town near our home. He called me by name, asked how I was, and placed a quarter in my hand before continuing on his way. As we resumed our stroll, my mother asked, “Who was that man?” I responded, “Oh, he is one of Pawpaw’s friends. I talk to him when we sit at the store.” As a preschooler, I frequently tagged along with my paternal grandfather. The morning’s farm chores often concluded with a trip to the local general store for soft drinks and big talk, where he and his friends solved the world’s problems to their satisfaction in an hour or so.

Fast forward a few decades to the present time: I occupy a role where a monetary exchange is one measure of a successful encounter. At its best, it is a process where gifts are shared out of a prior relationship. Sometimes their arrival is a surprise. As unimportant as that original exchange on the main street may have been, it contains several elements related to the fundraising side of philanthropy: a relationship developed over time; interest in the person or project; and generosity of spirit, often in response to the relationship. Add to those elements the effects of a religiously motivated cause (as are many Quaker causes), and suddenly spirituality and philanthropy can begin functioning as companions in the process. At a minimum, the blending of those two requires that any solicitations are made with integrity of purpose. For me, that means considering the needs of the organization but also those of the donor.

Conversations about money can be unsettling for some, particularly if one person is asking another to part with their precious resources. That does not have to be the case. A Friend of significant means once said to me early in my current work that the only people uncomfortable talking about money are those who do not have it. At the end of the day, money is just money—a resource and a tool. Perhaps not everyone would agree with that statement, but this tidbit of wisdom helped shift my focus from wondering how I was to convince people to give their money to the organization that I represented to considering ways a particular donor might find participation in a project to be appealing, even spiritually nourishing. Would participating help the person in the quest to be a good steward of his or her resources? One cannot know the answer to that question if one has not listened for the donor’s interests and passions over the course of the relationship.

I believe that relationships are a central feature of successful fundraising. They may not be fostered at the local general store, but they grow most easily when generous amounts of time can be spent with one another. This, of course, underscores the point that fundraising is not merely about successfully selling your cause; it is about understanding the donor’s interests as well. It is an investment of time for all parties involved. At least once in my life, I have told a potential donor that our values did not align, and because of that, I would not be asking for a gift. Theological gaps, chasms even, regarding how God works and what God requires meant our organization would never be able to use his gift in a way that honored his commitments without sacrificing our own. Therefore, I could not in good conscience continue the conversation. Admittedly, this perspective sits in tension with the philosophy that leads to having our mailboxes crammed with requests for money from groups we do not know and do not know us. The causes are genuine, but the response rate is low. In my home if no relationship exists with the group, these passive solicitations usually move directly to the trash. I imagine that also happens to some of the solicitations I send, as well! A meaningful connection is powerful and of utmost importance in this work.

Fundraising flourishes most easily when three things are present: a compelling storyteller, a story worth telling, and an audience with resources to share. I have come to believe that however articulate I may or may not be, at the end of the conversation, I can still be viewed simply as an employee trying to fund my employer. Too much talk about mission, values, and program can leave donors with glazed eyes; too much data and too many charts dull the mind. When one tells a story that illustrates call, sacrifice, or commitment to serve, the conversation changes. It becomes one where transformation and positive outcomes demonstrate the potential good that comes from the work. That became readily apparent one day when, as a passenger in a car, I began telling the driver about our incoming students: their stories of call and their motivations for leaving the security of the known for the uncertainty that accompanies those who answer “yes” to a leading to minister and serve. His piqued interest was evident; he even indicated that, finally, I was telling the kind of story that increased his interest in the institution. I have witnessed deepened connection and compassion wash over the faces of listeners when students or alumni/ae grant a peek at their vulnerability, even as they proclaim their passion for their ministry. Stories like those allow my enthusiasm for my work to break forth as well, which in most cases strengthens the appeal. Witness and enthusiasm are infectious!

In the course of an evolving relationship, fundraiser and donor both have the opportunity to know and to be known as they learn about one another’s values. Individuals support causes for a variety of reasons. An impulse at the time of the request, perhaps a divine nudge, an emotional response, or a sense of duty, may elicit a donation that never goes beyond that single transaction. Some organizations have the capacity to play the “loyalty card,” unlocking a stream of contributions from those who possess a devotion to the organization itself. For me, the most successful fundraising efforts have been with those who share the values and vision of the school, particularly if they have been involved with us in some capacity (which again emphasizes the importance of donor relationship and volunteer engagement).

One of my best philanthropic surprises was based largely on relationship and values but occurred in a moment when I thought perhaps I was being dismissed. When calling to arrange a visit with a couple to discuss one of our major gift priorities, they politely declined the visit but asked that I send the case for support by mail. I had been in their home on other occasions, so was surprised at the response. I thought perhaps they were not interested after all, and the request for the case was merely a courtesy on their part. Much to my amazement, a few weeks later they called to inform me of a forthcoming wire transfer. The decision to decline the visit was based on other complications in their life, not their lack of interest. When the relationship and values are present, sometimes the formal request is less important. People who give out of love or leading need to be informed and invited more than coaxed; they want to be good stewards, faithful to their leadings, and part of a cause bigger than themselves. It is a beautiful thing to witness!

Generosity of spirit and integrity of purpose convince me that philanthropy is mutually beneficial to both the giver and the receiver. When fundraising is seen primarily as a numerical total to be reached by a particular deadline, the concern for mutuality can quickly be sacrificed. I know how important my personal goals are, and I understand the urgency of organizational time limits. Yet the person whose resources I seek has other interests and concerns as well. From an integrity standpoint, it is necessary to encourage donors to think about my requests in the context of their larger planning needs. A gift needs to be made on their timetable, not mine, however much I may wish it to be otherwise. Long-term needs, consideration of their heirs, and other philanthropic interests are a few of those complicating factors. In fact, helping others process and determine their priorities—whatever they are—can be a tremendous gift to the donor. This approach has its risks. I can name a couple of times where donors never finalized their stated intentions. Perhaps a high-pressure approach would have yielded a different outcome, but it would have violated the sense of integrity that undergirds my actions. A potential donor once  asked, “How can I place this request above my current support of a school with marginalized children?” I answered, “Perhaps you cannot. That is for you to determine.” My task is to represent the institutional vision and the donor’s opportunity; it is never to undermine the work of others or to set the donor’s values.

The depth of these relationships has led to genuine friendships. It has reinforced the importance of community, because sustaining a ministry or nonprofit work is impossible without it. (This applies to for-profit work as well, if one thinks of customers as the community of support.) Because of community connection and friendship, soliciting funds need not feel like “fleecing the flock” or begging. It is more akin to spiritual sharing or pastoral care, where one helps another   use the gifts he or she wishes to share. At any given moment, it may not be apparent exactly who is benefiting more from the gift!

Jay Marshall is dean at Earlham School of Religion, a graduate school in Richmond, Indiana. He is a member of New Castle (Ind.) Meeting, which is a member of the New Association of Friends.


Posted in: Features, Giving and Philanthropy

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