Partners in Philanthropy   Partners in Philanthropy
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On Passion

Passion. The word conjures up the torrid embraces usually seen on the jackets of romance novels. It is a notion favored by poets and starry-eyed lovers.

The word originally described the agony of martyrs, particularly the suffering of Jesus at his crucifixion. While still applicable in its religious context, it’s interesting that our use of the word today applies to extremes: extreme anger or fury and intense love or lust.

Interesting maybe, but what does this have to do with development? Alexander Pope in To Lord Bathurst wrote,

"The ruling passion, be it what it will,
The ruling passion conquers reason still."

So often in our work we rely upon sound reasoning, facts and figures, logical presentation in making our case for support. It is concrete; it is verifiable; it is truth. And it is boring. It does not excite us or our donors. There is no passion inflamed, no empathy stirred, no desire aroused. It is without spirit. It is lifeless. As a consequence, the gifts we receive are gifts of obligation, or duty, or perhaps guilt. They are unconnected with the spirit of the donor and the inspiration of our mission.

Pope’s words are useful instruction for us. For while donors may demand facts and figures and rely upon logic in considering our requests, we know that sacrificial giving is an emotional response. It is a demonstration of passion whose Latin root passio means "being moved." Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee, in closing his autobiography A Good Life, wrote about his decision to give to and chair a $40 million campaign for Children’s Hospital.

"I take potential donors through the hospital, always drawn to the intensive care unit, always drawn to the bed that Quinn [his son] occupied, with five or six tubes stuck into his eight-pound body, and always in tears."

He adds, "My charitable giving has changed during my lifetime. First, when I was a journalist, all gifts were anonymous. I even endowed a chair at the Kennedy School at Harvard anonymously, trying — awkwardly, I now think — to pay back The Washington Post, whence the funds came, and to thank Kennedy, who was so involved with my interest in the intersection of the press and public policy. But in more than five years since the gift was completed, Harvard has not been able to come up with the right professor for the chair. Similar funds given to a smaller institution with at least comparable needs would have had a far greater impact." The difference between his gifts and commitment to Children’s Hospital and Harvard was emotional — the difference between saving lives and repaying a debt of gratitude — and a matter of conviction.

In a previous article I noted that a definition of conviction is "a strong belief" and that its Latin root is convictio meaning "demonstration." Inductively we are led to a conclusion that the demonstration of a strong belief would be characterized by passion. Passion implies a strong emotion that has an overpowering or compelling effect.

And isn’t that what we hope to achieve among our donors — a compelling effect? We strive to connect emotion and spirit. Psychoanalyst James Hillman believes that "emotion is the place of the spirit." According to biologist E.W. Sinnott, it also has a physical location: "In the thalamus, so to speak, the whole body comes to focus. It is the seat of the emotions, the place where motives and desires are born. If the cerebral cortex is the dwelling of man’s rational part, those qualities in him that we call spiritual may be said to center in the thalamus." That, then, may be the seat of philanthropy — the alchemy of motivation, desire, emotion and spirit.

Psychologist William James poses an interesting scenario. "Conceive yourself, if possible, suddenly stripped of all the emotion with which your world now inspires you....The whole collection of its [the universe] things and series of events would be without significance, character, expression or perspective....The passion of love is the most familiar and extreme example of this fact. If it comes, it comes; if it does not come, no process of reasoning can force it. Yet it transforms the value of the creature loved as utterly as the sunrise transforms Mont Blanc...So with fear, with indignation, jealousy, ambition, worship. If they are there, life changes. And whether they shall be there or not depends almost always upon non-logical, often on organic conditions. And as the excited interest which these passions put into the world is our gift to the world, just so are the passions themselves gifts."

Passion is an emotion. Hillman believes that emotion is "not an action, an intention; rather it is a reaction, a being moved, a passio." If we agree, then our role is to be an activating agent. We provide the action which will stimulate a donor’s reaction. That is why people seldom give unless they are first asked.

To be activators, provocateurs, we must peel off the veneer of our professionalism, our sophistication. We must ourselves be passionate and be comfortable in demonstrating our passion. That demands a great deal of us. It requires us to be vulnerable, to put ourselves at risk. It is safer to hide behind facts and figures, safer to maintain a business-like reserve, safer to display a certain decorum in our relationships.

Where do we find the fortitude to step out from behind our masks? In the missions of the organizations we serve. In the visions we have of the possibilities to change lives. In our convictions to stand up for what we believe. Therein we find the source of the courage we need to be passionate.

I am reminded of my first visit with an elderly man in his very modest home one winter’s day. Charles, who was partially blind and very hard of hearing, talked about his wish to memorialize his late wife Ruth by endowing a scholarship fund for nursing students in need of financial assistance. Ruth had been able to earn her nursing degree only with the help of an order of religious sisters.

During the course of our meeting he asked me to read a trust document drafted by a local attorney. Upon explaining that I was not a lawyer, he assured me he was only interested in my personal opinion. Even though I had just met Charles, I felt myself growing indignant as I read the document. While the hospital was to benefit indirectly, several provisions made it clear to me that the attorney was promoting his own self-interest and that his proposed arrangement was in some ways contrary to Charles’ wishes. At the risk of alarming or offending Charles, I shared my feelings with him and explained how I thought the hospital could better fulfill his dream.

When I finished, he looked at me, smiled and said, "That’s what I thought." At his request, I arranged for him to see another attorney. Over the next few years Charles’ gifts enabled several nursing students to obtain their degrees. Ultimately, he contributed $900,000 to the hospital.

More importantly, Charles and I became great friends. We were sitting side by side when told he had cancer. Even in his frailty and pain, he maintained a wonderful sense of humor and positive outlook. He continued to pray for me and my family every day. When he was no longer able to manage his own affairs, he asked me take over. As I arranged his funeral and burial, it felt like I had lost one of my own family. With them, he is always in my prayers.

Passion transformed our relationship. It enabled me to step out of my usual role and connect with Charles on an emotional basis. I think we are called to do this regularly in our work. It not only enhances our effectiveness, it enriches are lives.

Within us there is tension between reason and emotion. Particularly in our time and culture, reason is predominant. Sometimes reason gets in our way though. The ancient Greeks were acutely aware of this war between reason and the passions. They realized that the passions were deeply rooted and powerful. In his book, Business as a Calling, Michael Novak notes that "this war reflects...the hidden work of the passions in subverting, overpowering, or co-opting the mind...." We need to recognize this power and make use of it.

It is a challenge. It is a challenge to develop authentic relationships with the many people we encounter. It is a challenge to deeply connect with them emotionally and spiritually. It is a challenge to keep at it day after day, or, as George Meredith wrote in The Egoist, "to plod on and still keep the passion fresh."

Plod on, friends. The day is new and ripe with opportunities.

Suggested readings:

Hillman, James, Emotion, Northwestern University Press, Evanston, Illinois, 1960.

Novak, Michael, Business as a Calling, The Free Press, New York, 1996.

James, William, The Varieties of Religious Experience, The Modern Library, New York, 1929.

Michael R. Maude, ACFRE, FAHP
Partners In Philanthropy


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