I would be giving, and forget the gift

During my career as a not-for-profit manager I dealt with a lot of issues pertaining to the concept of giving. This is because non-profits exist as the result of giving, both monetarily as well as in-kind. Their very survival is determined by the ability of staff to attract donors as financial partners and volunteers.

Seeking the type of person who possesses a charitable, giving spirit is likened to a courtship. It requires a slow molding of a relationship, which results its own kind of yielding intimacy. Fund raisers prefer to be called development directors because of this dynamic. It indicates the kind of process one goes through in building relationships with prospective donors, whose wealth provides the allure for engaging in such a protracted effort without the guarantee of success.

One of the first lessons you learn as a development director is what many believe to be the cardinal rule of fund raising; people give to people, not abstractions. No matter how meaningful your mission or finely crafted your vision statement, the personal relationship creates the path along which donations ultimately follow.

The corollary to this premise is that people give more to the people they know or the people they know of. The use of celebrities to endorse an organization’s program verifies the power of relationship building, even those crafted around what is in essence a business proposition. Without the ability to attract donors, the average development director’s professional life expectancy is less than two years. It is a harsh business despite its seemingly loving veneer.

My purpose in writing, though, is not to offer a crash course in fund raising. Rather it is to continue my examination of the character qualities advocated in a poem by Howard Arnold Walter, a 1905 Princeton graduate. The poem is one he wrote for his mother as a Christmas present. Its structure is something a mother could certainly love and others, like me, appreciate. For the poem’s twelve lines each espouse a character trait, whose value is seen in its positive impact on those around us. No doubt these traits were learned at home during Walter’s youth and enhanced by his university education as a divinity student.

Walter likely did not see himself as a development director, but his commitment to giving runs parallel to what I learned as a non-profit manager, who was responsible for fund raising. And our kinship in this area goes even deeper as I learned many of these same virtues at home in a caring Christian family. We are brothers in spirit if not in our career paths or other aspects of our respective lives.

We both know that a gift is by definition a no-strings attached transaction. We also know that there are ways to defeat this designation. In my world you could restrict a gift or make it conditional, thereby exercising some control over its use, making control the return on what more accurately proves to be an investment, not a gift. For Walter the string he sought to avoid was the expectation of something being offered in return.

At its most fundamental level this expectation is a statement of gratitude. The misfortune here is that it puts the recipient in a subservient role. The gift becomes a wage for which an act of service is required. Higher up the scale of anticipated returns is that of a favor. The recipient earns their wage by providing a product or service as a consequence of the initial “giving”. This is an immoral exploitation of a natural response. We as humans feel an inherent debt when we receive a gift. Many fund raisers send their probing “gift” in the form of mailing labels, note cards, and even money such as a nickel for us to use in making our response; typically a cash donation to an organization with which we have no other connection but that nickel. This is the bait for them to set their hook into a prospects charitable conscience. It is manipulative. And this is the very thing Walter vowed to avoid.

True giving is done without the thought of getting something in return, even a word of gratitude. Walter’s pledge to give without thought of repayment requires this type of perspective. And for him it follows the other attributes he vowed to carefully cultivate in order to be authentic as a compassionate human being; true, pure, strong, brave and friend. It is a path worthy of our efforts to honestly follow.

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