Appreciating philanthropists as they appreciate you

I wasn’t expecting a shout out to named gift opportunities in the middle of a lecture about the humanities. Imagine my delight, then, when the speaker spoke appreciatively of the donor recognition plaques lining the hallways of Messiah College’s newly opened Calvin and Janet High Center for Worship and Performing Arts.

To hear a humanities prof tell those of his tribe that “you really ought to know your friends,” well, I felt like I had ascended to fundraisers’ heaven.

High Center cropped

Granted, Geoffrey Galt Harpham, the scholar at the center of my story, isn’t your run-of-the-mill faculty member. He’s the president and director of the National Humanities Center in North Carolina – a job that includes raising funds. He knows the importance of “friends.” He gets that “the connection between the humanities and private philanthropy in America has been deep and determining” – a truism that can be applied to charities of every type.

In The Humanities and the Dream of America, Harpham describes as “shocking how imperfectly most American scholars grasp the fact that their work is at every level and every point supported by private gifts. Even some of those fortunate enough to hold endowed chairs are oblivious to the perspective or the life history of the donor of the gift that pays their salary” – a regrettable tendency of staff employed by charities of every type.


I’ve written on this topic here, but not nearly as eloquently as Harpham, so let me quote more of his good words in praise of philanthropists and their motives. His comments are specific to the humanities, but it’s easy enough to insert your sector into the text that follows.

Philanthropists hold the humanities in great esteem: they understand how money is made, and they understand in particular the notion of market share; they value the humanities in part for their distinctiveness. Above all, they understand that the goal of wise investing is long-term gains. . . Taking the long view, philanthropists . . . place their bets on the proposition that the humanities represent a particularly useful – and pleasurable, and worthy, and instructive – form of useless knowledge. Moreover, while many are politically conservative, they support the academy in the full understanding that most professors are politically liberal; they are willing to look beyond politics even if the professoriate cannot seem to imagine anything beyond politics. In short, the (diminishing number of) capitalist-philanthropists are the idealists, and the (increasingly dependent) scholars as the cynics. The situation may call for a rethink on the part of the scholars.

Cynicism on the part of staff (college faculty are not unique as ingrates) about donors and the sources of their wealth is especially troubling when it crops up in faith-based settings. Disparaging comments about donors and their motives ignore that giving is a deeply spiritual act, even worship. When hearts are opened to generosity, giving is a calling.

Beneficiaries of faith-filled giving need to understand that gifts are tangible evidence of donors’ belief in the values, goals, and Kingdom purposes of the organizations they support.  People give to be part of missions that are bigger and bolder than earthly success.

My hope is that the work of respected figures like Geoffrey Harpham will encourage those who get to be more appreciative of the hopes, dreams, and heart of those who give. Without this kind reciprocity, fundraising as ministry is impossible.





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