The importance of keeping the lights on

I shudder when I hear fundraisers declare with gospel fervor that raising money for ongoing support is a lost cause — which means I shudder a lot. And when everything operational is rolled into the dismissive phrase “keeping the lights on,” I go apoplectic. How otherwise reasonable people fail to appreciate the connection between infrastructure and mission is a mystery to me.

hanging_lights_standout_14787But fail they do.

Funders of all stripes – individuals, foundations, and governmental agencies – are placing increasing pressure on organizations to hold the line on overhead (aka infrastructure) costs. And watchdog organizations like Charity Navigator “punish” organizations for investing in capacity building, including upgrades to energy systems and technology.

It’s no wonder that nonprofits — including those with a faith base — resort to sundry shenanigans to hide operating costs while skimping on mission necessities, hoping to placate donors’ disdain for all things operational. Rather than boldly making the case for the day-to-day work of a ministry, including the importance of keeping the lights on, leaders go with conventional wisdom about donor preference. In so doing, they reinforce unfortunate trend lines.

Which is bad, but there’s more.


Like the “first world problems” meme of a few years back, complaints by North Americans about fund appeals in support of operations scream privilege, entitlement, and insensitivity to ministries operating in places where the basics are anything but basic. Shrugging off the importance of infrastructure separates North American Christians from God’s people in developing countries who live, learn, worship, and serve without such mundane (by North American standard) conveniences as reliable electric power.

I think, for example, of the faculty, staff, and students at the Theological College of Zimbabwe where black-outs are part and parcel of their daily routine. The Zimbabwean government hasn’t maintained the country’s capacity to generate electricity and power plants and transmission lines go out of service for hours at a time. The TCZ community can be without electricity for as much 50 percent of the week. It doesn’t take much to imagine how disruptive this is for teaching and learning.

In response, the Friends of TCZ (the U.S. fundraising arm of the school of which I am privileged to be a board member) is seeking $20,000 to do the very thing that North American fundraisers identify as a lost cause – to keep the lights on at the school. With the money raised, students from Messiah College will install solar panels and batteries to power the school’s computer lab and library when the Bulawayo power grid goes down.

We know it will be a tough sell given the attitude of North American donors to all things operational. However, it’s our prayer that reasonable people will appreciate the connection between infrastructure and mission and give generously.

And not just to our project in Zimbabwe, but to organizations everywhere. No ministry should have to work in the dark.

If you would like to be part of keeping the lights on at the Theological College of Zimbabwe, you can give here. Your gift will help prepare a new generation of Christian leaders for Zimbabwe and other countries in Africa.

For more about giving, infrastructure, and overhead, see:

At long last, overhead expenses get some respect

Can I have a cheer for (appropriate) overhead?

Cultivating new appreciation for an old friend

What's your take on this topic?

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