This I Believe

Terri - San Diego, California
Entered on June 7, 2007

I’m a fundraising consultant and I want your money. One of the hardest things to teach my clients is that you want to give it.

I work for the Episcopal Church Foundation, which means all my clients are church people. They’re a self-effacing lot who have grown up hearing things like “the love of money is the root of all evil.” I can’t tell you how often I sit down to discuss a capital campaign with ministers and volunteers who say, “I’ll do anything but ask for money.”

“How do you expect to get it?” I want to ask.

Instead, I tell the story of a Mexican foster home. Dorcas House is home to about forty children whose parents live in a Tijuana prison. Many of the children began life in prison with their parents. When the director came to my church in San Diego to ask for help, I said I’d do their fundraising. Every Sunday for months I visited a different church and told the story of those forty kids. As Thanksgiving approached, I learned that the oven at Dorcas House didn’t work. Hadn’t worked for years.

On my next visit to a church, I told about all the meals I’d eaten with the children, never realizing the cook fed forty kids using only the four working stove burners. Afterward, the head of the women’s group pressed a grant application into my hand and said, “You only have two days before our deadline, but surely we can get those children an oven by Thanksgiving.”

And they did. But that’s not the important part of the story.

Later, I went back to thank the woman. I gave her a picture of the children eating their first Thanksgiving dinner made in the oven her church had donated, and she said, “Don’t thank us. We should thank you.”

For years, her women’s group had been raising money for worthy causes, but this donation changed them. This time, they could see the difference their money made in the world. Their money made it possible to bake cakes and roast chickens; it fed forty children three meals a day.

This is what the theologian Henri Nouwen calls “fundraising as conversion experience.” Nouwen says that when fundraising is done right, “the person asking and the person giving come together to participate in a new thing that God is doing.”

I believe that people will literally give anything to participate in what God is doing. We crave the chance to make a difference so intensely that religious and philanthropic charlatans defraud Americans of millions of dollars a year preying on this very need.

My job is to teach those honest, self-effacing clients to speak up, to tell their own version of how they are feeding forty children from a broken stove, how they are quietly making a difference in their small corner of the world. I already know you are out there listening, hungry to join in.