December is play-off and championship season for non-profits. Plans for the next year’s work are often decided by the funds that come in at the end of the calendar year. So, it may seem like pleas for support hit your inbox more frequently around this time. But the conversations about giving and generosity have been going on all year long. And they aren’t as purely transactional as you might think.
Fundraising is deeply relational and highly missional work. It is no small thing, untangling people from their own traps that keep them too far from harm’s way. The day-to-day rhythm of fundraising, if done honorably, culminates in friends joyfully deciding to pit their hard-earned financial and social resources against the strong urge to fortify their own position of comfort and safety that keeps them from the inconveniences and troubles of the outside world.
In other words, we spend a lot of resources attempting to subdue the dynamic and wild twists and turns of a full life. We do our best to establish buffers against pain, suffering, embarrassment, shame, guilt, and discord. We are in a constant and ever-engrossing chase to keep the “experience of trouble” from biting our heels.
I grew up on 70’s and 80’s cop shows, and always loved a good foot chase. I think about the sheer amount of things that get dropped in the way – trash cans, food carts, bicycles, boxes – all meant to slow and obstruct the hero from capturing the villain.
The paradox of the American dream has always been the destination point of “the good life.” We are given a road map early in our formative years. It shows a BIG “X” marking a spot free from wants, needs, and stifling disruptions. We are taught that if we work hard enough and invest intelligently, we can amass enough wealth to position ourselves far off the main path of harm’s way. Our homes, cars, neighborhoods, schools, clothing, and food are all designed to keep us in a place of continual comfort and safety.
After all, we know what pain feels like. We know how frustrating surprise inconveniences can be. We wake up in the middle of the night obsessing over the things that could disrupt and derail the smooth life we have and want.
But the truth is that life, free from pain or inconvenience, is not truly life. It is more a form of existing. Think of a fútbol player settling in on the bench and believing that he/she is participating in the game. The accumulation of wealth is the act of preparing to settle in on the bench.
Another way to think about the work of pursuing safety and comfort is through the view of storytelling.
We are each living out an incredible story. Each one of us is on the “hero’s journey.” Each one of us strives to grasp something we need. Apart from the love of God, anything worthwhile to pursue will have parallel level of resistance. The more value in the object, the greater the obstacles will be separating us from it. Wealth has a way of convincing those who have it that they can achieve the hero’s journey more easily without subsequently cheapening the object of their desire.
We want a great story without tension. We want an emotional song without dissonance. We want life free from trials and tribulations. But ultimately, when we reach “X,” it will not offer the kind of robust fulfillment we had hoped.
Now what does this have to do with fundraising and the non-profit sector?
The goal of a fundraiser is NOT a transactional goal. The goal is to help people who have reached “X,” and have then found themselves detached from the world, living but not alive. The goal is to bring them a portal back to a story where life and death, tension and suspense, pain and peace swirl like a tornado.
If you want to know the two most numbing and dissatisfying ingredients making up the depressed and distant life, they are comfort and safety. And the high fructose corn syrup binding them together is accumulated wealth.
Most of us can look at our society and still see the suffering, and we can still hold the pain in our minds. But many are trapped. Their view of the kingdom is so distant and unaffected that they cannot see or hold the pain. They have forgotten that we all belong to each other, and that our pain is a collaborative and implicating material.
How can someone stay empathetic toward a person who suffers in ways that are completely alien to them?
How can someone apply their accumulated resources to anything unselfishly if they are separated from anyone else’s needs?
And how does a person buffered by so many protective hedges live a dynamic and full life?
Do you feel numb or apathetic when you listen to stories of other people’s suffering?
Perhaps the best perspective on this topic I have embraced is from Steven Garber, who described the fork in the road and the paths we choose to take.
One path is the passport to privilege. It is the way of padding ourselves from the suffering of the world. It is privilege because we can choose to engage with the suffering or ignore it. It is the difference between choosing what we want for dinner, and eating what is mercifully available.
The other path leads toward the suffering. We all would like to think that in a catastrophic event, we would be running toward the danger in order to help others. We all hope to be that courageous. Why? Because we know the value of saving lives. We feel the inspiration and exhilaration of walking into danger and laying our own lives down for the good of others. We believe in noble sacrifices.
And yet… If we look honestly at the overarching story we tell, most of us are not walking toward the danger. Most of us are not acting out of selfless courage. If we take a sober look at our lives, we may find that we are rowing away from a packed sinking ship in a lifeboat by ourselves. And once we reach the island, we will have the hard revelation that life is now just existing without purpose… doing whatever we can to distract ourselves and not go crazy.
So how do we get closer to a dynamic life? Give.
How much do we give? Whatever amount lowers the fences and walls and allows you to be impacted by the world again. Give until you become vulnerable to the disruptions and inconveniences of the common culture.
Give until you feel the danger of need.
You worked really hard to build your empire. Now give it away and start building a better story for others and for yourself. And then see what happens…
Today is Giving Tuesday, a great day to start.