Wednesday, January 14, 2015

On Being A Donor: Post Year End Reflection From a Fundraiser

  Welcome back to my blog
      I took a year off from writing for my blog.  My last post was Dec 13, 2013.
I am not sure why I stopped writing.  I have small “r” reasons, such as I had too much other work, my elderly mother needs more and more care, and I had other writing I wanted and needed to do.  I had intended to take a month off and it wound up being over a year.  I think the bigger reason became that I was out of the habit of writing, and with each passing week and month, getting back into the habit became more difficult.  
     A few people have let me know they miss my blog—bless your hearts!  I hope they are the verbal front of a larger group of silent people who wonder, “Whatever happened to Kim Klein’s blog?” but I am way of flattering myself.   I am returning to the blogosphere because I missed doing these blog posts.  I like taking the time to think about how I can live my life through a commons frame:  what does that mean on a daily basis, how does that inform the way I interpret the news, what habits should I cultivate and what abandon?  I hope people read my posts—if I didn’t want that, I would just write in my journal.  Writing knowing that others will be reading (even if a small number) makes me more disciplined and careful about how I say things.  How I say things is a habit I need to cultivate in every part of my life!  My blog is a gift to myself which I hope others may find useful or enjoyable or provocative. 

Jan 7, 2015:  On Being a Donor
We have just come through the “Season of Giving” which, if I look just at fundraising, would have to be renamed, “The Frenzied Season of Seeking Donations.”  I have never seen so many requests for money jammed into such a short space as I saw this past December.  Now that organizations are counting up how much they raised and deciding whether it was a “good year end” or not,  I think it is useful to go back to one of the greatest summaries of how to think about giving ever written.  It is Maimonides’ “Ladder of Tzedakah” which is a list of eight ways to make a donation in order of their usefulness to the giver.   
Moses Maimonides (1138-1204) was born in Spain and spent most of his adult life in Egypt as a court physician. (  “ Tzedakah”  is  a  Hebrew word usually translated as “charity.”  It carries the traditional notion of charity—helping people in need, but also the idea that when we help others, we do the work of God, and in so doing, we help ourselves.  Maimonides knew that giving can hurt or help the giver as much as the receiver and his essay deals mostly with the motives of the giver.  These  eight ways are traditionally presented from best to the worst, but I think they can be more instructive when done in the David Letterman style of worst to best.   
So with apologies to Maimonedes, here they are with a brief commentary from me:
#8:  Gives Unwillingly:  The donor is forced to give.  With 30% of the adult population not being givers at all, and with the top 1% of wealthy people giving both far less than they can afford and  less as a percent of income than the bottom 90%, this way of giving is one of the roles that taxes play:  insuring that everyone contributes to the common good whether they want to or not.    
#7:  The Giver and Receiver Are Unknown to Each Other: for Maimonides, this way of giving insures the receiver complete dignity and forces the giver to let go of control of where the gift goes.  Ideally, this would be the role of foundation giving.  Unfortunately that is rarely the case. Again, this is a role for taxes.    
#6:  Gives Only After Being Asked:  this person gives cheerfully, but does not think of giving unless a request has been made.  I don’t know why this one is so far down in Maimonides list because, as a fundraiser, #6 is our basic premise.  In study after study, when people are asked to consider why they made their last donation, 80% will say, “Someone asked me.”   People who give when they are asked are my kind of folks!
#5:  Gives Before Being Asked:  When you give someone money who hasn’t asked for it, your intention may be good, but the result can be to embarrass the receiver.  I see this one way more commonly with advice—“Have you tried?” “Have you thought of?”  “Maybe you should consider?” 
#4:  Giver Does Not Know Receiver, but the Receiver knows the Giver and #3:  Receiver does not know the Giver but the Giver knows the Receiver:  Smack in the middle of his list is a balancing act.  Suppose I know the identity of an anonymous donor, but that person does not know I know.  Do I tell her?  Do I tell others until almost everyone knows except the donor?  Do I keep the secret? Suppose I pay off a friend’s debt without him knowing?  What does that do to my friendship?  I am carrying a secret from my friend which concerns my friend.  I think Maimonides may have put these in the middle to show how we must be constantly examining our motives, both as givers and receivers, particularly since most people in real life are both. 
#2:  The Giver and Receiver are Unknown to Each Other:  I am glad this is #2, the “we try harder” of the ladder.  Certainly there are far worse descriptions of fair and just tax policy than this. 
#1:  Help a Person Help Him or Herself:  Prevent poverty by creating a society in which people don’t have to ask.  Maimonides left it there, but clearly a society without poverty frees up all voluntary giving for all kinds of other pursuits:  arts, culture, continuing education, expanded libraries and community centers, the list goes on.  More important is that people can ask for what they think will make their communities more livable and their lives more joyful.  Asking and giving will still be present, but more as a dialogue than a power struggle between the haves and the have nots.  So the highest form of giving is not as much about giving as about how a society is structured. 

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