Philanthropy: more than dollars and often less than big dollars

As a Christian development guy, one of my regular regrets and deepest pains is that Christian nonprofits are so intimated by immediate concerns of institutional insolvency that they rarely take the time to seriously consider–and implement, on the courage of their convictions–the radical ramifications of what the Bible  teaches about giving. “I’m definitely looking forward to exploring Transformational Giving,” they insist, “right after I get a couple of big gifts in here to get us back on an even keel.”

This they call “being practical”.

As a result, it is inevitably secular development professionals who are happening onto the concepts we Christian development professionals should already know and be championing and teaching, as Christian development officers are too busy feverishly applying the traditional transactional fundraising practices that the secular world is, um, now abandoning.

Case in point:

Great post by Dan Pallotta on Breaking The Least-You-Can-Do Cycle. Writes Pallotta:

Just 10% of the $300 billion given to charity each year comes from major institutional funders — the Fords, the Gateses, the MacArthurs, and the Rockefellers. Yet those funders have a monopoly on the term “philanthropy.” The billionaire who spends 99% of his time building his own wealth and 1% of his time thinking about charity is elevated to the status of “philanthropist,” while the poor bastard who spends 100% of her time serving as the executive director of a homeless charity and 0% of her time amassing wealth is called, at best, “staff.”

This narrow interpretation has infected more than our language. It has infected our imaginations.

“Philanthropy” comes from the Greek for “love of humanity.” Anyone who cares deeply about others and who demonstrates it in an important way has a right to the title. The bank teller who gives 5% of her relatively small income to charity every month is a philanthropist. The child who gives his allowance and collects money from his neighbors for Haiti is taking meaningful philanthropic action. But by applying the term “philanthropist” only to the rarified few who make outsize donations, we rob the average person of an important aspiration. Worse, we rob civil society of the potential of that aspiration.

“Infected our imaginations”–what a great phrase! Pallotta’s perspective reminds me of a parallel sentiment in James 2:1-6:

1My brothers, as believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, don’t show favoritism. 2Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in shabby clothes also comes in. 3If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” 4have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?5Listen, my dear brothers: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him? 6But you have insulted the poor. Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court?

Note that here the “regular donors” are viewed as subjects of real purpose–not objects of pity–and the “major donors” are revealed as having exploitative, litigious tendencies. It ought to color the way we approach the development enterprise…but does it?

Pallotta suggests it’s coloring our thinking in all the wrong ways:

Most charities approach individuals with a two-pronged fundraising operations: a “major gifts” group to service the wealthy stratosphere and annual campaigns to capture the $25 to $50 donor. The big space in the middle gets little attention. By and large, we don’t invest in making the $25 casual donor a $2,500 philanthropist. We don’t even think about it. We’re wired to think that philanthropy is the exclusive domain of the wealthy. Instead of asking the $25 donors to aspire to a life and lifestyle of more significant giving, we demean them with cheap prizes and the chance to vote on how Pepsi will make its charitable grants. Internet fundraising is exacerbating the problem. We’ve reduced activism to clicking. “Text HAITI to 90999 to donate $10.” We ask people to do the least they can do, and we make it insultingly easy.

Sum it up and say, as Pallotta does:

People want their lives to matter. They want to make a difference — a big difference. We must rid ourselves of the patriarchal idea that the wealthy are the only ones who can change the world, and launch a new age of citizen philanthropy.

Sadly, as Christians, we ought to know that reality better than anyone–by chapter and verse, even. But we don’t. So our fundraising strategies still owe more to the world than to the Bible.

That’s why most of the fundraising books I recommend are written by secular authors. Christian fundraising authors are too busy spreading evangelical goofer dust over worn out traditional transactional fundraising (ttf) strategies and calling it “stewardship”.

So while the goofer dust settles, let me commend Pallotta’s article to you as the most truly transformational reading a Christian development professional can undertake this week (even though we are advocating very different causes), and let me draw your attention to Kathy LeMay’s The Generosity Plan: Sharing Your Time, Treasure, and Talent to Shape the World. It’s a great book designed to equip “regular donors”–the very ones we Christian development officers often aren’t addressing personally because it wouldn’t be good “stewardship” of our time–to put together a comprehensive (time/talent/treasure) generosity plan to impact the causes about which they are moved to care.

I can’t wait until 20 years from now, should the Lord tarry, when Christian development practices catch up with what LeMay writes, namely:

Don’t worry about adding more zeroes to your check; philanthropy is not about how much. Philanthropy is intention combined with focus and action. What makes a difference in one person’s life or in hundreds of lives is not merely a stack of checks; what makes a difference is you contributing your many gifts at your level and your capacity. The Generosity Plan will help you make the most of what you have to offer. It will not ask you to contribute more than you can, rather to contribute in a way that works for you and your life and, in doing so, benefits the causes you care about most.

I’m grateful that someone is taking the philanthropy of small givers seriously. I just wish it was us who were leading the way in doing so.

About Pastor Foley

The Reverend Dr. Eric Foley is CEO and Co-Founder, with his wife Dr. Hyun Sook Foley, of Voice of the Martyrs Korea, supporting the work of persecuted Christians in North Korea and around the world and spreading their discipleship practices worldwide. He is also the International Ambassador for the International Christian Association, the global fellowship of Voice of the Martyrs sister ministries. Pastor Foley is a much sought after speaker, analyst, and project consultant on the North Korean underground church, North Korean defectors, and underground church discipleship. He and Dr. Foley oversee a far-flung staff across Asia that is working to help North Koreans and Christians everywhere grow to fullness in Christ. He earned the Doctor of Management at Case Western Reserve University's Weatherhead School of Management in Cleveland, Ohio.
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3 Responses to Philanthropy: more than dollars and often less than big dollars

  1. debbie bresina says:

    Great post Eric. We have been discussing/debating the investment of time & resources into a monthly program without really making a lot of progress at this point. Maybe this post will help the group come to some conclusions.

  2. EFoley says:

    Thanks, Debb! I’ve always regarded monthly programs as development’s “hidden jewels”.

  3. Pingback: Generosity coaches are necessary because giving is learned, not latent in donors « Transformational Giving

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