Kerry A. Robinson: The spirituality of fundraising and philanthropy

The word "donate" above an outstretched hand, surrounded by other words such as hope, give, blessings, faith

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Instead of being uncomfortable with the task of raising money, Christian institutional leaders should embrace it as an essential part of their work and ministry, the author of a new book on fundraising, philanthropy and spirituality says in this interview.

Kerry A. Robinson has long found it strange that many leaders of faith-based organizations are uncomfortable with the work of fundraising and philanthropy.

“It is incongruous that people who are radically committed to advancing their ministry or mission hate this one crucial aspect of it,” she said.

In her new book, “Imagining Abundance: Fundraising, Philanthropy, and a Spiritual Call to Service,” Robinson contends that fundraising and philanthropy -- at least for those in faith-based organizations -- are inherently spiritual endeavors.

“What I wanted to do with this book was to reframe fundraising so people can see it the way they see their own ministry, and therefore enter into it with the same kind of fearlessness, joy, intention and eagerness,” Robinson said. “There is so much about fundraising done well that mimics living out one’s faith or advancing one’s ministry.”

Robinson is the executive director of the National Leadership Roundtable on Church Management, and before that served as the director of development for Saint Thomas More Catholic Chapel and Center at Yale University. She is also a member of the Raskob Foundation for Catholic Activities in Wilmington, Delaware.

She spoke recently with Faith & Leadership about her book, and about philanthropy, fundraising and spirituality. The following is an edited transcript.

Q: Tell us about your book, “Imagining Abundance.” What audience are you trying to reach?

It’s primarily about spirituality, but it’s structured around philanthropy and fundraising and the spiritual mandate to be generous.

The audience is all the women and men who are working to advance faith-based ministries, whether in their own congregations and communities or in specific nonprofits or charitable organizations motivated by those faiths.

Q: You say in the book that many organizational leaders are uncomfortable with raising money.

Right, which I’ve always found incongruous. I understand why people shy away from talking about money, asking for money, raising money. They consider it onerous, but at a deeper level, it is incongruous that people who are radically committed to advancing their ministry or mission hate this one crucial aspect of it.

What I wanted to do with this book was to reframe fundraising so people can see it the way they see their own ministry, and therefore enter into it with the same kind of fearlessness, joy, intention and eagerness. There is so much about fundraising done well that mimics living out one’s faith or advancing one’s ministry.

I wanted to bring them much more in line. Philanthropy and fundraising are essentially the same activity, two sides of the same coin. Most of us are giving money or being asked to give money, and seeking money or requesting people’s generosity. So they really deserve to be brought closer together.

The spirituality piece, though, is what I’m most interested in and what the book is primarily about. Whether I am a person or a family or a foundation that gives money away, or a development officer or team that needs to raise money, both philanthropy and fundraising are done more effectively, with greater purpose, focus, authenticity and effect, when spiritual disciplines and dispositions are part of the effort.

Q: So to you, philanthropy and fundraising are inherently spiritual endeavors -- in fact, a core act of ministry.

Exactly.

Obviously, both can be done without any life of faith or sense of transcendence. You can engage in philanthropy or embark on a fundraising campaign without being a person of faith or cultivating spirituality.

But my audience for this book is people working in faith-based nonprofits and people of faith who work in philanthropy or help raise money for organizations. It’s an appeal to help them understand the meaning behind those activities.

It’s harder to give away money well than most people understand. You have unlimited options to invest in philanthropically. You have more opportunity than you can possibly fulfill, and you have to discern how to maximize the impact to bring about the most good. Those decisions are difficult. They require exactly the discernment that our best faith traditions and spiritual disciplines help achieve.

Spirituality also helps the philanthropist get out from the trap that this puffs up the philanthropist, that it’s more about the giver’s generosity than the recipient.

There’s a lot of ego in all of this, but when a philanthropist is motivated by his or her spirituality, there is a greater understanding of the collaboration between grant maker and grant seeker. There is a greater understanding that it has nothing to do with the giver or the recipient, and everything to do with what is being created to alleviate suffering or provide education or provide health care -- whatever the mission is. That’s the focus.

Q: You’ve been involved both in philanthropy, through your family’s foundation, the Raskob Foundation, and in fundraising, working to raise money for the Catholic Student Center at Yale. Tell us about that and about that transition.

I was born into a family with a 70-year history of serving the Catholic Church through a private family foundation, the Raskob Foundation. I am one of almost 100 direct descendants of my great-grandparents who are part of this. Participants agree to dedicate significant amounts of time to the foundation’s work, getting to know the needs of the Catholic Church and being a more effective philanthropic support to the church.

I’ve done that since the age of 14 on, and later worked for FADICA [Foundations and Donors Interested in Catholic Activities], which exposed me to many more families who were also interested in supporting the Catholic Church. I loved the work -- all the possibility and the opportunity to meet visionaries who were bringing about solutions to very concrete problems.

I imagined that my whole professional life might be in philanthropy. So I was surprised when I found myself accepting the invitation to move to that other side of the coin and be the person responsible for a multimillion-dollar fundraising campaign on Yale’s campus.

Q: What was that about?

I was pregnant with my second child, and Father Bob Beloin, the Catholic chaplain at Yale, called and asked me to run a $5 million capital campaign his board had approved to raise money to construct a small student center and provide an endowment for the program.

I was flabbergasted, because that was the farthest thing from my mind. Not only was I pregnant; I had no training in fundraising. I knew how to advise people to give money away to promising initiatives; I had no idea how to raise it.

And I had all these impressions and biases about fundraising. I thought it would be difficult and thankless work. When I tried to talk him out of it, he asked me to pray about it for five days and then give him an answer.

I did, and I realized that he was not offering me a job that I would loathe. He was inviting me to live out my vocation, and with him to help bring to fruition a Catholic intellectual and spiritual center of consequence that would benefit generations of students and help raise the bar of Catholic campus ministry nationally.

Q: And with no development experience or background, you did it. You raised the money and more.

Right. We had Father Bob, the full-time Catholic chaplain, and me working part time with him.

We had no formal training. We broke all kinds of rules, not out of defiance, but out of ignorance. We never did a feasibility study. We blurted out publically that we were embarking on this campaign without having any silent phase or having raised any money. We were amateurs.

However, we cared passionately about where we were headed, and we shared a spirituality that informed all of our work. And not only did we meet our original $5 million goal; we raised $75 million, built a 30,000-square-foot Cesar Pelli-designed Catholic center on Yale’s campus, introduced 14 new programmatic initiatives, expanded the number of students and faculty who were participating -- not just on Sundays, but every day of the week -- so much so that we had to add a third Sunday liturgy, and we secured the long-term financial health of the ministry.

Q: That experience shaped your philosophy of fundraising. In the book, you say that fundraising isn’t about money; it’s about the mission. What do you mean?

This sounds strange, but many times during those 10 years, it felt as though both the building and the dollar goal itself had become distractions from what we were really drawing people’s focus to.

Obviously, we needed a building, and we needed money to do that. But sometimes it was hard for people to get past those. So we wanted to bring this vibrant center to fruition by focusing intentionally on our mission and letting that be the driving force of what we were about. It had to inform every decision we made. It was the focal point for us, and it was what we knew would engage all manner of people.

Our mission was not to raise money and build a building. Our mission was to help bring to fruition a Catholic intellectual and spiritual center of consequence and to raise the bar of Catholic campus ministry.

We knew that 25 percent of Yale’s student body is Catholic. We wanted to ensure that when they left Yale, they had a mature inner life of faith that would inform, nurture, sustain and inspire them.

And the consequence was not just for them but for everyone who would be affected by their leadership in the world.

That was the big picture that we had in mind, which meant that our work was urgent and could not be delayed. We had no money to go about this capital campaign, we had no money to expand our program, but we knew that if we could live out of this mission, then the money would follow.

Q: What is the title of the book about -- “Imagining Abundance”?

Early in our work together, Father Bob and I discovered that we each had the same favorite line from scripture, John 10:10: “I came that they might have life and have it more abundantly.”

We let that inform our work. It became our inspiration. The point of working so hard to bring the center to fruition was so that students would experience John 10:10 while on campus, that they would be introduced into this life of abundance.

Every time someone told us it could not be done, we began to see that as a sign that we were on to something of consequence.

All of these obstacles and expressions of doubt I began to see in my imagination as hurdles that a runner has to leap over in a race. All that those obstacles meant was that you needed to get a running start, and then you could sail over them, and it became easier and easier to do with the momentum.

Q: What are some of the typical obstacles in fundraising?

Well, initially -- and we were guilty of all of these when we started -- fear is the No. 1 obstacle. Fear about succeeding. Fear that we would not achieve what we set out to achieve.

Fear of asking people to contribute. Fear of talking about something as intimate as personal finances with another. That was one of my first clues about how far we have disconnected fundraising from ministry.

People of faith should talk with others about the things that they revere or that are deeply meaningful for them. That’s part of what faith leaders do when they are living out their vocation. And money is often one of those categories for people; it’s one of those areas of intimate discussion.

So in a sense, the reluctance of many faith leaders to talk about money can be seen as a lack of willingness to enter into the intimate space of another person’s life.

Q: What’s the most important lesson in the book?

That it can be done, and it can be fun.

When your intentions are sound, when you are committed to an activity that will benefit others with an important, even urgent, mission, then anything is possible.