Putting the "Fun" in Fundraising

Anyone who's worked in the non-profit world knows the challenges of fundraising. It's a non-stop, year-round process. For organizations that receive no government money and lack large endowments (like Catholic schools), there is no end to the appeals, the phone calls, the lunches, and the outreach to current and potential benefactors.

Raising money is difficult and, for most people, it's awkward. Few things are more socially stifling than asking people to give. Even if it's for noble causes, people struggle to make the "ask." 


It's because of this context (and my own experience as a nascent fundraiser), that I appreciated the encouraging news from Arthur C. Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C. Writing in Sunday's New York Times in a column titled, "Why Fund-Raising Is Fun," Brooks makes the case that fundraisers generate happiness:

In 2003, while working on a book about charitable giving, I stumbled across a strange pattern in my data. Paradoxically, I was finding that donors ended up with more income after making their gifts. This was more than correlation; I found solid evidence that giving stimulated prosperity. I viewed my results as implausible, though, and filed them away. After all, data patterns never “prove” anything, they simply provide evidence for or against a hypothesis.

But when I mentioned my weird findings to a colleague, he told me that they were fairly unsurprising. Psychologists, I learned, have long found that donating and volunteering bring a host of benefits to those who give. In one typical study, researchers from Harvard and the University of British Columbia confirmed that, in terms of quantifying “happiness,” spending money on oneself barely moves the needle, but spending on others causes a significant increase.

Why? Charitable giving improves what psychologists call “self-efficacy,” one’s belief that one is capable of handling a situation and bringing about a desired outcome. When people give their time or money to a cause they believe in, they become problem solvers. Problem solvers are happier than bystanders and victims of circumstance.

Fundraising not only creates happiness, says Brooks, it "creates meaning. Donors possess two disconnected commodities: material wealth and sincere convictions. Alone, these commodities are difficult to combine. But fund-raisers facilitate an alchemy of virtue: They empower those with financial resources to convert the dross of their money into the gold of a better society."

Brooks's research on this matter changed his life. He said he and his wife began giving more to charity; increased their volunteering, and even adopted a child. Eventually, his appreciation for the social value of fundraising prompted him to leave his teaching position to become a fundraiser himself; thus his move to AEI. 

Brooks's piece nicely counters the conventional opinion and offers something of a paradigm shift. It puts me in mind of something I once read in the pages of this magazine. In her splendid article "Imagining Abundance" (July 21, 208) Kerry Robinson wrote:

Once development is understood as a ministry, priests, religious and laypeople can approach what they might have previously thought of as distasteful work and "a necessary evil" as an opportunity for mutual conversion of heart and mind. Grant maker and grant seeker are collaborators in a life-giving mission, rooted in faith, both seeking to use their resources to benefit others. This process brings meaning to the beneficiaries, to the donor and to those working in development.
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