Generosity Makes Life Richer.

How giving what you've got only gets you more

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The place we all want to live!

I approached the stage of the church auditorium, feeling constricted in my navy blue Anne Klein suit and high heals. My steps seemed inordinately loud as I crossed the wooden floor to the dry erase board I had requested, because all discussion had stopped when the church pastor had introduced me. I had come from the Diocese, and I was to teach the parishioners how to raise money to rebuild their church sanctuary. As I looked out over the sparsely populated church hall, I saw about 20 people scattered, mainly seated in the back rows. The faces were petulant, mostly. They showed the level of attention necessary to be counted as a good citizen, but clearly conveyed the message: The Bishop sent you, so I’m here, but there are a thousand other things I would rather be doing so let’s get this over with, okay?

In spite of this, I always enjoyed these presentations, because I knew that by the time I left the room, I could inspire a little hope or at least share a little humor. This is the prayer I have always said when I’m about to “make and ask,” (which, to me, includes asking people to sit in a musty church hall on a Sunday afternoon and listen to me ramble on about fundraising): “God, let me leave these people feeling better than I found them.”

That’s really all it is. If you are raising money for a church, a homeless shelter, a community mental health agency, a Zen dojo, or a no-kill animal rescue, your task when you approach a likely donor really comes down to making them feel something. For some fundraisers, the feeling they tend to employ, intentionally or not, is guilt, and that is why I am so often greeted by such dour expressions. They are thinking, Oh no, here comes the pitch, the guilt trip!

So my donors are often surprised when what I am really interested in is them. Because if you don’t know me, how do you know what to say to generate my generosity. Sure, maybe you can use NLP or some cool communication technique you learned at last year’s AFP Conference to make me start nodding my head in agreement, generating a positive level of engagement and making me receptive to your message (product), but you can’t generate my generosity that way.

My last church capital campaign has been over ten years ago, and recently fundraising has become an industry, and to me it has started to feel dry as a bone. I heard myself drone on and on about donor segmentation, cultivation strategies, the importance of stewardship, yada yada.  All of these elements are important, but over 25 years of practice as a nonprofit fundraiser I have seen three types of giving:

1. The transactional, optimizing philanthropy and ROI and KPI.  This is the kind of fundraising emphasized by universities and hospitals.  Usually involves quid pro quo transactions involving tax-deferrals, naming opportunities and sometimes the occasional errant progeny of a philanthropist gaining admittance to a prestigious academic institution despite less than stellar grades or test scores.

2. The transformational, a gift that eases the pain of a donor.  I have had the privilege of soliciting these types of gifts and they are what has kept me in this business all these years.  Memorial gifts, in honor of a lost loved one, can have this affect.  It is an amazing experience to watch the face of a bereaved husband or wife as they fulfill a wish of someone they love and have lost.

3. The transcendent. These are the most exciting.  Gifts that make things that were once thought of as impossible, possible.  

My heart beats fast when we focus on transformational giving.  This is a kind of philanthropy by intelligent, precision application of intentional giving that can actually change the world for the better.  And the good news is, you don’t have to be a billionaire to do it.  Any gift can be transformational or transcendent, because those states exist in the heart of the giver.

How we see our money in terms of its potential to transform the world for the better changes the way we view the material world.  If I say to you, “Give me your hand,” in all likelihood you will extend your hand to me. If I say to you, “Give me a hug,” you might even put your whole body in my arms. Most people would do those things even for a stranger.

But if I say to you,”Give me a hundred dollars,” that’s a bit different, isn’t it?  Very likely, instead of going for your wallet, your response might be to ask why, or just to say no. What happened inside of you was a complete shift from heart to head. We keep our gestures of love, handshakes and hugs, in our heart. We don’t think a lot about them. If a request for a hug is met with “why?” It might feel like a rejection. But a request for a hundred dollars, a relatively modest sum that most people have, but significant enough to make a noticeable difference in our bank balance, feels like it should be processed by our heads.

I have a little friend named Sofia who is four years old. Sofia is a very lively little girl, her parents are kind, nurturing and intelligent and give their two daughters the foundation they need to feel safe in the world. Sofia is gregarious and outgoing, and knows what it is she wants. One day I was at lunch with her mom and dad, good friends of mine, and some other adults. Sofia saw a stand nearby where sweets were being sold. She came right up to me, as she so often does, with a big smile on her face, confident that the world was there for her and all her wishes were possible. Sofia asked me, “Can I have some money?”

Before I could respond, as I would definitely have contributed to Sofia’s cause just on the basis of her asking, her father scolded her, “Sofia, don’t ask people for money. It’s rude.”

What happened to Sofia happens to most of us at some point.  We are given rules regarding money that are different, more stringent and based on perceptions of lack.  On the day you were born, you were not aware of how much money your parents had, whether you had a trust fund already established that would meet your every monetary need, or if you had arrived in a mud hut in the middle of a desolate desert. You didn’t care. You just drew your first breath and relied that someone (probably your mother) would take care of providing you with what you needed. You didn’t think of it as goals or objectives—you just wanted some milk (preferably your mother’s), a warm snuggle, and for someone to turn down the lights and noise a little bit. You were naked, but you didn’t know it. You were totally vulnerable and dependent, but you didn’t know that either. You just were. And in that moment, being was a big enough hurdle to straddle. It was all new. You had no idea. Not a single thought. You didn’t know any words. You were learning, but at that moment, you were entirely dependent on the generosity of those around you.

Nothing has really changed.

Take out a dollar bill. Hold it in your hand. Smell it. Toss it in the air. Look closely at the imprints, the words, the date, the signature. Check out George Washington’s portrait and the eye-of-top-of-pyramid thingy on the back. As you interact with a piece of money, you start to see it as just another object. A rather useless one at that. What practical use could a person have for such a thing? It cannot be eaten. It smells awful. It’s too busy to have anything meaningful written upon it, and the information it contains does not make good reading. It’s too small to be a shelter or to wrap anything in it, and although you could use it to make origami or some ironic bit of paper art, in real terms, divested of its inherent meaning, it’s not a practical medium for any art form.

And yet, nations rise and fall over the presence of absence of money. Whole communities, even entire countries, are made exalted or destitute based on decisions made by governments about money. A person’s social status is largely determined by how much of this stuff he or she can control. We spend a lot of our lives interacting with money. We think about it, obsess about it, set goals around it, organize our calendars around pay days and stock dividends and bonuses. We fret about having enough of it. We feel secure when we have it, and anxious when we do not.

But what is it, really?

This is more than an esoteric question. Your attitudes about money have great predictive consequences for many aspects of your life. Money is an agreement. At the intellectual level, money is trust. That dollar bill you’ve been playing with (you can set it down now), represents a contractual agreement between you and whomever you give it to, and the US Treasury. It is “legal tender,” meaning that according to law in a certain juris diction, it has value and can be exchanged for goods and services, given to charity and invested. If I hand you a dollar, I don’t have to explain to you what it is or, usually, why you are receiving it from me. The understanding of its value is explicit.

But is it really? My perception of that exchange can be very different depending on how open I am to the reality of money, wealth, and abundance. When we live in a consciousness based on lack, computing in our minds day to day and continually worrying over whether we have “enough,” while not really ever pinning down the meaning of sufficiency, we have unconsciously reduced our lives to a series of transactions.

Yet our hearts long for a very different kind of exchange. Thousands of years of human evolution have dictated the elements of emotional and physical exchange needed for us to survive and thrive. Money is a relatively recent phenomenon, and though it has what we perceive to be a long history, it belongs in a conceptual realm that is barely understood at the heart level. The mind calculates. The heart generates.

By adopting an attitude of generosity toward our wealth; by making financial decisions based on prioritizing philanthropy, we ease the conflict between the transactional and the transformative. Practicing the Art of Generosity as a way of life creates a conduit between the quantitative and the qualitative in your life. Every major religion has a practical teaching on generosity, be it the Christian concept of the tithe (giving 10% to charity); the Jewish principle of Tzedakah (the duty to help those in need); or the Hindu practice of Dakshina, or skillful giving. What the ancient sages knew we can recapture in our lives, simply by making it a habit to give.

(From the upcoming book, “The Art of Generosity.” By Robynn James. All rights reserved).

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