Sacred Soil

On Fundraising and Ice Water
August 20, 2014, 3:58 pm
Filed under: Weeds

I was once a fundraiser, sending out hundreds of thousands of pieces of mail to people, hoping that a mere 2% of them would open the mail and return a check.(1) The odds were never good, and often it cost well more to acquire a donor than we raised. It was a frustrating business, as we sought out the best way to get people to give money to a cause we knew they supported.

I got into it because I believe it is good for us to give our money away. And, to be honest, I needed a job. But it’s true, when we give away our money we are investing in a world far beyond our grasp, we’re investing in the hope that things can be better for others, not just ourselves. Generosity changes us, and makes us better people.

But that message is hard to get out. I currently serve as co-chair of an awesome organization, Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries, that affirms & supports lgbtq rostered leaders in the Lutheran church, because we believe God’s love is for everyone, and we are called to seek justice together. We do some awesome work. You should check it out: Thing is, raising money for this great work is hard, mostly because folks don’t know we exist. And if they do know about us, folks don’t realize they can make a difference with just a bit of money.

So, I’m imagining that the folks at the ALS Association are flabbergasted at how well this meme has done for them. The return on investment is huge. I’m happy for them and their bit of luck. It also makes me wonder what kind of meme-fundraiser we might get going for Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries. Perhaps we could plant elm trees… Plant an elm, or give ELM $50. (That works. Let’s get started on that…)

But, we live in an age where we rather enjoy sandblasting every idea with the fine granules of our criticism, rendering us all slightly scarred and annoyed.

The ice water challenge is a waste of water.
Dumping water to avoid generosity?
This merely serves the egos of those filming themselves.

I can imagine that in drought-stricken areas, or for folks who walk 5 miles just to get drinking water, the opulence of a bucket of ice water is too much. And It seems counter intuitive that people make a show of not having to be generous (yet this meme has led to greater generosity). We should talk about these things–especially if we can do it without the grating judgment of those who’ve decided they know the best answer.

But, I find the judgment about ego a bit too much, and terribly naive.

Most of our fundraising is about ego. Indeed, the more one can connect with the ego of a person, the more you’ll raise. That’s just basic fundraising. Is that good? Frankly, no. But, it may just be the human condition, or our current human condition.

People give to the Art Museum because they want to be known as donors to the Art Museum. The parties are great, and your name gets listed with the most prestigious people in town. It’s about ego.

People like to buy chicks or pigs or goats, because they like the story, the idea that they’re giving something they’ve decided someone else needs. It feels good to imagine your generosity in the form of a cow in Africa, rather than trusting people to use the money as they determine would work best for them. It’s about ego.

People put up plaques to commemorate their generosity (oh how I remember the pain of trying to get every name just right– is it Mr. and Mrs. or Mr. and Ms., or Ms. and Mr., or are we forgoing titles altogether? And, are you even going to remember how you asked to be listed once we hang the plaque?). Right now in my church we have a plaque on the refrigerator. I’ve seen them on microwaves and lamp posts. How does spending money on a strange bit of metal help the cause? It’s about ego.

So, people pouring ice water over their heads, well, yes, it is ego. And so is most of our fundraising work.

Altruistic generosity is rare. It’s a problem in our society. We demand to be thanked, we demand to approve all the ways our funds are used. We give with strings, indeed, ropes, attached. A free gift is rare–exceedingly rare. But, wouldn’t it be great if we could cultivate that kind of generosity?

Perhaps instead of judging each other for the ways we feed our fragile egos, perhaps we could instead plant seeds that foster true generosity? That’ll involve putting away the sandblaster, and entering the world with kindness, trust, and curiosity. It’ll involve hearing other’s stories of generosity, and celebrating them. It’ll involve looking at why our egos are so fragile, and it’ll require we do that with compassion. And, perhaps it will also involve anonymously sending money to that community organization down the street, expecting nothing in return.

Anonymous always was my favorite donor.

What ideas do you have for cultivating altruistic generosity?

Matthew 6:17-18.


(1) I now repent of my tree-killing ways–which only adds to my frustration about how hard it is to do good fundraising.