Thursday, 23 July 2009

Kaleidoscope - Summer 2009

Every Gift Says Something—Are You Listening?
By Donna Red Wing


Imagine a world in which all donors are the same. They give for the same reason, they expect the same result, they engage in the same way—and even prefer one method of recognition. I suppose this would be of great help to fundraisers and nonprofits. You would know exactly who your donor is and what he or she wants. There would be no guessing, no exploration.

However, that is not the world we live in. In case you haven’t noticed, our communities are constantly being infused with outside influences, so much so that “outside” doesn’t carry much meaning anymore.

So what does that mean for us as fundraisers? I think we have to wave one final good-bye to predictability with our donors. Now we have to really get to know them.

As I see it, giving is a very wonderful—very personal—expression of self. It is something you impart on another. It is something born of values and beliefs, be it faith in a higher being or simply faith in humanity. I think understanding why a donor gives—something we’d all certainly like to know!—is tied to identity and to the things people hold most dear. Often a donor gives through a framework of belief.

What do your donors believe about human nature or a life beyond the present one? What traits and actions do they hold in highest regard? Perhaps most importantly, how do they view philanthropy? The fact is, when people give of themselves, especially in large amounts (such as a major-gift donor), they do so based on what they think is right and good. While appearing similar at first glance, there is beautiful nuance in the world’s many giving traditions.

Many Pictures of Giving

The Qur’an speaks to the issue of philanthropy, or zakat, as one of the five pillars of Islam. Each Muslim is required to donate a percentage of his or her salary. Then there is the tenet of sadaqa, which is a voluntary gift. In Judaism, tzedakah, which literally means righteousness, can be interpreted to mean justice and charity. There is clearly a social justice context to Jewish philanthropy. Christian philanthropic traditions have their genesis in Judaic concepts and practices, as well as Greek classical traditions that were refined and defined by the New Testament. Social and humanitarian reform, as well as the diversity of belief within Christian traditions, have left their imprint. Whether we look at the admonishment to “love your neighbor as yourself” or the story of the widow’s mite, both speak to intent, as well as action. Buddhist philanthropy is rooted in a compassion that seeks to end human suffering. And in Native American traditions, philanthropy is not an obligation, but rather simply what is done. It is experienced as a gift of both the donor, who gives, and the recipient, who accepts.

Beliefs Matter

There is considerable emphasis now on keeping religious beliefs, political views and even differences of lifestyle, isolated—almost quarantined—from public settings. However, our differences are important. Let’s not inoculate ourselves or sterilize our environment of difference and unique identity. We should acknowledge and celebrate uniqueness.

When you talk to donors, who they are matters. Why? Because it matters to them—a lot more than their social status, the size of their bank account or the car they drive. Philanthropy is a deeper concern. It is more than what I am, it is who I am—and in some cases why I am.

I’m not suggesting that you walk up to people and ask them what they believe in order to better understand their view of giving. I’m also not saying that we as fundraisers need to become experts on the world’s religions. I am saying that until you know why people give, they won’t give as much (or give at all). People give from a far more personal, complex and unique place than you’ll ever find out without a long-term, close conversation born of respect, curiosity and even admiration.

So now that I’ve described the distance that lies between you and your prospective donors, current donors or even long-time supporters, realize, too, that building a bridge is certainly possible and very rewarding. Want people to give more? Find out what makes them give—and keep giving. Let them express their core beliefs and values. Let them speak. All you need to do is listen.

Donna Red Wing serves as senior adviser to both the Interfaith Alliance and the National Crittenton Foundation. Red Wing was the first recipient of the Walter Cronkite Award for Faith and Freedom. She serves as co-chair of the board of directors of the Grassroots Leadership Institute and chair of the AFP Diverse Communities in Fundraising Task Force. Red Wing is a Christian Buddhist, which makes for some very interesting philanthropic beliefs and practices.