Picture yourself as a good development director at a local college or university. (Or really any institution works.) You believe in your organization, you believe in their mission and culture and vision. You are good at your job.
A big donor comes to you and says they want to give $2 million to a big project, one that will be their “legacy.” That L-word is loaded, so let’s unpack it. What million-dollar givers is similar to what many other donors want: something tangible, something they can see accomplished, something they can physically, materially see accomplished. Certain types of giving are super “sexy.” Scholarships are another example. The donor gets to see a start and end-date for their investment, they can even get to meet the student their donation benefited. There is a very temporal, measurable result. “This student would not have gone to X school if it was not for my gift.” Great.
Imagine you, the development director, meeting with this donor who wants to give $2 million. Their idea is to build a new academic research facility for the major / department from which they graduated. Congratulations, your college basically just got a huge upgrade to the Economics Department, courtesy of the Smith Family. The new facility will be called the Smith Economic Building, and it’ll be beautiful. But wait…
That $2 million barely breaks ground. You have to spend a minimum of $8 million to actually make a decent building. What you find, months after these conversations have started, that the vision of an econ research building requires another $8 to $10 million in donations. Shit. You’re the development director, but you suddenly have this mega donor giving you a white elephant gift. It’s too late, too, since you have everyone in the college hearing about how you secured a $2 million gift. You, your whole team, the entire institution really, is chasing down a $8 million functional deficit brought on by a $2 million gift. You have to spend the next couple years scrambling, taking resources and energy from the entire institution to chase down the rest of the money. Without getting into more detail (you could leverage cash, maybe find another angel donor, maybe your school just borrows $10 million hoping that the new building attracts a boost in attendance) … you, the development director, will very likely be gone before the project is completed. You will leave with honors to a better job because you will be remembered as the one who secured that massive gift for the new Smith Building, and someone else will have to clean up your mess.
This pattern is repeated throughout churches, non-profits, educational institutions, and more. It isn’t a predatory process, but it may as well be. Rich people who come in and give massive gifts towards properties, facilities, and land, tend to be well-meaning. What happens is, organizations that were focused on serving and helping people are then refocused on the new thing. You can’t be about spiritual development and community when you have a multi-million dollar facility to maintain. You aren’t a youth outreach organization when you have a $100 million camp to maintain… and continually expand at the whims of your biggest donors. You aren’t about higher education when you are so focused on your buildings and expansion that every major of the quality of the education you provide drops.
It would take a special kind of conviction from a lot of people (the major donors, the development teams, the leaders in any given organization) to say “no.” In a thousand conversations about this tension, I think that most everyone involved ‘gets it.’ No major donor wants to give a white elephant, as I’ve defined it. No one wants to build a huge new facility that burdens students at the college with bloated tuition prices. No non-profit director wants to stick his predecessor with a massive facility maintenance cost over the next (forever) years. But it keeps happening. I suggest that Jesus was right when he said, you can’t serve two masters. “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” (Matt. 6:24)
First, I hope that someone reads this and is able to say, “thank God I’m not the only one that sees this.” The emperor has no clothes. It is raw, naked obvious whether an organization serves their stated purpose and vision (ie. helping people) or whether they serve money. The difference with a corporation, or a shareholder owned for-profit is that they are overtly profit-driven. That’s their design and purpose, that’s what they do, for better or worse. One of the hopes of the not-for-profit world is that they are able to prioritize differently. They aren’t supposed to be money hungry machines, and sometimes they aren’t. I see that higher education has gone so, so far away from being about “education” in their service and worship of money that it is hard to miss. With many non-profits, it is a bit harder to see. I believe that many non-profits are genuine in their vision, rather than bending and breaking for the almighty dollar. It’s hard, and it is possible to do. In my hypothetical development director scenario, serving a vision for education would mean saying “no” to a $2 million gift. Imagine how hard that would be.
My second hope is that you all can find the courage to serve people, and for those in ministry that you’d find the constitution and depth of faith to serve God, rather than serve money. You can say “no” to a major donor. You can say “no” to a lot of things that are counter to what is good, but may add to your bottom line. When saying “no” to money, I am suggesting that you may find yourself saying “yes” to God at the very same time.