The folks at WiseBread are running a contest where readers write in to identify the best purchase they ever made in their life.
While I was initially simultaneously transfixed and unnerved by readers responses to date–“6 years of school” and “a small house during grad school” sit side by side with Sara3903’s note that her best purchase ever was “laser hair removal”–I eventually came to and found myself asking:
What’s the best donation I’ve ever made through a nonprofit?
Two realizations initially emerged:
- I could think of a lot of meaningful donations I’ve made. None of the really meaningful ones that came to mind at first were ones I made through a nonprofit, however. That’s telling, and not in a good way for us nonprofit fundraiser types.
- For the number, variety, and amount of donations Mrs. Foley and I have given over the years, it was pretty sad that this was a hard question.
I know the folks at GiveWell might cluck their tongues that I didn’t rank order my donations by their effectiveness and efficiency, but as I reflected on the giving Mrs. Foley and I had done, I came to the conclusion that I would consider effectiveness to be necessary but not sufficient, and I think efficiency is typically defined in cold and dehumanizing ways.
In the end, I concluded that there were three types of donations Mrs. Foley and I had given that were my most favorite:
1. Donations of personally meaningful gifts-in-kind
I’m talking here about really good stuff we hated to part with, not junky stuff on its last leg. I thought of two cars that my family and I had donated to different homeless shelters over the years–cars that ran well and that we could have used for several more years, but cars that we felt we were under-using at the time and thus were better used by people who couldn’t afford them. I also thought of one Christmas when I was a student pastor, and how I and the family had purchased and anonymously donated through our church a brand new Nintendo video gaming unit to a woman whose husband had left her high and dry with four kids. We were dirt poor at the time, would have enjoyed the videogame unit ourselves, and spent our Christmas bonus to buy it. I’m not sure if that was effective or efficient, but the memory of it has stayed with me for more than 20 years. Maybe that’s why I like With This Ring so much. They teach people to give away their coolest stuff in order to help dig clean water wells in Africa and to teach others to give radically, too.
2. Donations that made a strong statement about a particular way we felt like a cause should be addressed
Here I thought of the gift Mrs. Foley and I made in the wake of the Haitian earthquake. I wrote about that here. What made it one of the best donations I’d given wasn’t just that I feel like the gift was efficient and effective. It was that I prayed about and deeply considered all the possible options and then chose the way that I myself felt the cause should be addressed. It was a gift of affiliation, a concept about which we wrote recently.
3. Donations we made as part of an overarching plan.
What also came to mind for me were our efforts to think through and carry out an overarching plan for giving, one that moved beyond causes about which we were already passionate and into causes about which we knew we needed to become more passionate and involved. It wasn’t the particular donation in and of itself that was the best; rather, it was the sense that we were maturing in our giving, carrying out a thoughtful plan of involvement that was comprehensive, proportional, and maturing in terms of the causes it encompassed and how it encompassed them.
The most interesting thing to me about the list I created was its repeatability. I had thought that “best gifts” could only occur once in a while, and that expecting each gift to be a best gift would be an unreasonable standard.
But as I looked at the list, I realized:
- I can regularly give away items of value to me.
- I can regularly make thoughtful gifts that express affiliation and particular ways of addressing a cause.
- I can regularly give as part of an overarching strategy that moves my giving in the direction of my involvement in causes becoming more comprehensive, proportional, and mature.
The other thing I realized about the list was that no fundraiser could have made any of those things happen for me. They were intrinsic to my life and to the meanings therein. The nonprofit served as the platform, but not as the solicitor or meaning maker.
And how about your best gift?