Gift Says Something—Are You Listening?
By Donna Red Wing
a world in which all donors are the same. They give for
the same reason, they expect the same result, they engage
in the same way—and even prefer one method of recognition.
I suppose this would be of great help to fundraisers and
nonprofits. You would know exactly who your donor is and
what he or she wants. There would be no guessing, no exploration.
However, that is not the world we live in. In case you
haven’t noticed, our communities are constantly being
infused with outside influences, so much so that “outside”
doesn’t carry much meaning anymore.
So what does that mean for us as fundraisers? I think we
have to wave one final good-bye to predictability with our
donors. Now we have to really get to know them.
As I see it, giving is a very wonderful—very personal—expression
of self. It is something you impart on another. It is something
born of values and beliefs, be it faith in a higher being
or simply faith in humanity. I think understanding why a
donor gives—something we’d all certainly like
to know!—is tied to identity and to the things people
hold most dear. Often a donor gives through a framework
What do your donors believe about human nature or a life
beyond the present one? What traits and actions do they
hold in highest regard? Perhaps most importantly, how do
they view philanthropy? The fact is, when people give of
themselves, especially in large amounts (such as a major-gift
donor), they do so based on what they think is right and
good. While appearing similar at first glance, there is
beautiful nuance in the world’s many giving traditions.
Many Pictures of Giving
The Qur’an speaks to the issue of philanthropy, or
zakat, as one of the five pillars of Islam. Each Muslim
is required to donate a percentage of his or her salary.
Then there is the tenet of sadaqa, which is a voluntary
gift. In Judaism, tzedakah, which literally means righteousness,
can be interpreted to mean justice and charity. There is
clearly a social justice context to Jewish philanthropy.
Christian philanthropic traditions have their genesis in
Judaic concepts and practices, as well as Greek classical
traditions that were refined and defined by the New Testament.
Social and humanitarian reform, as well as the diversity
of belief within Christian traditions, have left their imprint.
Whether we look at the admonishment to “love your
neighbor as yourself” or the story of the widow’s
mite, both speak to intent, as well as action. Buddhist
philanthropy is rooted in a compassion that seeks to end
human suffering. And in Native American traditions, philanthropy
is not an obligation, but rather simply what is done. It
is experienced as a gift of both the donor, who gives, and
the recipient, who accepts.
There is considerable emphasis now on keeping religious
beliefs, political views and even differences of lifestyle,
isolated—almost quarantined—from public settings.
However, our differences are important. Let’s not
inoculate ourselves or sterilize our environment of difference
and unique identity. We should acknowledge and celebrate
When you talk to donors, who they are matters. Why? Because
it matters to them—a lot more than their social status,
the size of their bank account or the car they drive. Philanthropy
is a deeper concern. It is more than what I am, it is who
I am—and in some cases why I am.
I’m not suggesting that you walk up to people and
ask them what they believe in order to better understand
their view of giving. I’m also not saying that we
as fundraisers need to become experts on the world’s
religions. I am saying that until you know why people give,
they won’t give as much (or give at all). People give
from a far more personal, complex and unique place than
you’ll ever find out without a long-term, close conversation
born of respect, curiosity and even admiration.
So now that I’ve described the distance that lies
between you and your prospective donors, current donors
or even long-time supporters, realize, too, that building
a bridge is certainly possible and very rewarding. Want
people to give more? Find out what makes them give—and
keep giving. Let them express their core beliefs and values.
Let them speak. All you need to do is listen.
Donna Red Wing serves as senior adviser to both the
Interfaith Alliance and the National Crittenton Foundation.
Red Wing was the first recipient of the Walter Cronkite
Award for Faith and Freedom. She serves as co-chair of the
board of directors of the Grassroots Leadership Institute
and chair of the AFP Diverse Communities in Fundraising
Task Force. Red Wing is a Christian Buddhist, which makes
for some very interesting philanthropic beliefs and practices.
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