Humane Development: Why Fundraisers Need the Liberal Arts

A new book argues that fundraising is not an independent activity external to the purpose of a non-profit, but an integral part of the existence and mission of the organization. Rather than becoming a class of experts, fundraisers should be well-formed persons and citizens, who can learn the craft of fundraising and practice it in a manner that supports rather than undermines the free and relational nature of civil society.

I suspect it’s rarer than one would hope that a fundraising handbook opens with a reflection on the importance of civil society. But that’s how Jeremy Beer and Jeffrey Cain, co-founders of American Philanthropic, begin their new book, The Forgotten Foundations of Fundraising: Practical Advice and Contrarian Wisdom for Nonprofit Leaders, which pushes back against the inhumane trajectory of their profession.

The authors talk about the common good and the soul, incorporate insights from Aristotle and Tocqueville into their account of civil society, and, ultimately, provide development advice that is grounded in a proper understanding of the person and society. Anyone looking for fundraising tips should take note. We should hope that those working in the development profession will too.

The central argument of the book is that non-profit personnel should treat donors and potential donors as persons, which means recognizing that they want to do something good, in community with others. We are relational beings who want to be a part of something bigger than ourselves.

As the authors themselves would admit, it’s a commonsense thesis. Yet it’s one that many people in the development industrial complex need to hear, because their field is drifting away from common sense and toward an unreasonable and counterproductive devotion to quantification and credentialism.

Quantification and Credentialism

It’s not surprising to learn that this is so, as we increasingly find ourselves living in an age of quantification and over-credentialization. Most of us working in American higher education have probably encountered the first trend by now. It’s likely to have involved the memorable experience of being trained in outcome-based assessment (which must be “measurable”) by administrators who could only blink at the suggestion, made by Socrates in the Phaedrus, that “it is noble to strive after noble ends, no matter the outcome.” Reflection on whether one is achieving one’s purposes is important, but there are things that cannot be quantified, and there are activities that cannot be completed or do not depend on producing outcomes external to the activity itself. The demand for quantification and results can corrupt or eradicate such activities, even though they are well worth pursuing on their own terms.

I suppose a development professional might object that money can, in fact, be quantified. That’s true, but Beer and Cain’s point is that fundraising is not only about bringing in dollars. It’s not an independent activity external to the purpose of a non-profit, but an integral part of the existence and mission of the organization. Thus, they recommend, for instance, linking development and programming, and making sure that the people in these two wings of an organization work in tandem with one another. Non-profits aren’t just raising money; they’re advancing a mission and building a community. The same can and should be said of development officers. They should recognize that, in many cases, the mission of a non-profit is an endless task, and the “love and fellowship” that holds an organization, its volunteers, and its donors together cannot be quantified.

With regard to over-credentialization, the proliferation of degrees and certifications one must obtain in order to earn a job is troubling and inhumane. Not only does it consume larger and larger portions of people’s lives in near-meaningless activity, but its overarching effect is to replace liberal and substantive education with technical and vacuous training and testing. This trend degrades our education system, leaves students ill-prepared for their vocations, and does untold damage to our society and the people who comprise it. Beer and Cain report that this trend has infiltrated and undermined the world of fundraising as well.

The other effect that over-credentialization has on education is to empty it of substance. A certificate, diploma, or degree is meant to indicate that someone has learned something. They are abbreviations for a record of achievement; they indicate the holder’s knowledge and proficiencies. Individual grades work this way as well. The problem is that many people in our education and economic systems encourage students and jobseekers to think that what they really need are excellent grades and credentials, rather than knowledge and abilities.

The result is that people seek credentials without regard for the content those credentials are supposed to represent. Who can blame them? These are the hoops they have to jump through in order to get on with their lives, and many of these hoops are mind-numbingly basic, as anyone who’s watched a training video and completed a quiz afterward can attest. At the same time, as Beer and Cain observe, “credentialism creates a safe harbor for those who cannot actually do the occupation for which they are credentialed.” Instead of well-formed and adaptable people, we end up with incompetent technocrats.

Thus, credentialism is positively harmful. The sad irony is that a credential that once ensured someone’s competence no longer gives such assurance. It is still necessary, but it is not sufficient, and so another credential must be added. A high school degree used to be enough, then a bachelor’s. Now a master’s is often required to distinguish oneself. This isn’t happening simply because our economy has become more complex and technical; it’s also because credentialization has made education worse at every level by emptying it of rigorous substance. In this connection it is worth noting, as the authors do, that “a majority of teachers today hold degrees in education rather than in the subject they are teaching.” Why? Because that’s the credential they need.

Fundraising, Liberal Education, and Civil Society

As the authors note, fundraising is a practical activity, and so it is surely worthwhile to learn and practice the most effective techniques of the trade. Yet it is also a human activity. As such, it must be understood and practiced in relation to the complete human good. Indeed, it stands to reason that the best techniques (in the truest sense of the word) will be those that are consistent with a proper understanding of human life and community. The alternative is a training in means without reflection on ends, and what good is that? As Socrates taught us, it is at best folly and at worst dangerous to give someone a tool without also teaching him the ends for which he ought to use it.

Thus, liberal education is an important foundation for fundraisers, as mundane as their task might initially seem. Not only are they part of a human community, but their work takes place in civil society, to which we must carefully attend, because it is the “essence of America,” as Beer and Cain argue. Fundraisers are not just raising money. They are supporting the “voluntary human collaboration and mutual aid” that is the backbone of our polity. It is therefore especially important that they do not submit themselves to overregulation. Rather than becoming a class of experts, they should be well-formed persons and citizens, who can learn the craft of fundraising and practice it in a manner that supports rather than undermines the free and relational nature of civil society.

Beer and Cain are right to be concerned about the “professionalization” and “bureaucratization” of their craft, especially because, as they stress, philanthropy and non-profit work belong to civil society, which is grounded in human relationships and volunteerism. Efficiency and effectiveness aren’t bad things, but cultish devotion to them, to the point of undermining the nature and purpose of the enterprise in which one is engaged, is. As anyone who’s engaged in or managed a volunteer program knows, they are anything but efficient. But how efficient can they be without destroying their nature as voluntary associations?

The authors are also right to be concerned that the turn toward quantification in their field has the potential to be politically harmful. Professionalization coincides with laws that “discourage political and community involvement,” and the development of graduate programs that “discourage participation in civil society by average citizens.” These trends are contrary to the very nature of civil society. If they continue, there is every reason to think they will further erode the ability of Americans to be who they are. This is, therefore, a matter of concern to us all.

Beer and Cain’s book is full of helpful, practical advice for fundraising. I highly recommend it to those involved in non-profit work for that advice, but even more so for the political reflections that support their approach, reminding us why we do what we do.

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