For almost five years, The Charis Foundation has been facilitating conversations with charity leaders and donors to discuss how to bring greater health and wholeness to the Christian charitable-philanthropic sector. We have been doing this alongside Brent Fearon of The Foundation Office, Lauri Thompson from Tapestry Philanthropy Partners, and Consultant Dr. Rod Wilson. We asked Dr. Wilson to write a summary of our shared conversations to date. We hope you find the article thought-provoking and invite your feedback on our reflections.
By Dr. Rod Wilson
Stories help us maintain and organize our reality, and when we talk about them, they give us a sense of who we are. If we want to get to the core of anything, we need to know the story behind it. If we're going to change reality, we need to reconsider and re-author the story.
The same is true in the philanthropic space. Charities can be caricatured and stereotyped, labelled, and diagnosed. Donors can be lumped together with generalizations and assumptions. When they get together to ask, give, and receive money, that process can be professionalized and subject to technique. The entire enterprise turns into one that is transactional. Story and narrative are missing, and we do not know what drives the charity, the donor, or their communication with one another.
As we have begun to facilitate philanthropic storytelling between charities and donors in BC, Alberta, Ontario, and Nova Scotia, a narrative is emerging. Parts of that narrative reflect wholeness and health, while tension and confusion characterize other components. We are beginning to see glimpses of how the story needs to be reconsidered and re-authored.
Stories of Wholeness and Health
As we listened to the dialogue between donors and charities, six themes characterized their stories of wholeness and health.
- Clarity. Clear communication regularly facilitated an encouraging story. Both parties outlined their expectations of themselves and the other. They took each other seriously, expressed their values and kingdom priorities in detail, and sought to build a reciprocal and transparent relationship. Whether the donation was received or not, both the donor and the charity had an unambiguous experience of what had happened and why.
- Mutuality. When a charity desires a donor’s financial resources, a distinct power imbalance is unavoidable without a commitment to mutuality. When mutuality infiltrated the story, there was trust in both directions because no one held anything over the other. Respect also flowed both ways because there was an acknowledgment that both parties were participating in something larger than themselves. It was all bathed in humility because involvement in kingdom partnership cancelled the need for any exertion of power by either party.
- Alignment. Relationality is critical in this sphere, but alignment may be more vital. Stories of “you have money, and we need it” were not as joyful and fulfilling as those where the charity and the donor were aligned on shared interests, passion, and mission. This created a story of connection that was compelling. Both the asker and the giver shared far beyond the personal and interpersonal. The charity sought to steward God's call in a particular place, in a specific way, for a compelling reason. Because the donor was aligned with that trajectory, their financial stewardship was in perfect step.
- Intentionality. Intentionality on the part of the charity and the donor characterized compelling philanthropic stories. They entered the relationship with a purpose that revolved around listening, learning, and caring. Finding out about the donor's hopes and aspirations was facilitated when the development person heard what was being said and why. Similarly, donors who exercised deliberate care worked hard at understanding the charity's mission in a way that went beyond their relationship with the fundraiser.
- Transparency. Both donors and charities valued transparency from each other. Donors appreciated truth-telling when organizations would not only outline their successes and accomplishments. Those who give know that there are challenges and obstacles in all charities, and they preferred to know what they were upfront. Fundraisers found it helpful when donors were open about their charitable interests and willingness to give. It resulted in the charity not having to make assumptions and wonder about real intent.
- Gratitude. The through-line of philanthropic stories characterized by wholeness and health was gratitude. In these relationships, there was no sense of entitlement or being deserving. Donors were thankful for the privilege of being involved in and contributing to a charity. Fundraisers were appreciative of the donated monies and were impacted by the trust placed in them by the donors. It was not insignificant that a mutual passion for and contribution to kingdom work elicited shared gratitude.
Stories of Tension and Confusion
While donors and charities share the joys of giving and receiving money, they also experience tensions and confusion. Ten themes emerged out of these less-than-ideal stories.
- Disappointment. Confusion around the ask, unsatisfactory project completion, or funds not given created stories of disappointment in the other.
- Personality. Fundraisers and donors who are shy and introverted have found the philanthropic space to be challenging.
- Workload. While desiring a transformational rather than transactional connection, the amount of time and energy required can be overwhelming for both groups.
- Overhead. With so much public scrutiny on overhead costs, donors and charities have struggled to get on the same page with how much is appropriate.
- Power. If donors used their gift for personal gain, fundraisers experienced this weaponizing of money as disempowering and excessively directive.
- Collaboration. While collaboration was seen as desirable, it often created more work for the donor and the charity, added higher costs, and the organization felt controlled.
- Barriers. It has been challenging for both groups to connect meaningfully when they came from different geographical locations, language backgrounds, and denominations.
- Dependence. While charities have looked for long-term financial commitment, donors have been concerned the organization would have undue reliance on their contributions.
- Duplication. There has been tension when philanthropists have been asked to fund organizations that are seen to be duplicating the work of other charities.
- Fear. Charities have feared scarcity of available funds while donors have feared wasting resources on projects that they perceive to be less impactful.
Reconsidering and Re-authoring the Story
While there are encouraging themes of wholeness and health in these stories, there are significant components of tension and confusion. The story may need reconsideration and re-authoring, so Canada's next generation of charities and philanthropists is well rooted and substantively united. As the rough draft begins to emerge, it will undoubtedly grapple with the following four questions.
- Canada. What geographical, religious, and cultural variables in Canada invite us to develop a unique perspective that pays attention to regional and national concerns? If Canadians acknowledge respectfully that our neighbours to the south approach this space differently, the new story will have a distinctive cultural focus.
- Conversation. Are donors and charities in the same room, speaking with, not at, each other and talking openly about the nature of the philanthropic story? If the embryonic work of our charity-donor conversations continues, mutual understanding and shared alignment will permeate the re-authored story.
- Cooperation. Have donors and charities grasped the nature of God's abundant resources, so there is less competition and more cooperation in the philanthropic story? If these two groups commit to working together locally and nationally, duplication will decrease as the new story unfolds.
- Centralizing. Can we respect the individuality of donors and the uniqueness of charities while developing standards that unite us? If kingdom guidelines for philanthropy were documented, taught, understood, and owned, the reconsidered story would bring greater vitality to the entire sector.
May the God who crafted the grand narrative provide both charities and donors the wisdom and the courage to do this work in a way that reflects the character of their Creator.
Rod Wilson has worked as a psychologist, served as a pastor in three different churches, and held multiple roles in theological education, including President of Regent College in Vancouver, Canada from 2000-2015. Rod currently works with Lumara Grief and Bereavement Care Society, A Rocha, the Society of Christian Schools in BC, and In Trust Center for Theological Schools, and maintains an international mentoring ministry with leaders.