Speaking the Language of Quaker Values

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A Friend’s Perspective on Money and Philanthropy

I often talk with Friends who assume that fundraising for a Friends organization is both different and difficult. Others, however, who are not Friends but involved with a Friends organization, are often puzzled by the wide acceptance of this belief. They think that whatever approach to raising money works for the United Way, a local arts institute, or the Catholic high school down the street will also be successful for a Quaker organization.

During the course of my career as a Quaker fundraising consultant, I have witnessed many collisions between these two perspectives. It often occurs on the board level or among very committed volunteers who strongly disagree about what it means “to be Quaker.”

One side fears that the Quaker identity and values of an organization they deeply care about will be compromised by fundraising practices used by other organizations. Often this concern is expressed by well-intentioned Friends who have had a bad experience with fundraising, who may have felt marginalized and pressured to give more than they were able to give. Others find fundraising distasteful believing it is “all about money,” and at odds with core values of simplicity; honesty; and respect for all people, regardless of their social status or financial means.

In many Friends institutions and schools there is an equally vocal group of deeply committed board members or volunteers who are frustrated with an organizational culture that seems uncomfortable with anything that has to do with money and finances.

For some, this disagreement about money and fundraising becomes very personal. I have met more than my share of people who feel marginalized because of their wealth. These people (including many Quakers who have been successful in the business world) are described by Henri Nouwen in his book A Spirituality of Fundraising, where he observes that our concern for the poor may lead to a prejudiced, unwelcoming attitude toward the rich.

While disagreements about fundraising practices are common throughout the nonprofit world, the ethical and moral foundation of these disagreements is felt and expressed more keenly within Friends institutions. I have worked with both large and small Quaker institutions (Earlham College, American Friends Service Committee, Friends Committee on National Legislation, and small organizations with no formal fundraising program in place), and I’ve found the disagreement about fundraising often results from a lack of understanding of the other side’s perspective.

A Quaker Penchant for Understated Simplicity

While few modern-day Friends wear broad brim hats and dress in Quaker gray, remnants of our past are reflected in how we act, view the world, and interact with others. We have a penchant for understatement that is deeply embedded in our culture and history, which can subtly influence our fundraising approach.

For example, there is a widely held belief among Friends that we highly value functionality. In many Quaker circles, a well-built car is valued more highly than a car that is the latest design, regardless of its cost or ability to confer status. Many Friends think of their Volvo as their “Quaker car,” because it’s durable, safe, and built to run for many years. Alternatively, hybrid cars (even very expensive ones) are often a vehicle of choice, because their purchase expresses a concern for the environment and for conservation of the world’s resources.

How does this penchant for understated simplicity impact fundraising for Friends organizations? As a consultant, I advise others to describe and interpret fundraising priorities using language and messaging that is what I refer to as “speaking the language of Friends.” Durability, functionality, and wise use of resources are values widely embraced within our faith community. A fundraising message that focuses on elegance, looks, or status will likely be less effective, because these values don’t resonate with the image and mindset associated with a Quaker organization or school.

A Quaker Perspective on Money

Quakers are often perceived by others (and themselves) as having an uncomfortable relationship with money. I believe a more accurate assessment is that Quakers as a group often view money from a different cultural perspective, which is grounded in our faith tradition and history.

There is a deeply embedded belief among Friends that we live in a society that places far too much emphasis on money as an end in itself and a measure of the value of the person. Friends instead embrace the concept that money is a useful tool rather than a measurement of a person’s intrinsic worth. I have found this core belief among all Friends, regardless of their politics, the value of their houses, or how much money they have in their bank accounts.

While many people in the United States strive to appear wealthy, a Friend is more likely to understate his or her wealth, both in speech and actions. As one Friend stated, “Being good stewards of money is valued among Friends, while impressing people with how much money you have is not.” I have found that one must listen carefully and “read between the words,” if feasibility studies for a proposed capital campaign are to uncover some significant sources of wealth. This is particularly true when the consultant is not familiar with Quaker culture and the many subtle distinctions Friends use when talking about their financial resources.

The most effective appeal a Friends organization may make will focus on the importance and impact of the person’s gift rather than the recognition a person will receive for having given it.

“Doing what I can, given my financial resources” is more important than the status that comes from having been one of the top donors. Having a “place at the table” for everyone’s gift is important to many Friends, including those whose gifts are many times larger than others.

Quakers and Wealth

It is important to address the often-expressed belief that Quakers are primarily teachers and social workers: people who do not have money.

While there are certainly wealthier faith communities within our society, Friends are far from the bottom of the economic ladder. Quakers have benefited from a cultural tendency to be conservative in spending habits and good stewards of their financial resources. Whether or not fewer Friends today come from family wealth, many older Friends (including many currently residing in Quaker retirement communities) are benefiting from lifestyles that have exhibited prudent fiscal management and careful spending habits. There are also many Friends (including younger ones who are largely unknown to wealthy, older Friends) who have been very successful in business. Indeed, I had to laugh when I heard a Friend from “old wealth” tell me that all the Quaker money is “dying off,” when just days before one of my clients had received a $1.5 million commitment from a member of the next generation of Friends!

Quaker Perspectives on Fundraising

Unlike the Amish, we are not a faith community that has gone to great lengths to separate ourselves from the world. While we are different in some ways, Friends in North America are for the most part indistinguishable from the non-Quaker middle class in how we live our lives. While some Friends may disagree with this observation, the fact is that our differences do not radically alter many of the fundraising practices used by other faith communities and nonprofits.

By way of example, one of the points of contention in some Quaker organizations is donor recognition. To some Friends, any recognition of individuals based on giving is considered to be unquakerly. It is true that few Quaker meetings recognize donors in highly public ways. This, however, is not exclusively a “Quaker value.” I’ve found that few local congregations have an annual report that lists donors to an annual appeal, and even fewer would segment contributors by the size of their gift.

The majority of Quaker organizations do recognize donors in a variety of ways, ranging from listing donors in annual reports to naming opportunities as part of a school capital campaign. Common practices around donor recognition widely accepted in the nonprofit world are also standard practice for most Quaker nonprofits.

There are some subtle differences that should be noted. Quaker organizations with highly effective fundraising programs find that they are best served by campaign and promotional materials that are functional and of high quality but not elegant or appearing expensive. Another difference is Quaker organizations are often more successful when fundraising efforts embrace two important concepts: community building and partnership. Large gifts (from Quakers and non-Quakers alike) to Friends organizations are far more likely if it is widely understood that reaching a fundraising goal is a community effort rather than the result of only a small group of donors. I have observed that this is not true in other settings where the status of lead donors comes from their small, exclusive group being responsible for the success of a campaign. In contrast, Quakers (even when recognizing that the top 10 percent of donors will most likely account for 90 percent or more of dollars raised) value broad-based participation and the concept of a place at the table for everyone.

Making Space for the Large Gift

In my early years as a fundraising consultant, I often ran into situations where a Friends school or nonprofit unintentionally conveyed the message that large gifts were not expected because Friends and those who sent their children to Quaker schools did not have large sums of money to give. While this perception is rapidly changing as more Friends organizations receive large gifts, many in Quaker circles are skeptical that large gifts are possible from those who attend meeting or are involved with the Friends organization, school, or retirement community.

This belief can result in the message that large gifts are frowned upon because they may set the donor apart from others. During a feasibility study for a small Friends school, I interviewed a non-Quaker parent, a member of the school’s governing board, who made the following comment:

I could give a hundred times my current gift of $1,000 each year to the annual fund and write out a two-million-dollar check to the campaign, but my wife and I would be horrified if other parents and board members knew how much money we have. We absolutely love the school, but being wealthy is frowned upon by many people in the school community.

The message this donor had subtly received (and strongly heard!) was that having the ability to make a large gift was “not Quakerly” and would set them apart from other parents at the school. Ironically, the school wanted to receive large gifts but had embraced an organizational culture that discouraged people from stepping forward with the money that they very much needed!

How can Friends organizations develop a fundraising environment that makes space at the table for everyone, including people with the capacity to make very large gifts?

The first step is to openly acknowledge a simple and undeniable fact: Quakers (and non-Quakers who become involved with a Friends organization) cover the spectrum when it comes to financial resources. While there are certainly many Quakers who struggle financially, there are also many Friends who have been very successful at making money, have inherited wealth, or have benefited from the widely admired Quaker practice of living within one’s financial means.

The second step is to examine the often subtle messages conveyed to potential donors within one’s organizational culture. Many of my clients find the following queries to be helpful:

  • In our efforts to make all donors feel welcomed and appreciated, do we unintentionally ask in ways that encourage small gifts rather than large ones?
  • Does the culture of our organization convey our welcoming large gifts? Or, do we convey the message that people capable of large gifts are “outside the fold” of our organization (or school) community?
  • Does our vision, the goals we set, and the strategies we put into place warrant and attract large gifts? Or do we allow ourselves to only “think small” and set goals that we can comfortably reach?

Effective fundraising is based on drawing people together around a common vision, such as starting a new program or fulfilling a much needed objective, like constructing a new building. At the heart of this process is the ability to engage people in a meaningful partnership that takes into account each of our unique gifts, which includes a person’s financial capacity to support the organization. Space must be made available for all sizes of financial investments, both large and small.

Henry B. Freeman

Henry B. Freeman is a fundraising consultant who works with nonprofit organizations and educational institutions around the country. An active Friend, Henry lives in Richmond, Ind., and is a member of Clear Creek Meeting in Richmond.

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