Getting a return on your giving
By Jonathan Bradford
In these times of economic challenge for so many, we hear much about philanthropy, donating and giving. These terms describe three types of charity, all of which are especially important now. The first often connotes a highly structured operation, likely run much like a corporation and probably highly regulated. “Donating” seems to me to suggest a detached or impersonal act that is in some way guided by an income tax code. But “giving” carries a message of intensely personal exchange, one in which giver and recipient derive mutual benefit from their respective roles. Giving seems to me to require humility and carries the connotation of thankfulness and a certain kind of surrender. In short, giving is a spiritual act.
All of us receive a perpetual stream of appeals for gifts. Sometimes we may even become a bit cynical about the number of requests, but we should avoid these feelings because, for Christians, giving is an opportunity, one that presents some particular responsibilities. How do you approach this opportunity? As one who has authored many appeals and also has responsibility for wisely using gifts received, I often think about giving responsibly and receiving responsibly.
All three expressions of charity—philanthropy, donating and giving—are important for the maintenance of a stable civic order; all are elements in the complex working of any national economic system. In joyfully acknowledging that God’s rule extends to all aspects of the economy, including our own participation in it, our charitable acts must be carefully and prayerfully considered. Further, as God’s people, the manner in which we participate in improving society and caring for the vulnerable is an important element of our economic activity.
What does all of this mean for our giving? Are there ground rules for making decisions about our giving?
Giving: Two Steps
It seems to me that we should approach this matter in two distinct steps. The first might be called stewardship. A steward is a servant, an agent or perhaps a guardian for someone else. As forgiven and transformed people of God, we are his stewards, entrusted with resources of all kinds. God does not place resources in our care because he needs our help with them. Rather, he blesses us and entrusts us with gifts of all kinds because it is a way that he raises us up to be faithful servants in his kingdom. It is just one way that he is investing in each of us. Our use of that investment is to give evidence of our gratitude and manifest our faithful surrender to Christ’s lordship in our lives. This stewardship then illumines our priorities in life. We find freedom to dedicate, from among all of God’s gifts to us, that which is needed in service to his kingdom.
Now the second step, allocation. It is difficult to choose from among the myriad requests that fill our mailboxes. Sometimes it may just be a strong personal feeling that moves us to write a check: There was need and we could help. Other times we may be prompted by a personal interest or connection to the organization requesting a gift; we may, for example, decide in favor of Calvin College and against a medical research center in New York, a local theater and an animal rescue organization. Generally, however, wise allocation decisions invite an analysis of how the gift will be used and perhaps some judgment about its likely impact.
Good stewards need to ask questions: How does the soliciting organization fulfill its mission? What is their success record? How much do they spend on fundraising? How are they regarded by peer organizations? These are but a few examples of appropriate questions. To find and understand the answers, however, often requires much study.
Asking these questions obviously requires that we have a standard by which we assess the answers. For starters, I think we must not approach this process as if we were bank loan officers or Wall Street investment advisors. Questions we might ask about a commercial loan or a stock purchase do not apply equally well to decisions about giving because we are not expecting to get something from our giving here and now. Allocation decisions must advance Christ’s kingdom and deliver true benefit for those the gift serves, not generate return for ourselves.
We must apply a soundly biblical standard to the answers we receive about a soliciting organization. We must not yield to the societal pressure to acquire wealth and power and thereby control of others. No, only God is in control, and when our giving is rooted in his word, all are respected and enabled to use their gifts without the impediment of fallen social, political or economic systems. Our giving is to celebrate the fact that all are made in God’s image and that God wants beauty, opportunity and justice for each of us. When we consider God’s special concern for the poor and the vulnerable, measuring a return on giving that benefits them is especially tenuous, because the results may not be quick or readily measurable.
A good steward allocates with care and with humility. We must take care that our giving accomplishes God’s purposes, but when it comes right down to it, ours cannot be an earthly strategy. Jesus makes this clear in Matthew 6:19-20: “Do not store up for yourselves treasure on earth ... But store up for yourselves treasure in heaven.” (NIV) Jesus is actually advocating an investment strategy for those whom he loves. His strategy is unlike any other we will hear, and it promises returns without equal anywhere else.
Questions for reflection:
- To which charitable organizations do you give? Why have you chosen them?
- Are there appeals that come to you that you automatically refuse? Why?
- What return on your giving most satisfies you?
—Jonathan Bradford, Class of 1971, CEO, Inner City Christian Federation (ICCF)