Hang around a fundraising conference long enough, or visit a philanthropy blog, or pick up a textbook on the art of asking for charitable dollars, and you are bound to hear this phrase pop up time and time again: Donor Centered Fundraising. This is the principle that we as fundraisers should center the donor in our messaging—a role that elevates the donor above the organization and into the position of protagonist. For the majority of my career in philanthropy this is how I approached my vocation, until it wasn’t. Earlier this year I found myself at a conference in a session being led by my good friend Gay Gonnerman (Camp Wapogasset) and Tom Struthers (TurnKey Direct Marketing). They asked a familiar question: “Who is the hero in our donor journey’s story?” Now this being a faith-based conference I figured maybe the answer should be different, so I flippantly answered: “The Holy Spirit.” The gracious response provided theological weight to my flippancy and a new sense of purpose to my calling in the ministry of philanthropy. The response? “Yes. The donor brings the gifts, but it is the Spirit that transforms gifts into mission. Before the bread and fish can feed the 5,000, the meal needs to be presented to the Master.”
A Noisy Mind
As I’ve reflected on this interaction, I have found myself exhuming previous conversations with donors, colleagues, and family members, examining them through this lens. In that spirit, I wish to share a reflection on one of those interactions. In 2017, I was still relatively green to individual fundraising and certainly green to meeting with donors one on one. My pastor asked me to visit with a church member who was looking for ways to grow her philanthropic giving. She was interested in learning more about the organization I worked for at the time, Lutheran Social Service of South Dakota (LSS). The donor’s husband had recently died, and she was looking for a way to honor his life and commitment to social justice with an annual donation to fund a project they were both passionate about. After talking with my pastor, I realized that LSS offered services in all the areas that were of interest to the donor: refugee and immigration, re-entry programs, and youth services. On the drive to the donor’s home I found myself overcome with nervousness, and my mind full of noise. I sat in the car outside her home trying to convince myself that I would be able to convince her to invest all her contributions in LSS. I tried my best to channel all my various learnings from webinars, conferences, and textbooks, and I walked up to the front door full of expectations.
God’s Spirit Surprises
What I had not expected, and what became more apparent to me years later thanks to my interaction with Tom Struthers, I was not (thankfully) alone with the donor that day. As we sat at her dining room table my mind continued to race with noise and a desire to close the gift, when suddenly, I looked into her eyes and truly saw her for the first time. The noise in my head quieted and I felt a presence telling me to “Shut off the noise in my head and listen.” What I heard from my host was an account of her personal mission and that of her husband’s: to reach out in faith to care for our neighbors. During political tumult, and still grieving her husband, it became abundantly clear that the donor wished to step out in faith (and reflect the faith of her late husband) by offering a gift. And now, reflecting back on that conversation through the lens of my interaction with Tom Struthers, I understand that the gift was made not simply to LSS of South Dakota, but to God’s Spirit to transform the lifelong compassion of that donor and her husband into ministry.
Emboldened by God’s Spirit, our conversation became a lot clearer, and my mind no longer raced with thoughts of capturing all her investments. Instead, I focused on how I could best help her serve her faithful purpose by donating to LSS. I still hold our Spirit-filled conversation as my greatest moment in fundraising. The gift of her investment in LSS allowed her to share a meal with students participating in a patient care class. God was present in that meal just as God was present at that dining room table in our first interaction.
In gratitude to Tom Struthers, this donor and many others, I am able to confidently state that God’s presence drives the vocation of philanthropy. God is the inspiration for the donor; God is in the listening heart of the fundraiser; and God is very much in the miracle of transforming compassion into mission.