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Why we fundraise - cultivating the moral imagination. (Food for Thought).

Fundraisers don't typically get up in the morning and read poetry. Maybe we should. It is easy to let the familiar aspects of our work become blinders to its richness. The culture surrounding us, from television commercials and Hollywood to Hemingway and Hippocrates, is filled with references to philanthropy that help us reflect on and refine our work as fundraisers and nonprofit executives.

Cultivating in ourselves and others a greater appreciation of philanthropy's meaning, motivations and roles in society from a wide variety of approaches enhances our performance, gives us new perspectives, and enriches the pride and pleasure we take in our work. Finding these insights is not an ivory tower exercise. We can gain inspiration and broader perspective by seeing a movie, reading a book, taking a course, or visiting a museum.

Because philanthropy is, first and foremost, a human and social activity, one way to develop a better understanding of our work is through exposure to the different viewpoints of the humanities, such as history, religion, literature, government, and philosophy.

Knowledge of the humanities also prepares us to evaluate and address the complexity and ambiguity of the social issues we confront and allows us develop a stronger framework for decision making. According to our colleague Robert Payton, these perspectives help us to "cultivate the moral imagination," opening our eyes to things that fall outside our personal experiences. Contemplating philanthropic issues in literature or the arts provides a "dry-run" as we play with ideas and consider issues before we must tackle them in real life.

For example, many of us will read or see Charles Dickens' tale, A Christmas Carol this month. This classic prompts us to ask ourselves questions. What is my responsibility to my neighbor? What would it be like to feel as Scrooge does? How can I experience the joy of giving?

The line "good fences make good neighbors" from Robert Frost's poem "Mending Wall" gives us much to think about as two people cooperatively build a wall to separate their properties. The characters focus both on voluntary cooperation and individual benefit, as nature continually undermines their efforts.

The recent remake of the movie Sabrina also includes several types of philanthropic actions. The viewer is most struck by two separate multimillion dollar gifts by two different characters, presumably given to worthy causes but both made to help solidify a love relationship.

How many donors like these do we encounter? Do their motivations change the impact of their philanthropy? Every philanthropic act is based on complex human motivations which benefit both the donor and the recipient. Movies and stories like these offer a chance to examine the motives and roles of philanthropy.

The value of understanding philanthropy's heritage is illustrated by a book that Amy A. Kass, senior lecturer in the Humanities Collegiate Division at the University of Chicago. The Perfect Gift is an anthology of poetry and prose bringing together all types of readings, from the Bible to Shakespeare to P.G. Wodehouse, that "aim to cultivate and enlighten our philanthropic imagination."

Kass includes Gwendolyn Brooks' 1963 poem, "The Lovers of the Poor," which stimulates us to think about the dimensions of philanthropic acts and methods of giving. Kass noted that the biblical story of Cain and Abel helps us understand the age-old question "Am I my brother's keeper?" That continues to resonate today as a fundamental principle of philanthropy, prompting us to reflect upon our responsibility to others.

Likewise, examining the pages of history helps us recognize that no act of philanthropy is isolated. Citizens working together on a neighborhood issue, children at our door seeking funds for UNICEF, and a bank trust established for an orphaned child are all part of a rich philanthropic tradition. We need to be familiar with the history and values of philanthropy and its place in world culture to maximize our potential relationships with donors and bring them to a deeper understanding of the importance of their actions.

According to Jason C. Chandler, senior associate director of development at the Emory University School of-Medicine, "Understanding not only the principles and techniques of fundraising, but the history and humanity of philanthropy is an essential part of carrying on an engaging conversation with potential donors." Donors otherwise might not intuitively recognize that they are participating in the philanthropic tradition by expressing their values through giving. Their gifts are part of a long continuum of philanthropy that stretches down through the ages and across oceans and cultures.

With this realization, a request for financial support takes on much greater meaning. Donors are involved in something much larger than themselves, and the effects of their actions reverberate far beyond the specific campaign to which they are giving. With a deeper knowledge of the heritage of philanthropy, we can show them how their giving expands the impact of donors who came before, and how they are paving the way for future philanthropists to build on the changes that their giving will bring to life in ways they cannot yet imagine.

The evolution of American libraries is one example of the human satisfaction of working in concert with other philanthropists who have come before and who will succeed us. Three separate philanthropic acts, although unrelated, have nevertheless aligned to achieve a common goal. Benjamin Franklin created America's first lending library to increase access to literature and information. Andrew Carnegie took this concept to a much greater scale, offering challenge grants to provide public libraries in cities from coast-to-coast. Today, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is raising the concept to the next level by offering access to computers, the Internet and digital information in partnership with public libraries.

History also can highlight best practices for today. In 1643, Hugh Peter and Thomas Weld went to England to raise funds for the newly established Harvard College armed with "New England's First Fruits," a document explaining why money was needed, what they would do with it; and what good would be accomplished by giving to their cause. It presents a perfect case for support, reminds us of the core principles of fundraising have been with us for centuries, and provides a uniquely American foundation for philanthropy. Exploring the historical record also reminds us that each of us has a responsibility to the values-and the traditions of the sector, not just to the immediate fundraising goals of our institutions.

Today we work harder to raise funds in an uncertain economy, to be more efficient in our operations, to measure more accurately the outcomes and impacts of our work and to hold ourselves accountable to our constituents. These are stressful times. But by stepping away from the immediate tasks at hand to appreciate and learn from the broader perspectives on philanthropy that surround us, we can energize ourselves, obtain valuable insights and return to those tasks with renewed vision and vigor.

Eugene R. Tempel is executive director of the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University in Indianapolis.
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Author:Tempel, Eugene R.
Publication:The Non-profit Times
Article Type:Column
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 1, 2002
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