Called to find financial support for your theological school are you? Here's a competitive advantage you have that you may not know about. Those responsible for raising money for churches and church-related institutions come into their assignments with a distinct leg-up over people passing the hat for secular charities, in the view of marketing expert William Danko. 

Speaking at the North American Conference on Christian Philanthropy, which met in April in Louisville, Kentucky, Danko cited a study he had made of students in his classes at the State University of New York at Albany, where he teaches. It showed that givers who described themselves as "religious"--without regard to the particular religion they professed--were significantly more generous in their philanthropy than those who did not profess a religious persuasion. Why that might be did not enter into Danko's surveying, but one could speculate that the religiously committed person has a greater sense of being part of some larger whole, not an isolated individual trapped in a largely hostile world.

More than 300 participated in the conference, organized every other year by the Ecumenical Stewardship Center in Indianapolis, Indiana. Those in attendance came from a wide variety of church agencies and posts, but only one--the Reverend Jim Lawson, development director for Wycliffe College, Toronto--had fund-raising responsibilities for a theological school, and he was there because he was on the program.

Nonetheless, the conference was rich with ideas useful to seminary fund-raisers. Much how-to information was available on the technical ins and outs of such arcane matters as "charitable remainder trusts," "deferred gift annuities," "charitable lead trusts," gifts of thinly traded stock, and the like. Many of the speakers, though, explored the spiritual underpinnings of philanthropy. Perhaps most important, many urged fund-raisers to focus most attentively on the needs of the prospective givers rather than on the needs of the prospective recipients whom they represent. Implicit in the recommendation was that such a focus is more likely to produce a gift. Most, however, contended that one should be concerned with the needs of the donor simply because it is the right thing to do. 

The Bible as Guide
In his presentation, Wycliffe College's Lawson, a development officer for the United Church of Canada before he joined the staff of the evangelical Anglican theological school, used the Bible as a basic guide to fund-raising principles and techniques. (He suggested, in fact, that all North American understanding of philanthropy, religious and secular alike, has its roots in biblical principles.) Pointing to the Parable of the Rich Fool (Luke 12:13-21), Lawson noted that it speaks directly to the donor's need to give. "As individuals age," he said, "two things happen to them: a dramatic drop in expenses coincides with a peak in earning power; and they become aware of their own mortality. . . . To people at this stage of life, the question of 'What will become of all this you have gathered up for yourself?' becomes the salient one. . . .

"The response of a person in this situation, either through a resurgence of current gifts or volunteer time, or the creation of planned gifts, is a profoundly spiritual one. It would be stretching the point to suggest that this parable lurks in people's subconscious (It's not especially well known), but it would be fair to suggest that the parable asks the ultimate question about Christian stewardship by cross-referencing our own mortality with the extraordinary wealth that ordinary, middle-class North Americans pile up in a lifetime."

In some cases the impulse to give is quite mysterious. According to another speaker, Robert Sharpe, Jr., of Robert F. Sharpe & Co. in Memphis, Tennessee, many donors themselves can't explain why they have decided to make a significant charitable gift. Sharpe cited Blaise Pascal's often-quoted observation in his Pensees: "The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of."

Sharpe warned that this year marks the smallest group of 65-year-olds in the United States in many years. While the 65-year-old cohort will begin to expand gradually again next year, fund-raisers will need to cultivate younger donors than they may have heretofore in order to maintain and increase contribution levels. Those now beginning to enter middle age, moreover, are the beginning of the Baby Boomers, a group with a different sensibility. Baby Boomers, he said, tend to be more self-preoccupied than the Depression Era children who precede them. And he offered two humorous answers to the joking question, "Why aren't Baby Boomers going to die?" Answer No. 1: It's not fair. Answer No. 2: It's not in their best interest.

Nonetheless, he suggested, Boomers may in the end prove to be exceptionally generous. Many Boomers are childless, he noted, and continued: "Childless Baby Boomers have all the money. And they need churches and charities because they don't have any kids to take care of them." 

The Insecure Rich
Another speaker, Carol Johnson, assistant professor of theology and culture at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, Indiana, described the profound unease she has encountered among today's wealthy. For the past several years she has been studying the lives of five congregations, one of them All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, California, the largest congregation in the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles, which has among its members some people of great wealth. 

"The super-rich of Pasadena are incredibly anxious about whether they have enough money," she said. "Even though from a Christian perspective you can't get security from money, the culture encourages us to try and buy security. Howard Hughes is the ultimate example of this." It will be recalled that the vastly wealthy Hughes died alone, in his last days fearful of everything.

In its ministry, Johnson said, All Saints seeks to help people of all walks of life to experience the love and grace of God. The church's rector, the Reverend Ed Bacon, regularly preaches about "moving from the house of fear to the house of love." All Saints makes a point of making the stranger feel at home, she noted, recalling the words of former rector George Regas: "Whoever you are, and wherever you are on the journey of faith, you are welcome." On the other hand the church teaches that full discipleship requires knowing how to receive and how to give. You may not join All Saints unless you pledge, and you can't be a teacher unless you pledge, and you can't serve on the vestry (the elected governing body) unless you pledge seriously.

A Matter of Trust
In all the congregations she is studying, Johnson said, people she interviewed kept raising the question of tithing, the practice of returning to God a tenth of what one has earned. The practice seems to find its origin in Jacob's vow at Bethel (Genesis 28:20-22), which he made the morning after dreaming his famous dream about the ladder with angels climbing up and down. In the scriptural account, Jacob articulated what was in effect a bargain: If God would be with him, and keep him on the right path, and provide him with food and clothing, and bring him home in peace to his father's house, then Joseph would accept God as his God, and call the stone that pillowed his head during the night "Bethel," that is, "God's house," and "of all that you give me I will surely give one tenth to you" (New Revised Standard Version).

At the heart of today's tithing, according to Johnson, however, is not a bargain but an exercise of trust in God. One person she interviewed, a military academy graduate who by choice has become a school teacher and writer, tithes on an income of $16,000 a year. Tithing, he told her, "keeps me human. I know that if I ever need anything I can ask for it." Another tither, a woman nearing retirement age who makes her living by cleaning houses, said she began the practice in recent years because a new, young pastor of her church in Liberty City, Florida, recommended it as a liberating spiritual discipline "I haven't worried about money a day since," Johnson said the woman told her.

"Tithing is a way to trust God that could not be more concrete," Johnson observed.

Generosity of heart, according to Johnson and others discussing her presentation, is a logical response to experiencing the unconditional love of God, and its opposite, meanness of spirit, an equally expectable outcome of loveless surroundings. Churches and church institutions, and in this context particularly that means the people and leaders whom they comprise, might well see themselves called to the practice of hospitality that naturally flows from the experience of God's love. Hospitality is a major characteristic of the congregations Johnson chose to study, she said. And she went on to observe that it's a hungry world out there. "Much of North America is love-starved because its communities have disintegrated," she said.

Johnson expands on the idea in a brief article in Link, a publication of Christian Theological Seminary, telling this story: "One young man told me how his home parish was never interested in his help, and how important it is to his own sense of identity and self-worth that the cathedral in San Antonio [San Fernando Catholic Cathedral, one of the churches in her study] not only welcomed him, but made him feel at home precisely by expecting him to pitch in in any way he could. Because he was welcomed and trusted, he was enabled to share the gifts that God had entrusted him with, and that were only waiting for an opportunity."

She continues: "I am convinced by my research that giving is ultimately about finding one's identity in the family of God. God gives us life, and with that basic gift each of us also receives from God unique possibilities for our lives. When we accept those gifts and learn how to use them well, we both develop our own individuality and contribute something unique to the world. And so we give what we make of ourselves back to God. . . . 

"The congregations that I have studied all work at helping their members understand themselves as children of God who are loved and gifted, and so invited to take their places in the family of God, sharing the love and the gifts with a needy world."

Loaves and Fishes
The philanthropy conference was punctuated by Bible study sessions each day led by Walter Brueggemann, professor of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia. In his concluding reflection, he focused on Mark's account of the Feeding of the Five Thousand and the Feeding of the Four Thousand (Mark 6:30-52; 8:1-21), and the inability of the disciples to understand the lesson embodied in the two miracles. Why didn't they understand in the face of God's abundance being twice demonstrated to them? Some modern translations render the explanation given in 6:52 and repeated in 8:17 because "their minds were closed." But the New Revised Standard Version puts it "their hearts were hardened," echoing the memorable language of the King James Bible.

Hearing or seeing these words, Brueggemann said, Mark's audience (and today's readers who know their Bible) would recall at once the pinched and narrow-minded Pharaoh of Exodus, who repeatedly "hardened his heart" instead of grasping the message of God delivered by Moses's preaching and wonder-working that he was called to set free the enslaved Hebrew people. So what is the message of the loaves and fishes? When our hearts are softened, when our eyes and ears are opened, we are set free. We see God's abundant table spread out before us, and with our help there is enough and more than enough for all.

Speaking at this spring's DIAP (Development and Institutional Advancement Program) Seminar, Daniel Aleshire, executive director of the Association of Theological Schools, noted that the association's schools are increasingly reliant on individual donors. This means that religious communities and communities of faith, the primary consumers of theological education and those to whom theological schools are really accountable, are ceasing to be the primary funders of theological education. The trend, he said, led him to pose to his audience what he termed an "ornery question," a question to which he acknowledged he didn't know the answer. The question: "How do you raise the kind of financial support that your institution is going to need and raise it in ways that help the seminary stay connected with its ecclesial partners?" 

What a Fund-raiser Must Not Do for a Donor
This list of don'ts is adapted from a checklist distributed at the North American Conference on Christian Philanthropy by Laura Hansen Dean, a conference speaker, who is senior legal counsel for the Central Indiana Community Foundation in Indianapolis.

A fund-raiser must never: 

  • Act as the donor's professional advisor. 
  • Act as the donor's surrogate child or spouse. 
  • Agree with a donor's statement that there's no need for the donor to arrange an independent review of the donor's major financial decisions, including a substantial gift to charity. 
  • Continue discussion of a potential gift with a donor who appears vulnerable or legally incompetent. 
  • Act in a way that could be construed as exerting undue pressure to make a gift to charity. 
  • Accept a gift that is not in the donor's best interest--for example, a gift so large that it leaves the donor insufficient personal funds to deal with future needs. 
  • Help a donor to commit fraud by:
       Agreeing to step into the donor's shoes, complete a sale of property already arranged, and accept the proceeds so that the donor can avoid reporting a capital gain.
       Acknowledging as a charitable contribution a gift that the charity will pass on as a "scholarship" or "grant" to someone the donor has selected.
       Acknowledging a transfer as a charitable contribution without disclosing that the donor received or retained a financial benefit from the transfer. 
  • Allow a donor to force the charity to state in its acknowledgment a dollar value of a non-cash gift. 
  • Focus only on the tax benefits of charitable giving.
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