Christian Fundraising in a Pragmatic Culture

Rod Wilson

As the president of a theological institution, I was responsible to meet with donors, advocate for a cause, and make the ask. On this particular occasion, however, I was not there for that purpose. It was more of a lunch meeting to touch base with a warm and engaging woman who was interested in our mission. Although she had never given to our institution, I privately wondered if she might be amenable to the idea. Long before that particular meeting, I had told her that we wanted to fund an endowed chair in Christianity and the Arts. As she was a patron of the arts, this had resonated strongly with her existing interests, and I had been able to outline the financial realities of such an undertaking. An endowed chair would require an investment of three million dollars, which would be put in our foundation, and the interest that accrued in subsequent years would be used to cover a number of facets of the arts at the school. She was not the only one who had heard the case. I had spoken with many people, but after a few years had only raised 1.7 of our 3 million-dollar target.

To be honest, because it was my primary responsibility, I was discouraged that we had only raised 1.7 million toward our goal. When you set a philanthropic target, believe it is for a good cause, and ask people to contribute, you hope to meet the goal. But in this case, I was only a little over half way to the target. And to compound the problem, I was running out of people to talk to and was having trouble generating another list. So, while extremely thankful to those who had contributed thus far to the goal, I had begun to strategize how we might establish the chair with a smaller investment amount. Actually, it was quite straightforward. If we did this or that, then maybe we could move in this direction or that one. With a little human initiative and diligence, anything is possible, right?

I did not plan to raise the matter about the chair. But after an extended time of catching up, I was taken aback when the following question was raised from across the round table. “Can you tell me more about where things are with that chair you were hoping to establish in Christianity and the Arts?”’ Fundraisers may be told that they should not be surprised by anything, and much less show it, but at that moment I came close to falling off my chair. Even though I was surprised by her question, I was able to get out a few sentences to the effect that I was encouraged that some funding had come in and things were moving along. I also knew that fundraisers were supposed to be positive, so I focused and endeavored to give it my best shot.

“How much have you raised?” she enquired. “1.7 of the 3 million,” I replied. “That is really interesting, because I went to see my financial advisor last week and told him that I was going to give you 1.3 million dollars when you came to visit me today.”

There are moments in life that become paradigmatic for they teach you much about yourself, others, and God’s work in the world. For me, that was one of those moments. A particular financial need was met with inexplicable precision by a prayerful donor. It was an event that could not be accounted for by any natural, observable, or measurable means. It could neither be replicated by the utilization of a fool-proof technique, nor understood as a reflection of the brilliance of the fundraiser. As a result of this encounter, I could not go on the road or produce a film series on how to produce 7 figure gifts. What I could do, however, was ask some orienting questions. If we call ourselves Christian fundraisers, is this story normative in the sense that this is how things should happen all the time? Was it in the realm of the miraculous—thus, we should expect encounters like that only infrequently while our “normal” ways of fundraising dominate our efforts the rest of the time? Was it simply coincidental or was there clearly a divine aspect to the lunch-time interchange? Are there principles embedded in this story that need to be teased out to establish biblical, theological, and spiritual grounds for understanding fundraising?

These kinds of questions need more attention as the number of charitable and non-profit organizations continue to grow. Currently, there are more than 1.1 million charities in the United States. Although the Netherlands leads the way, the charitable and non-profit sector in the United States is the 5th largest in the world. More demands are being made on donors these days to support a growing number of organizations. As a result of this growth, the notion of “donor fatigue” is becoming an important topic of conversation within the philanthropic world. Sometimes donors wonder why so many new non-profits start up when they do not seem to be doing anything substantially different than another enterprise down the road. Furthermore, we are starting to see generational differences arise as more organizations come on the scene, with millennials showing a preference for causes that have global implications and impact. They are not displaying the same institutional loyalty as their older counterparts, the traditionalists, and baby boomers. This shift in allegiance may explain the funding crises currently experienced by many schools and denominations that often tend to focus on “what they do,” rather than on “how the world is impacted by their existence.”

These challenges are being met with a growing body of knowledge, literature, programs, training, education, and skill development with the concomitant stress on the professionalization of fundraising. One can be a “professional fundraiser,” utilizing various systems, structures, and techniques to secure funds and employing means and methods that have become tried and true. At its worst, this approach runs the risk of separating means and ends, where how we raise money is not as important as the fact we are raising it. At its best, there is a recognition that more substantive understanding of the philanthropic enterprise will produce more specificity on the cause being considered, greater understanding of donors and their sensibilities, and increased clarity on how best to make the ask. But is there a risk that contemporary pragmatism could move us away from faith and trust in the God who provides?

As Walter Brueggemann reflected on the Hebrew Scriptures and the role of technique in coping with the challenges of life, he sounded an important warning:

Notice the representatives of technique include both religious and secular political experts who believe that the data on hand will provide sufficient knowledge and power, when rightly read, to handle the future…. These narratives are in the Bible because in each instance the expert of technique fails, and an outsider must be brought in. In each case (Moses, Joseph, Daniel) the outsider turns out to be a faithful Israelite, one who has no credentials but is grounded in hope. (W. Brueggemann, Hope Within History [John Knox Press, 1988], 89-90)

 While Brueggemann is not addressing fundraising per se, his warning is instructive to those of us who need to raise funds. Are we people of faith, hope, and love or have we capitulated to a culture that posits data and technique as the appropriate trajectory in our financial angst?

I propose seven questions that may help denominations, organizations, and fundraisers tease out where they stand on these issues.

On Integration

(1) Are our Christian commitments and beliefs fully integrated into every aspect of our fundraising endeavors?

So many expressions of contemporary Christian faith continue to reflect a dualism that separates the material from the spiritual, the earthly from the heavenly, the seen from the unseen. While godliness is wrapped up in Scripture, theology, prayer, church, etc., money is allocated to another realm. Often times, fundraising is regarded as a dirty business, a glorified sales position. Is it possible that raising money, like preaching, the way I treat my wife, my approach to other relationships, my driving habits, my care for creation, and my reading of Scripture, also requires an abiding faith in the triune God and an ethic that lives that out incarnationally?

On People

(2) In our work of raising funds, do we see people as being of much more value than the money they provide?

Although there is nothing inherently wrong about the term “donor,” a risk exists that the term creates a particular kind of anthropology where we begin to see people solely through the grid of their financial capacity. Not only does this treat others as a solution for our problems, it can easily make them feel that they are an embodied ATM machine with a singular purpose of providing funds. What would it look like if we began to shift our goal-setting, pragmatic strategy, with its focus on what amount of money people can give, to one that values all of who they are as persons created in the image of God, with a history, a life and aspirations, and a capacity to offer us a lot more than their money?

On Work

(3) Do we position our fundraising work within the larger story of God’s work in the world?

Conscientious energy and effort has its place in any sphere of endeavor, including fundraising. But it becomes problematic when we slip into functional agnosticism and believe that our work is central, even necessary, for God to accomplish his work in the world. One of the beguiling realities of all fundraising is that you soon learn that there is not a linear connection when it comes to human diligence and financial success. The latter does not always follow from the former. What would our fundraising look like if we envisioned our work as that of a gardener—planting, watering, tilling, and harvesting—all the while recognizing that the God of the universe has the sole responsibility of creating, sustaining, and giving the increase?

On Success

(4) In the kingdom work of fundraising, is the financial outcome the only measure of success and failure?

Since money can be counted, it is not surprising that the fundraising world is focused on metrics. The question of “how much?” becomes the central question and campaigns are designated as a success or failure by our answer to that question. Implicitly we ignore variables like money as worship, donor growth, and the gratefulness of the receiver. What would this arena look like if those needing money had a posture toward God of gift, grace, and gratitude, where those asking for money recognized that they are operating in a context in which God’s grace and goodness can overflow and they can trust him. And what if this were an arena where those giving money considered their resources as flowing not from their own work or financial savvy but from God, their sustainer and provider?

On Need

(5) If we emphasize the needs we are seeking to meet, do we risk negating God’s calling and priorities for both asker and giver?

In recent times the word “need” has shifted from its status as a verb (i.e., I need water/food/shelter) to that of a noun (I have a need for money/sex/ achievement), making it easy for the word to be imported into the parlance of fundraising. Individuals and organizations now frame their wants and desires in the language of need and it becomes the responsibility of donors to meet those needs. It becomes a transactional process where one group meets the challenges of another. What would happen if we developed a richer understanding of divine call so that fundraisers and funders were both spiritually discerning the viability of a project as well as how best to steward funds?

On Method

(6) Does an overemphasis on technique in fundraising blind us to the reality that both askers and givers need to pay careful attention to the call of God in the process?

Methodological and technical considerations are important in fundraising, but when they become our central foundation we slip into a pragmatic mindset where we believe we can achieve desired outcomes by employing particular methods. A sense of control ensues and we start to chart our own course with a confidence that comes crashing down only when failure rears its head. What would happen if fundraisers gave up control and embraced attentiveness to the donor and to God as their primary way of being, and in the process began to understand that fundraising is less about talking and telling and more about listening and processing?

On Money

(7) Do we understand money simply as a transaction in the fundraising process or as something transformative for all concerned?

The great misunderstanding in the business of fundraising is that it is all about the transaction of money. When we understand that money can be worshipped and served and has the capacity to capture our affection and attention, we soon realize that money is simply the tip of the iceberg, with a multitude of latent values and vices lurking beneath the surface. What would happen if the world of fundraising began to unpack the potential values and vices beneath the surface and came to view the exchange of money as not simply transactional, but as having the capacity to be transformative for the giver and the receiver, as well as for communities and the planet?

May God save us from a fundraising world characterized by technique and methodology and welcome us into a world of faith, hope, and love.

Posted Mar 01, 2018