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On Humility

The last column I wrote was on confidence. At first, you might think that humility is the flip side of confidence. But that is not the case at all. Over-confidence or arrogance and its attendant, pride, are the opposite of humility.

What is the connection between humility and our role as development professionals? According to Stephen Covey in First Things First, "Humility is truly the mother of all virtues. It makes us a vessel, a vehicle, an agent instead of ‘the source’ or the principal. It unleashes all other learning, all growth and process."

A vessel, a vehicle, an agent — those words could be included in a list of synonyms for development officer. They certainly convey a good deal about how we think about ourselves. We are not the source of funds for our institutions; we are agents who seek to serve the interests of both our institutions and their donors.

I like this notion of vessel or receptacle. Another pertinent definition of vessel is a person who is the repository of some spirit or influence. The image which comes to mind with each of these is a pitcher into which something refreshing like water or wine is poured.

Last month at our chapter meeting of the National Society of Fund Raising Executives, we were privileged to have a presentation by Julie Russell, a self-described nurse dramatist. She was speaking about discerning our personal calling or mission. At one point in her own journey, an injunction repeatedly came to mind: "pour coffee." She initially took it to mean that she should open a coffee shop and eagerly began to scout locations.

As we all do when we get caught up in an idea, she started to muse about lots of little details like baking sugar cookies in different shapes each morning and how she would engage her customers in conversation. As time wore on and things weren’t coming together as she had conceived, it finally dawned on her that she wasn’t being urged to open a coffee shop; she was only being asked to pour coffee. When she was able to put aside her self-centeredness and pride, she understood that she was to serve others not by making and selling coffee but by pouring coffee. Thereupon, she volunteered at a soup kitchen and knew that she had correctly discerned her call when she experienced a sense of peace and humility in simply filling the coffee cups of the poor and dislocated.

The Latin root of humility, humilis, means lowly, humble. Humility is a state or quality of being humble of mind or spirit; also an absence of pride or self-assertion. It is a way of being that we choose for ourselves. It is a way that not many of us choose, however. I know few people whom I would describe as humble. To be humble is to go against the current of our culture and our own natures. Those who do sharply stand out in contrast to the rest of us. They are definitely different.

The rest of us are busy jostling with one another for position. We compare our talents and accomplishments and possessions to the Joneses. We aspire not to be so much the best that we can be — what we are called to be — as to be better than others. And in so doing, at times we are forced to eat humble pie. None of us tolerate others very well who are prideful. We have to face our own limitations and the fact that many others have greater abilities, have achieved greater heights. We may suffer humiliation. Humiliate, from the same root as humility, is what others do to us to lower our pride or dignity, to cause us to seem foolish or contemptible.

Often, our pride or arrogance masks our own sense of insecurity or our lack of knowledge or experience. Instead of humbly acknowledging our shortcomings or sense of uneasiness, we assert ourselves. It’s a kind of bluff that often works. The result, though, is that we cut ourselves off from others. We don’t allow ourselves to be who we are and, therefore, we can’t connect with who this other person is. We can’t develop a real relationship.

Actually, if we allow ourselves to be humble, we can use our ignorance or insecurity to good advantage. A client who is director of an organization in the midst of a multi-million dollar campaign had no previous fund raising experience but he is enormously successful. I keep telling him that his most effective attribute is his willingness to admit that he doesn’t know what he’s doing. In fact, he’s better at admitting it than almost anyone I’ve ever known. It’s his genuine humility that draws people to him spiritually. They realize, consciously or not, that they also can be themselves. They want to help him succeed, to use their own abilities and experience to help him accomplish his vision for the organization.

Humility is not the same as self-deprecation. Humility is not putting ourselves down and it’s certainly not a false modesty. It is a turning away from self-absorption so that we can be a vessel, a container to be filled with something outside of ourselves.

If we are full of ourselves, there is no room for others. And our work in development is all about others; it’s not about asserting ourselves to make us look good. Too often, though, we fall into the trap of pride, of thinking that we’re competing with others. We speak of greater competition for the philanthropic dollar, competing for the attention of our donors, the increased competition among nonprofit organizations. As Covey points out, humility is realizing "that we’re not an island, that the quality of our lives is inseparably connected to the quality of lives of others, that meaning is not in consuming and competing, but in contributing."

While those competitive situations may be accurate descriptions of our environment, we seldom, if ever, find ourselves in competition when we sit down to talk with a donor. Not very many development professionals are actually meeting face-to-face with donors, particularly our donors. The relationships we should be intent on developing will not thrive in an atmosphere of competition, whether it be real or embedded in our attitude.

Relationships with donors will thrive in circumstances when we put ourselves aside. When we empty ourselves, we allow our wonder about this person to guide the conversation. As psychoanalyst Rollo May writes in Man’s Search for Himself, "Wonder also goes with humility...the humility of the generous-minded person who can accept the ‘given’ just as he, in his own creative efforts, is able to give." He adds, "Wonder...indicates that a person has a heightened aliveness, is interested, expectant, responsive. It is essentially an ‘opening’ attitude."

Obviously, humility is not a passive activity or state. It’s a very active way of approaching our work, of giving of ourselves. It’s not easy to empty ourselves so that we may be filled with this other person. It takes a great deal of energy, of care.

St. Alphonsus Liguori (1696-1787) believed that humility is the foundation and safeguard of all the virtues. (Not too dissimilar from Covey’s assertion that it is the mother of all virtues!) Why is that? Because humility is "the antidote for the poison of pride" as Covey puts it. Pride is considered one of the gravest sins or, as Covey refers to it, one of the most destructive paradigms in life. The destructiveness lies in cutting ourselves off from others, or from God, in the case of sin.

It may be easy for us to remember a moment of pridefulness. But can you recall an incident when you have been humbled, filled with a sense of humility? Reverend John English in Spiritual Freedom has a clue for us: "Humility is always the response to the mystery of being loved."

He explains, "When we are loved by God or another human being, we do not have any control over it. It is humbling. We say, ‘My God, why?’ We cannot believe we are receiving this love when we have not cooperated or done anything to deserve it. But, we know we are loved and we know we could not produce this love ourselves. We do not control the situation; it just happens. Far from making us proud, it humbles us immensely."

When we do our work well, when we succeed in developing genuine relationships with our donors, this is the experience we have. It is a gift, an unanticipated reward of our work with our donors. It is such a humbling experience to receive a gift of substance from a donor who conveys it as a demonstration of his or her love, not only for our institutions but for us, too. People give to people and sometimes we are the people they are giving to.

What we do — and it’s very difficult to describe what that is precisely — is a vocation; it’s much more than a job. It is somewhat of a mystery. Therein lies its richness, its never-ending fascination, its attraction — and its rewards.

Suggested readings:

Covey, Stephen R., Merrill, A. Roger, and Merrill, Rebecca R.; First Things First, Fireside, New York, 1994.

English, John J., Spiritual Freedom, Loyola University Press, Chicago, 1995.

May, Rollo, Man’s Search for Himself, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1953.


Michael R. Maude, ACFRE, FAHP
Partners In Philanthropy

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