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On Abundance In Giving

Driving through the Midwest in the summer is a pleasure everyone should experience. In early summer vast acres of green wheat undulating to the whispers of the wind can mesmerize the seer into a dreamlike state. In late summer the tassels atop ripening corn wave with the wind, their straight marches of green stalks leading the eye deep into farmers' fields.

Standing on a rise, you can see for thirty or fifty miles in all directions. The imprinted images vividly capture the meaning of abundance: overflowing, plentiful, more than sufficient, ample. The good earth, bringing forth her abundance, has lessons for us.

Abundance also describes a state of mind, an attitude, or a paradigm. There are people who give and those who don't. Among those who do, some are extraordinarily generous in proportion to their financial wealth. They exemplify what author Stephen Covey terms "the abundance mentality (which) flows out of a deep inner sense of personal worth and security. It is the paradigm that there is plenty out there and enough to spare for everybody…. It opens possibilities, options, alternatives, and creativity."

People with the attitude of abundance give of all they have — money, possessions, time, effort, ideas, skills, and talents. They give themselves totally. Their financial gifts are not disconnected from the rest of themselves; they are integral to who they are, to their wholeness.

These are the people who interest me. I've undertaken a study of major donors, people who have made single gifts of at least $100,000. One of the characteristics they share is the attitude of abundance. Covey describes the results of this attitude thusly, "…life becomes a productive cycle of growth and continuous learning, fulfilling relationships, and meaningful contributions."

One of those I interviewed told me, "money's not real important to me. It's nice to have it; you have to have it. But I've always had the attitude that if I lost it all, I could start over again. My theory is that the more you give, the more you get back." He has given millions of dollars and has established a foundation to assure a legacy of giving.

John J. Harmon, chairman of the Raskob Foundation, recently shared his thoughts on abundance at a fund raising institute that our firm coordinates. In his view, many of the parables of the New Testament are about multiplying our abundance. God wants to see that the gifts He has provided us overflow to benefit others. He teaches us not to hoard, but to share freely. In one of our common prayers, we beseech God to keep us from all anxiety, free from the fear that there won't be enough. Joy springs from turning our focus on what we don't have to gratitude for what we do have.

Studies have repeatedly documented that wealthier Americans give proportionately less than poorer Americans. Obviously, there are many individual exceptions, but as a group it holds true. Why is it in this land of plenty that the most richly endowed are so miserly?

According to psychoanalyst Erich Fromm, we have confused abundance and affluence, both of which mean "to overflow." America has become a symbol of affluence for the world. But "whenever we speak of affluence, we have to ask ourselves whether we mean a positive, enlivening abundance or a negative, deadening superfluity (a bad affluence)."

Sadly, too many Americans live in a state of superfluity, they have too much and they hold on to too much. For them there is no possibility of having too much. They have no sense of fullness, thus they are always attempting to fill themselves up. Fromm believes that this attitude is characteristic of "a passive personality who senses that he amounts to very little and who represses those inklings by consuming."

We all know people like that, people with the financial capacity to give, but little propensity to do so. They live in expensive homes, drive luxury cars, indulge in travel to exotic destinations, and often have active social lives. However, it is frequently a mask for emptiness. Fromm writes, "If we consume the superfluous things our 'bad affluence' supplies us with, what appears to be activity on our part is really passivity."

Modern advertising and packaging has fabricated superfluous needs. Many people respond to these as legitimate needs rather than search within themselves for their genuine needs. Again, Fromm observes, "It is rare for desires to arise within people any more; desires are awakened and cultivated from without. Even someone who is well off will feel poor when confronted with the plethora of goods that advertisers want him to want." Most of us fall prey to these blandishments at least some of the time.

I recently fell into a sort of buying frenzy — what a friend chidingly refers to as my acquisitive phase. I replaced a tent that had been damaged and bought a telescope I had passingly thought about for years. I found myself trolling the hardware store and picking up things I had only a marginal need for. I kept thinking of other things that I convinced myself I suddenly needed. In reflecting on my behavior, I realized I was acting passively. I felt aimless, unengaged and adrift. Instead of tackling the real problem, I bought superfluous things.

This "bad affluence" gives a false sense of purpose, of activity that can become compulsive. Whether we realize it or not, we encourage this behavior with fund raising events like charity auctions.

As development professionals we are confronted with a paradox. To make effective use of our time we need to focus on those people with the capacity to make sizable contributions. Yet a great many of them exemplify superfluity rather than abundance.

What is the solution for us? I think we have the opportunity for conversion. We need to accept people where they are and help them take small steps to embrace an attitude of abundance. That's why we need exemplars involved with us in our organizations — to encourage others and to beckon with their joyfulness, selflessness, humility and creativity. We need to allow people to begin with small gifts, to invite them to volunteer their talents in satisfying ways, to return to them psychic gifts that tip the benefit scales in their favor.

We don't have the time to effect many conversions, so we should choose our subjects wisely. I believe with author Barry Lopez that we all have "the hunger to live deeply." For some, that hunger grows more insistently. They can satisfy that hunger in part through our organizations.

I catch myself saying frequently that life is too short as a sort of final commentary to a discussion. Fromm elaborates, "Every single one of us should try to call himself to account and think something along this line: 'You will only live a short time. Who are you, and what is it you really want?' If we give ourselves up to the kind of affluence that is ultimately poverty, ultimately misery, we shall be squelching the richness that is ready to unfold and flourish within us; and on our decision for superfluity or abundance, for a good or a bad affluence, depends no more nor less than the future of humankind." That's a sobering responsibility.

The donor I quoted earlier provided simple but eloquent testimony to what is in our power to give ourselves. "Giving helps my sense of well being. As I get older, I probably spend more time on giving than anything else. I feel fortunate to be able to do that."

I hope you will be blessed by people like that in your work.

Suggested reading:

Covey, Stephen R., Merrill, A. Roger, and Merrill, Rebecca R., First Things First, Fireside, New York, 1995.

Covey, Stephen R., Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Fireside, New York, 1990.

Fromm, Erich, For the Love of Life, Free Press, New York, 1985

Lopez, Barry, About This Life, Knopf, New York, 1998.

Michael R. Maude, ACFRE, FAHP
Partners In Philanthropy

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