While channel-surfing recently, I came across talk-show host Charlie Rose's interview with Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffet. It was the day that the three had gone public with their Giving Pledge, an initiative aimed at America's wealthiest individuals and families. Along with comments about the Giving Pledge, the Gateses and Buffet spoke candidly about their own philanthropic endeavors. What they said left little doubt that, despite professional success beyond their wildest imaginings, this trio find their greatest significance in giving. Philanthropy has become their vocation — their calling. Now they are intent upon "spreading the gospel to others."

Even before the Charlie Rose interview, most people recognized that these super-philanthropists are passionate about giving. What was new to me, however, was a remarkable similarity: What they said about the joys and challenges of living generously sounded just like what I hear from donors to theological schools.

Granted, the giving capacity of the folks who support seminary education is on a different scale than that of a Gates or Buffet. But philanthropy is not the sole province of the super-rich. In fact, individuals of modest or moderate means are the backbone of charitable giving in North America.

Whether it's the widow's mite or the tycoon's billions, discerning the who, what, when, and where of one's giving is not easy. Myriad good causes tap at the window, and the possibilities can be overwhelming. I've found that generous people are hungry to talk with — and learn from — other givers. Sadly, such conversations seldom happen  — not within families, among friends, or in churches.

But theological schools can do something about the money-talk deficit. Boards can lead the way by encouraging open conversation about financial giving as a calling for all Christians.

Considering the call

Members of theological school boards understand the concept of a calling as applied to students, administrators, and faculty. Admittedly, donor motivation is less often seen as a calling, but I have met many individuals who are quick to testify that their generosity flows from a sense of God's call on their financial resources. Perhaps they have learned what it means — as the Apostle Paul instructs in 2 Corinthians 8:7 — to "excel in this grace of giving."

For these donors who feel a call to give, generosity in giving is an extension of their faith commitments. Their giving is not about tax considerations, or naming opportunities, or being included on the right list in the annual report. Rather they give to be part of the glorious mission of preparing leaders for ministry.

When institutional mission and individuals' calls converge, the miraculous happens. Unfortunately, memories can be short. In the face of this year's ambitious goals, trust in the latest strategies for fundraising can trump confidence in the call to generosity.

In these cases, when faith in strategies overwhelms a commitment to a spiritual basis for generosity, someone may need to speak out about a different way of talking and thinking about fundraising. The board can be that group.

Boardroom conversations

A theological school boardroom can be the place where a fundraising approach based on a divine calling to generosity is championed. Yet this isn't the way conversations about resource generation are usually framed in theological schools — at least that's what colleagues in seminary development tell me. In fact, generosity as a calling is a new idea to many on the board.

Board members' encounters with fundraising in other settings further complicate the challenge of lifting up philanthropy as a call. Some on our boards have been admonished to "get out there and twist a few arms," and they continue to feel bad about having done so. Others have been pressured into supporting initiatives that didn't connect with their hearts — like the trustee who told me he was "the president's favorite ATM." Board members who have experienced ethical breaches and dishonest conduct tell even sorrier tales.

Add all this together and it's no surprise when board members are uncomfortable with bringing God and "call" into discussions of fundraising. It takes some remedial education to transform the way trustees think about and participate in the development program. In fact, it's unrealistic to expect board members to advocate for a different way of asking and receiving unless they experience that way for themselves.

The gospel of generosity must be first be preached — and received — in the boardroom before it is carried to the rest of the campus community. From there, it can extend to the whole of the constituency.

Message in motion

As champions of the concept of philanthropy as a calling, the board must set the example for others to follow. Board members can do this in several ways:

Calibrate fundraising goals to the ability of the school's constituent base. On several occasions in In Trust, I've urged boards and other institutional leaders to be prudent when setting fundraising goals. But it's worth repeating! There isn't much sense in establishing goals that are beyond what we know to be reasonable. Twisting arms may seem successful in the short term, but it's not the way to build long-term relationships. Encouraging supporters to stretch themselves on behalf of the school is wise; setting goals beyond the capacity of the constituency is not.

⇨ Respond to God's call to generous giving with their own gifts. This is another point to which I've returned frequently over the years, and along the way, I have made a few In Trust readers unhappy. However, I'm not backing away from the importance of generous and sacrificial giving by board members. After all, that is what is being asked of others within the school's constituent base. Please note that I am not proposing a minimum expectation for giving by board members, which could be unfair to trustees appointed by a denomination or religious body. I am simply suggesting that every board member should "walk the talk" of philanthropy as a calling, whatever that means for the individual board member.

 Develop holistic measures of success in fundraising. We measure what we value - so says the literature on institutional assessment. This certainly applies to the development metrics that a board tracks. It's not enough for trustees to state that nurturing donors in their call to generosity is a priority. Boards need to back up their rhetoric with methods for tracking anticipated outcomes.

Obviously, the board must keep a close eye on progress toward the current year's dollar goals and on how various donors groups are performing. It's more difficult but just as important task to develop metrics for tracking the extent to which donors are growing in their call to generosity.

⇨ Safeguard the integrity of the mission. The day when a good story or two constituted evidence of a mission fulfilled are long gone. Constituents expect accountability and financial transparency. Supporters of the school want tangible evidence that their gifts are making a difference. From the outset, they want to know the potential impact of their giving. The board has the awesome responsibility of assuring the worthiness of the school to receive the goodwill and gifts of its constituents.

Returning to call

It is a lovely daydream that a mega-philanthropist will show up on the school's donor list this year - and better yet, blow the top off of the giving pyramid. But there's no need to covet some other charity's donors. There is more than enough wealth within existing constituencies to lift theological education in North America to unimaginable heights. All it takes is someone or some group within the school to speak out — to "spread the gospel" — of generous giving as a call from God. Blessed is the seminary where that group is the board.

A study plan for the board

Here's one idea: Charge the development committee with designing a "faith and money study plan" for the board. This can draw on the expertise of the faculty as guides in the board's review of biblical and theological teachings. And it can include an invitation to share personal stories of what giving means in the context of individual members' faith journeys. Prayer and worship should also be included.

Some board members may initially be uncomfortable with the money talk or question whether worship is the best use of the board's time. But when continued over several meetings, these practices can transform board members' hearts along with their thinking about their role in the development program.

More from Rebekah Burch Basinger

Nurturing the call to generosity

■ "Asking as Teaching: Seminary Fundraising Programs Should Minister to Donors," In Trust (Spring 1999), pp. 16-19. 

■ Growing Givers' Hearts: Treating Fundraising as a Ministry, by Thomas H. Jeavons and Rebekah Burch Basinger (Jossey-Bass, 2000, 208 pp., $29.95). 

■ "The President's Role in Institutional Advancement," by Rebekah Burch Basinger, C. Samuel Calian, and Robert F. Leavitt, in A Handbook for Seminary Presidents, ed. by G. Douglass Lewis and Lovett H. Weems Jr. (Eerdmans, 2006, 250 pp., $24). 

■ "When Faith and Governance Meet: The Board's Role in Growing Givers' Hearts," by Rebekah B. Basinger, in A Revolution in Generosity: Transforming Stewards to Be Rich Toward God, by Wesley K. Willmer (Moody, 2008, 432 pp., $24.99). 

■ "The Board's Role in Fundraising," In Trust (Autumn 2007), p. 5.

A list of Rebekah Burch Basinger's articles in In Trust is at intrust.org/Authors/Rebekah-Burch-Basinger. Readers affiliated with In Trust member schools can read the full text of all articles.

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